Army Helicopter School 1969


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This is guest post from professional pilot and author, Byron Edgington. 

He is the author of The Sky Behind Me and you are sure to enjoy this piece. 




Ft. Wolters Texas, Army Helicopter Flight School 1969.


Once my Snowbird month was over it was time to head to the flight line where I met my instructor. Wayne Alexander was a burly East Texan who could have been a linebacker, except he may have been too big. Six-two, 220, with a Fu Manchu mustache, and a paunch coming at age 23, Wayne liked his suds. He looked like he’d be more at home ham-handing an eighteen wheeler down the double-nickel, grinding gears, CB in hand, yakking about Smokey-Bear ‘takin’ pitchers.’ But looks were deceiving; Wayne’s delicate touch on the controls, and his smooth, professional transmissions on the radio exuded a quiet confidence.


But he was a big man. Wayne didn’t board the helicopter. He more or less strapped it on his back like Santa’s toy bag. My first day in the cockpit with Wayne was an orientation ride. He did everything; I sat mesmerized, watching his hands fly through the start procedure. He flipped switches, twisted knobs, tuned radios, adjusted gauges and prepared the machine to fly.


The helicopter was a Hughes model 269, the Army’s aircraft of choice for initial flight training. With two seats, a four cylinder 180 horsepower piston engine, and a twenty-five-gallon fuel tank, the Hughes was purely a training helicopter for the military, thus its designation TH-55. With a bulging Plexiglas canopy divided by a center strip, it looked like a big orange fly that was more than a little pissed. When the four-banger Lycoming chattered to a start it sounded like one. Over the years more than 6,000 Army pilots learned to fly in what we called, with some affection, the Mattel Messerschmitt.


Wayne mashed the start button, and the engine roared to life. Then he flicked the clutch switch, moving eight drive belts forward to engage the rotors. Three blades whipped overhead, and the helicopter was ready to fly. Wayne called for takeoff clearance. I studied his hands and feet. He mostly didn’t move the controls, just pressured them. Wayne told me time and again not to, “wipe out the cockpit,” as he said. “You barely move the controls; just think about moving them, and you’ll go the rightdirection.” He made it look so easy that I couldn’t imagine not being able to do likewise. Wayne was right; I barely saw his hands and feet move. He made it look so easy, so simple. When he lifted the collective the helicopter rose smooth as wet glass. Wayne pressed  the aircraft’s nose forward and we took off. Simple. He banked this way and that, zipping around with what seemed little or no effort. I watched him, a giddy warmth rising in my chest. I can do this, I thought. Heck, just relax, take it easy and let the machine do all the work. How tough can it be?


Wayne took us to altitude. He showed me basic maneuvers like straight and level flight, standard turns, climbs, descents and basic navigation. “Let’s turn to the North,” he said. We were then headed East. He banked left, stopped, leveled off. The compassbobbled and bounced on the panel, then a big ‘N’ settled in the glass as if painted on.Easy, nothing to it. Wayne talked about what he called air sense. “Never let the aircraft go where your brain hasn’t been thirty seconds before,” he said. Air sense is another phrase for situational awareness while airborne, but that takes too long to say. Wayne was a man of few words, and many of them were crude. But his vulgarity was surpassed only by his aviation knowledge. “Treat the aircraft like a woman,” he said. “Don’t manhandle her; let her think she’s in charge. Be gentle, but show her who’s boss.” After every dab of flying wisdom Wayne cackled like a madman. “Let me tell ‘ya, Edgington,” he’d say. “Flyin’ain’t dangerous; crashing is. So try not to crash! Ha-ha-haaa!” I can hear him cackling even now.


This is as good a time as any for a short primer on how helicopters fly, the aerodynamics of rotary-wing flight. The main blades provide the lift, of course. But they also provide the steering mechanism for all intended directions. In the cockpit, the main stick the pilot holds in his or her right hand is called the cyclic. The cyclic is for horizontal flight. Ease the cyclic to the right, the aircraft goes right. Ease it left, and left you go. Forward, backward, sideways, all maneuvers in the horizontal plane come from moving the cyclic. To the pilot’s left, on the floor of the aircraft, is another stick called the collective pitch, or collective for short. It’s for vertical flight. Pull the collective up,you go up. Push it down, down you go. The important thing about the collective is that, as it changes, the pitch in all main blades changes ‘collectively’ and equally. Moving the collective up and down also changes the amount of torque produced by the blades spinning around upstairs.


This is where the two pedals on the floor come in. Those two controls put pitch in and out of the tail rotor, which acts against all the torque mentioned above. The technical name for the tail rotor is the anti-torque rotor. The easiest way to explain what it does is to remove it from the aircraft, and show what would happen. Without the tail rotor, when we pull the collective up, the aircraft would come up, as it’s supposed to. But the entire airframe would also spin around in the opposite direction of the main rotor. The upshot of this is, that when changing collective settings, up or down, the correct amount of pedal must be used to add or remove pitch in the tail rotor as well. It’s simple; it’s complicated.


A safety feature of any helicopter is its built-in ability to autorotate, and to land without engine power. If the engine fails, (in a single-engine helicopter), the pilot lowers the collective all the way, removing all pitch from the main blades. This action, going to ‘flat pitch,’ puts the machine ‘in autorotation.’ In that state, wind swirling upward through the rotors keeps them turning. This allows the pilot to safely land. The first day we flew together Wayne showed me an autorotation.


We shot up to 3,000 feet, where the air chilled the sweat on my arms. Wayne looked around for other traffic, both sides, and below. Then he snapped the throttle back to idle, lowered the collective, and adjusted the pedals. The bottom fell out of everything I owned. Sucked down by gravity, the little Hughes screamed toward the center of Texas. In autorotation we dove almost straight down, the vertical speed gauge pegged on 2,500 feet per minute. My stomach was still at three grand when, at five hundred feet, Wayne cackled like a circus clown. He twisted the throttle, raised the rpm and stopped our hellcat dive. Leveling off, he skimmed fifty feet across the tar trees and sagebrush. Then he cackled again. “Hardest thing about learnin’ to fly is the ground, Edgington! Ha-Ha-haaaa!”


But he made it look so easy, that’s the thing. After my orientation flight I was filled with confidence, eager for the next day, and my first attempt to fly. That night in the billet my colleagues and I chattered about the following day’s session. It would be our first opportunity to show that we were indeed god’s gift to aviation. I couldn’t wait to grab the stick the first time, to pull the collective up, to ease in just a touch of pedal, correct with a tad of rpm, ease the nose forward. What’s so hard? I was quite certain mine would be the perfect takeoff. Wayne made it look so simple. On day two I discovered just how good a pilot, and how good an actor Wayne Alexander really was.

Look for PART 2 in a future post

Excerpt from The Sky Behind Me, a Memoir of Flying and Life

©2012 Byron Edgington, Biblio Publishing Columbus Ohio

ISBN-10: 1622490371

ISBN-13: 978-1622490370

Available at Amazon in paperback and digital editions. 305 pages


Byron Edgington

The Sky Writer

Free sample: The Sky Behind Me

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