It occurred to me recently I have never heard from a Helio buyer’s lips, after the first flight, what a fantastic machine they have just had the pleasure to experience, what a great idea they had by stepping up and laying out the cash. And usually, they have nothing much to add to that after the first several flights. This is true because their mind is busy trying to sort out all the times the airplane acted as though there were invisible forces at work on the controls, as though mischievous gremlins were hidden somewhere behind the baggage compartment, tugging here and pulling there on one cable or another, causing an experience as mysterious as it was counterintuitive.
It has been said in so many words, by more than one Helio pilot, that flying a Helio can sometimes feel like a wrestling match and that if you are going to the mat with this one-ton airplane, you had better have a plan. I can say, in broad strokes, that the airplane behaves normally if you fly it like a Cessna, if you never dip a toe into the deep end of its dark art: the slow flight envelope. When I say, “fly it like a Cessna,” I mean flying approaches with sufficient energy to flare and keeping slow flight fast enough so that normal control inputs produce normal reactions in attitude.
Unfortunately, there is little available to read on the topic of what to expect as a new Helio pilot, a pilot who is probably transitioning from something that was also dragging its tail but likely was smaller, lighter, had less power, and was more intuitive. By example, you may have 3,000 hours in a Super Cub or a Citabria or a Cessna something… and it feels like you wear that airplane as comfortably as a favorite pair of ten-year old jeans. But what happens when you slide behind the yoke of a Helio, this cutting-edge marvel of engineering magnificence, with twice the weight, twice the power, and chock full of quirks? Well, you quickly realize that there is nowhere to hide.
For a new Helio pilot, some instruction is very much recommended, at least an hour or two, takeoffs and landings with some slow flight being the critical drills. You can muddle through the rest on your own, though it will be humbling when it’s not mildly terrifying. I chose to teach myself, the Washington State ferry pilot dropping off 10CJ at the Palmer airport and then vanishing into a warm August night. My first walkaround impression was that it was a very large and intimidating slab of airplane and that it had a lot more switches and knobs than what I was used to. Everything was well labeled. What could go wrong?
The “New Owner” experience will be a little different for each pilot, and rather than share the story of how it all went for me, I want to focus on the oddities and quirks of the machine itself. The idea is that if you know what’s coming, your ego may not be as bloody and scabbed over at the 10- or 20-hour mark, the point when you still may be asking yourself “WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING… when I bought this airplane?!” Am I exaggerating? I would tell you to ask the next brand-new Helio owner you stumble across, if I thought they would give it to you straight. But who would?
What can a new Helio pilot expect? Let’s start at the start, literally. Starting it by the book is a Rube Goldberg exercise (Google him, he’s my kind of guy). At issue is the Bendix pressure carburetors for the GO435, and GO480, which use both an engine driven pump and an electric boost pump to pressurize them. The start sequence has you first pulling out the mixture control to idle-cut-off.
Then hit the boost pump and watch for 12 to 15 pounds and next, light up the starter. When a few cylinders hit, you rapidly push in the mixture control and tickle the throttle a little as needed to get it to life. If you don’t start it with full lean mixture, Lycoming says the boost pump can flood the airbox with enough gas to cause a bonfire. Starting the GO motors on full lean is not intuitive and, moreover, sometimes it’s not easy. For what it’s worth, I have developed a slick way that works for me, leaving the mixture full rich, hitting the start button simultaneous with the boost pump, and the very second the engine hits, I toggle the boost pump off, eliminating any chance of over-fueling or a fire. The engine rarely makes a complete revolution before starting. I like my method better.
Ah… but the real challenge is hot starting, and in such case a few things change. You really must start it on full lean mixture, with the boost pump, (or it floods) and most usually, with a couple shots of the primer in advance. I can’t make this up. It’s by the book. Further, depending on how hot it is, you may need to leave a loaded primer all the way out (after the couple shots of primer) and feed that plunger in slowly as the motor stumbles to life, bitching and complaining. Then, the minute the engine seems like its going to light up, you quickly push in the mixture control to rich. Are you with me so far?
There is one more thing to do during this choreographed frenzy of knob wagging and button toggling. You really need to be tickling the throttle to get the engine to finally catch. Problem is, you only have two hands and both of them are very, very busy—like a three-legged dog navigating hot asphalt, that kind of busy. This is when you wish you had a girlfriend with you, who had at least one free hand, or you had done more yoga like Steve Jobs and trained yourself to write letters with your toes. Sometimes you are all out of moves and the hot Lycoming is asking for more. Sometimes, if nothing else works, you open the cowl and wait half an hour (also by the book). Just be happy you are not deep in the Colombian jungle being chased by the Cartel.
Next up, quirks keep coming in the form of weirdness visiting you during taxi and takeoff roll. The rudder pressure, especially in any kind of crosswind, is heavy. After a long taxi in a 15 MPH direct crosswind, say to get to the gas pump, your downwind leg feels like you have been doing one legged squats at Planet Fitness. Sweat rolls down your forehead, trickles down your back, and soaks your shirt. Your passenger wonders if you missed taking your meds this morning, or if you are having some kind of fit. They wonder if this is all going to be ok in the end. The rudder, on the ground, in the wind, is that kind of heavy. Like farm equipment heavy.
On takeoff roll, within two or three seconds of hitting full throttle (in zero wind), not only are you forced back in your seat by the savage acceleration, the nose of the airplane lurches dramatically and oddly upward, pitching as though someone flipped a switch for its hidden hydraulic stilts. This is the result of the Helio’s highly pressurized nitrogen shocks, suddenly unloaded by the first bit of wing lift, acting to push the long landing gear legs downward. This establishes a very high angle of attack, making ready your rocket for liftoff. It is a strange feeling. Note as well that the gear at this critical point has a much narrower stance than when it’s static and under a load. The majority of your takeoff roll is accomplished with the gear legs “extended” like this, and therefore tracking quite narrowly.
The narrow stance in these few moments puts you at higher risk of ground loop, of folding a big tire (or ski) under if you side load the gear leg with a bit of late or sloppy rudder. In fact, internal shock limiters are often used with ski installations for this reason, and to make the ski rigging more consistent in its geometry as the gear cycles through its arc.
I should add that in real wind, say 25 to 30 MPH, the pitching up of the nose happens the instant you hit throttle for takeoff. In that moment you look and feel like a praying mantis, tilted all up on long front legs, charging down the runway. A new Helio pilot will find this more than a little strange.
Flying the Helio at cruise speed is pure butter. There aren’t much for quirks beyond a bit of education required for prop and geared engine management, a topic for another day. I’ll repeat the words “at cruise speed.” The control surfaces are wisp light. The design is so thoroughly exquisite it has little adverse yaw, requiring little rudder in turns. The airplane is long and not very sensitive to weight distribution. If the tiny trim knob is off its perfect point on takeoff (unless you are heavily flapped), you don’t get a lot in the way of pressure on the yoke to arrest it… as you work to get it trimmed right. This is a very forgiving, very welcome characteristic. The fuselage is long, and my guess is this “moment” of leverage gives the tail a higher force acting on the fuselage so there is less pilot force required. The tail is, of course, a true airfoil, a stabilator, and a much more sophisticated bit of engineering than a horizonal stabilizer with an elevator. The elevator on a Cub or a Cessna 185 reminds me of the bi-fold closet door in my spare bedroom. The stabilator on the Helio, when I touch it and articulate it, reminds me of a violin.
Let’s slow the airplane down and see what happens. Or said another way, let’s go back to Planet Fitness. Quirks indeed. Say the new Helio pilot wants to try slow turns at 45 or 50 MPH. First you must slow it from cruise. Easy? Not so easy. You can reduce power settings and then cheat, raising the nose, and get to the white arc at 80 MPH and then crank in some flaps, dirty it up… and the exercise of slowing it starts to get somewhat easier. But what is different for many new Helio pilots is the airplane is pretty slick. It does not slow down by itself. Importantly, you can’t just jerk the throttle back to idle and let the big fan out front slow you up. It’s not a Cub and it’s not a Cessna. To do that to the geared engine would put strain on, and wear, the back sides of every gear in the planetary reduction gearbox, wearing it out before its time.
You can do it, don’t get me wrong—nothing will actually explode from your ham-fisted piloting—but it’s rough on the hardware. It’s a tall order to expect the gearbox to slow down your speeding, slick, 3,000-pound airplane by engine compression driving blade-drag, push forces backwards through that gearbox. Rather, you treat the nose case like a carton of eggs perched on the handlebars of your bicycle on a long ride home. You keep positive manifold pressure, 12 minimum, 15 is better (all the way in if you are landing). But any power makes the airplane want to hold more speed than desired. This all takes some getting used to. You start slowing the airplane way before you would in a smaller, lighter, non-geared airplane. And if you can’t seem to manage that, you raise the nose until you can dial in some flaps, then slow it more until the slats pop out, then it’s dirty… and then the throttle becomes your number one glideslope tool. Ideally you approach flapped, slatted, and dirty, hanging on the prop, keeping positive pressure on the gearbox.
But we are not landing here, just slowing, and let’s say we have slowed the bird down to 50 MPH and we want to maneuver over a land feature and perhaps take pictures from the passenger side. The biggest surprise to the new Helio pilot is that all the controls have become heavy. The elevator trim which was such a breeze to get close to correct at cruise, now needs to be spot on, or the yoke pressure is too much to ignore. Rudder forces are serious and require a stiff boot as you coax the wings into turns, one direction and then the other. With all of this going on, you will notice two things. First, the throttle works really great to “blow” the tail wherever you want it to go.
You set the prop governor to perhaps 3000 RPM, depending on personal taste, and you find yourself jockeying the throttle like it was just another control surface in your fist. The second thing that will focus your attention is how the wingtips seem heavy and want to “fall” into every turn, and then go beyond where you may think you are placing them with the aileron inputs. The result is very slight aileron inputs roll the wing with authority and then the airplane quickly requires reverse or “top” aileron, and lots of it, to keep it from banking too far—so much so that I think it could be an appropriate warning placard on the dash: “Yank down hard on this side if you want to go the other way, and use both hands when required!”
You end up flying slow left turns hanging heavily on the right side of the yoke, and right turns hanging heavily on the left. Does this feel absolutely bizarre? At first it feels like the Twilight Zone. If, say, you are spotting sheep, as I have done in my Helio many times, your legs are pumping like you are on a stair climber, your throttle hand is doing as much to “steer” the airplane as any control surface, and you are cross controlling the wing and rudder like you have been taught all your life to never do. Welcome to your new purchase.
The quirks surrounding slow flight are many. One of the most interesting features of slow flight that new pilots can explore, and safely, is something I’ll call a “saved approach,” a sort of helicopter descent. Very simply, it’s when you approach the runway and you are too high or too fast, or both, but you don’t want to go around because you are lazy and tired. Perhaps you started your long, carefully calibrated descent several miles out and you arrive, and you blew it, and you are at 1500 ft. AGL but wishing you were at about 800 for an orderly glide in. In the Helio you can raise the nose, slow it to 80, start dialing in flaps, finally taking them to 35 or 40 degrees. Still nose up, the slats come out at about 50 or 55, you then pull back more and you see 40 MPH, you trim it up, and you pull back more. This is when all your passengers start acting as though they are having much less fun. The Helio begins to protest a little by shaking the stabilator enough that it sends broad wavelength shudders steadily up into the cockpit, like you are riding a giant massage chair with wings.
This is right where you want to be: the airplane is in a fully controlled mush and sinking like a bag of rocks. The runway threshold that you were certain was going to disappear below you in a matter of moments as you overshot it, now looks as though you are on a very (very) steep glideslope to hit it perfectly. Well above the runway, when you get to your desired 600 or 800 feet, a slight nose down yoke sends the airspeed quickly to 65 MPH again and you have done what would appear to be impossible, shedding all that altitude and speed in a completely controlled manner. You land the beast like James Bond, acting all normal, adjusting your cufflinks and then making sure your hair still looks good. Sadly, there is no way to hide your ever-present sweaty face so your passengers are still wondering if all that frenetic commotion in the cockpit was a planned carnival ride, just for them, or if you were trying to overcome the remnants of a mild, in-flight stroke.
As long as we are on the topic of slow flight, approaches, and all things mushy, a new Helio pilot really needs to be aware of what is most likely to bite him back, where exactly the mouth of the lion is… as you explore its wonder, head to tail. Very simply: beware getting behind the power curve. Without me going on for pages, I’ll summarize by saying that on approach, the Helio presents visuals through the windscreen and feelings in the seat of your pants that tell you that there is energy left for a flare when actually there is none. This can be experienced around 50 to 55 MPH, or higher depending on your load, most often at higher flap settings, slats out, and it catches you fully unprepared, naked, and alone.
The airplane can easily get too dirty, too slow, and behind the drag/power curve and then, when you begin to rotate to flare, nothing much happens other than the ground coming up to greet you much faster than you can react. You jam the throttle forward but the motor takes a little time to spool up, and perhaps you are not set to full-flat-prop because you were trying to keep the gearbox loaded with positive thrust on approach, trying to keep the manifold pressure at or above 15 inches, so you had the prop set at 2600 RPM, or the recommended 2800 RPM instead of 3400, all very much a common way to fly the Helio… and everything was going just fine until it wasn’t. It takes a second you don’t have right then to flatten the prop fully (of course you should have done it earlier). It’s usually a combination of things that go south, and this can include shifting winds and high density altitude demons. Many a Helio has been bent like a pretzel when the flare that the pilot was depending on was nowhere to be found when he needed it. There… you have been warned.
It’s true, the airplane takes some time to feel comfortable in, and much longer to master. How long? For me it was someplace in the 60 to 80 hour range when the light came on and I realized the brilliance of the airplane, and more importantly, I realized that it was possible I had made the right decision when I bought it.
It was about 200 hours before I vaguely understood what it was really capable of. It was another 100 hours after that before I thought I was driving it, instead of it driving me. We get along great now. I might add that most of my time in Helios has been full blown bush flying, and a good bit of that in the extreme short field mode. I was a sheep hunter that used the Helio like a Super Cub because it was all I had at the time. Nothing informs and instructs like necessity. I’ll admit that the first 50 hours in the Helio, after being a Cub jockey for 20 plus years prior, felt like I had made a big mistake. It felt like I would never be able to really make music with it, to find its rhythm, to own every move it was capable of, for it to become second nature. I was wrong.
It’s important to say that a new Helio pilot doesn’t necessarily need to know or learn—ever—how to wring the utmost out of the design, on wheels, off runaway. They make an outstanding floatplane: tough, roomy, legendary in performance. The best message I can offer the new Helio pilot is that the airplane will seem challenging at first, but if you stick with it the rewards are beyond remarkable. I can tell you there will be an “Aha!’ moment, that emotional shift when you arrive at the idea that buying the Helio was one of the smartest things you ever did, and that a lifetime of rewards will unfold each time you get into the cockpit and feel the results of what Otto Koppen’s pencil and slide rule put to paper, and then turned into reality. Life is short and full of choices. One of those choices for me was that I could fly an airplane or I could fly a legend. Now, it would be hard to imagine my life without the Helio experience.