Helicopter Passenger Safety Card

for the Robinson R44 by Philip Greenspun, CFI-H; September 2006

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You can break the helicopter and the helicopter can break you.

Start by Stripping Down

Don't wear a hat or other loose clothing near the helicopter. The rotor wash is likely to blow it away from you, which may cause you to run after it, which may result in you running into the tail rotor (see next section).

If we're flying with a door off, remove all items from your pockets and place them under the seat. Without a door, items that are loose inside the cabin will tend to blow out of the helicopter during flight and may disable the machine by damaging the tail rotor.

Your Enemy, the Tail Rotor

Most people injured on the ground by helicopters have managed to walk into the tail rotor. The best way to avoid this is to remain in the helicopter until all blades have stopped spinning. If this is not practical, approach or exit the helicopter while maintaining eye contact with the pilot. If you can see the pilot, sitting in the front seat, you cannot be back by the tail rotor.

Your Enemy, the Main Rotor

The blades on top of the helicopter may appear heavy and dangerous. They are the wing of the aircraft and therefore heavy enough to support the entire helicopter and its occupants. They are dangerous. If you are standing right next to the helicopter, the blades are guaranteed to be above your head. If you are near the edge of the rotor disk, the clearance will depend on the terrain and where/how the pilot is holding the cyclic pitch control (right hand). God many different kinds of terrain on this Earth and the Coast Guard sends its smart pilots to airplane school, leaving the meatheads to fly helicopters. Don't put your trust in God or the pilot: remain in the helicopter until all blades have stopped spinning. If this is not practical, approach or exit the helicopter while ducking slightly.

The doors and seat belts

Push the belts together to join. Pull up on the latch to release. Open the door by rotating the latch up and then pushing forward. In the event of an emergency landing, follow the instructions of the pilot. In an actual crash, if there are no instructions from the pilot, wait until the blades have come to a stop and get out of the helicopter as quickly as possible.

In the event that you survive a landing, if you get out and slam the door, the owner/pilot will probably kill you. Robinson helicopter doors cost several thousand dollars and weigh about 5 lbs. They are very fragile. With any light aircraft, you gently push the door closed and then latch it. Making the door secure depends on the latching operation, not on how firmly you push the door closed to begin with.

The headsets

We use Telex noise-cancelling headsets. Each earcup has a volume control that you can adjust for a comfortable level. The earcup opposite where the microphone attaches has a button that you can push for noise cancelling. Push it in and release; six seconds later the noise cancelling should turn on. If you hear an immediate change in the sound, that means you turned noise-cancelling off rather than on. So as to avoid amplifying the interior noise of the helicopter, the intercom and microphone are turned on only when you speak. You will have to keep the microphone close to your lips to "break squelch" and be heard. Nothing that you say will be transmitted over the radio to Air Traffic Control or other aircraft. The pilot has a special switch to press when he or she wants to talk on the radio. Only what is coming from the pilot's microphone is sent out. If you and your friends are yakking, the pilot has an "isolate" button that can be pushed so that you all can go on talking, but the pilot hears only what comes from the radio.

The headsets cost $700 each. Please do not sit on them.

The windows

Light aircraft have plastic windows, which weigh less than glass. The downside of plastic is that it scratches very easily. If you scratch the bubble, it is easy to get a new one... for about $5000. Don't lean on the bubble or on any of the other windows of the helicopter, especially if you are wearing synthetic clothing. Acrylic windows can be cleaned only with 100 percent cotton T-shirts or specially designed wipes.

The little vent panels

Robinson puts little vent panels in each main door. You are not supposed to open or close the panel by pushing the edge. Counterintuitively, you are supposed to open and close the panel by pushing and pulling on a white plastic knob over the hinge.

Working with ground handlers

If you're reading this in preparation for a charity sightseeing ride, it is likely that we're doing rides every 10 minutes and "hot loading" the helicopter without shutting down the engine and rotor system. To keep the operation safe, you will be escorted to the helicopter by a trained ground handler. He will hold the door open for you, hand you your seat belt, hand you the headset, and close and latch the door. You aren't responsible for anything except latching your seat belt. At the end of the flight, remain in your seat with the seat belt fastened and wait for the ground handler to open the door. Once again, you aren't responsible to do anything but unlatch your seat belt and follow the ground handler to the edge of the landing zone.

Take heart

By now you are probably afraid. Children as young as three years old have ridden in the back of this helicopter, giddy with delight for 15 minutes and then fast asleep until landing; you, by contrast, are quavering with fear. It is true that the helicopter demands respect and is not forgiving. It is also true that sitting at home watching cable TV is safer than flying in a helicopter. Many folks' fears about helicopters are unfounded, however. For example, the helicopter will fly in the event of engine failure. Without power, a helicopter glides just like an airplane. The rush of wind from below keeps the blades rotating while the helicopter flies at a normal airspeed of 70 knots. Near the ground, the pilot terminates the autorotation with a flare back to zero airspeed and the helicopter sinks remarkably gently to the ground. Any licensed helicopter pilot has had to practice autorotations dozens if not hundreds of times.
Text and photos Copyright 2006 Philip Greenspun. The girls are my beloved cousins who took a ride with me from Teterboro, NJ to the Statue of Liberty and all around Manhattan on a gusty hazy day.