On the night that changed my life, I was smoking a cigar on the old smoking deck at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta. It was DragonCon, so I was naturally wearing an extremely short skirt and knee high boots, because that’s what one does at Dragon.
No? Not everyone? Huh. Weird.
In any case, whether it was the cigar or the short skirt, I quickly found myself talking to a guy who introduced himself as John Ringo. (Actually, I think one of his friends introduced us.) John was “holding court” as he occasionally does at DragonCon. He made a comment about not seeing a lot of women with interest in cigars, and then proceed to tell me about this “goddess” (his word, emphasis not added, it was already there) he’d seen two years prior who had been smoking a cigar and wearing a red leather bikini shaped like demon hands.
At that point, John got very alarmed, because my eyes filled with tears.
“Are you okay?” he asked. His face went a bit pale with concern, if I recall correctly.
I nodded and smiled through my tears.
“That girl?” I asked, still smiling. “Her name was Tammy Archuleta. She was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and my best friend. We went through pilot training together. She was killed in March of 2003 in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Her fiancé is one of my friends here with me tonight.”
John actually staggered. And sympathized with my loss. And bought me and all of my friends a drink, and spent the rest of the night hanging out and talking with us. As military vets will do, we shared quite a few war stories that night, and on the nights that followed during that con.
In particular, we talked a lot about helicopters. John was fascinated by them. Now, this doesn’t strike me at all as odd, since I talk about helicopters all the time anyway. Because, let’s face it, helicopters are badass. There’s something so intriguing about a machine that can fly low enough to hide behind trees and terrain, can hover over one spot long enough to pluck someone off the side of a mountain cliff, can rain fire and fury down on ground-based threats, and can land and take off from a pad small enough to fit on a rooftop.
So, shortly after John and I met, he e-mailed me to ask a few questions about helicopters and helicopter operations. He was writing the Paladin of Shadows series, and honored me with a tuckerization as Kacey Bathlick, aka Dragon. The “Dragon” moniker is a joke about my childhood ambition to be a dragonrider à la Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, but there’s more to it than that. Because in addition to the character of Kacey “Dragon” Bathlick, John also wrote about another pilot named Tammy Wilson. And her callsign was “Valkyrie.”
To paraphrase Norse mythology, the Valkyries were Odin’s representatives who would visit the fields of battle and escort the fallen warrior spirits home to Odin’s hall, where they would feast until the final battle of Ragnarok. They were sometimes called the “choosers of the slain.”
In writing the two pilots, John juxtaposes two sides of the helicopter “identity,” if you will: that of the “Dragon” or force of destruction, and that of the “Valkyrie,” or force of mercy. In John’s books, Dragon flies a highly modified gunship, which she employs with devastating effect to neutralize a threat in a particular mountain pass. In the meantime, Valkyrie flies the “dustoff” mission, in which she collects the dead and wounded from the battlefield and flies them to where they can be safely treated or mourned. This dichotomy of destructor vs. savior is part of what makes helicopters so interesting to audiences. We can light your world on fire, or we can find you when you’re lost. The story potential is unlimited along that spectrum. Especially when you consider the helicopter as a metaphor for humankind . . . because humans can do those things, too.
Literary metaphors aside, part of John’s concern when writing about helicopters was that he wanted to get it right. To John’s credit, he wants to get most details, particularly about military subjects, right. Considering his target audience, this is a smart move. Few things throw someone out of a story fast enough than a glaring error in the technical details of a profession with which they’re familiar. Aviation in general is a pretty technical profession. Military aviation is more so. Military rotary-wing aviation? Man, we damn near speak a different language. This is far from unique, by the way. Most military technical professions have their own language, and to a certain extent, their own culture. I suspect that it’s the same on the civilian side.
So if you’re going to write about helicopters, how do you get it right?
Well, like John, you ask a lot of questions. But in order to know what to ask, it’s helpful to understand a few basic premises:
- Helicopters do not “beat the air into submission.” Nor are we “so ugly the earth repels us.” Rotary-wing aerodynamics are based on the same physical principles as fixed-wing aerodynamics. They’re just complicated by the fact that our “wings” spin around. The science is confusing and difficult to understand at first, but it’s out there. It might (or might not, depending on the story) be helpful to understand (or at least be familiar with) it.
- That brings me to controls. There are a few weirdo exceptions out there, but by and large, helicopter pilots have three interfaces with which to control their aircraft.
- The cyclic stick, which sits between the pilot’s knees, controls the lateral movement of the aircraft by means of “tilting” the blades on one side or the other as I discussed above.
- The collective lever, which usually sits on the pilot’s left side, controls the vertical movement of the aircraft by means of tilting the blades collectively, so that the lift vector is increased or decreased across the entire surface of the rotor disc. This results in a climb or descent.
- The tail rotor or antitorque pedals. Remember Newton’s Third Law? For every force, there is an equal and opposite force? Well, I’m telling you that it takes a lot of force to spin the two twenty-five foot long rotor blades that keep my Huey in the air. And the equal and opposite force would twirl me like a ball on a string if not for the grace of Igor Sikorsky and his invention of the antitorque tail rotor. Basically, my tail rotor is another rotor that has one job: it produces a lift force that is applied sideways to the tail of my aircraft. This force counterbalances the “equal and opposite” coming from my main rotor, and allows me to keep my nose straight. A fun feature of this design is that I can, by changing the AOA of my tail rotor blades, change the magnitude of the antitorque lift vector and twist my nose from side to side -- thus controlling my yaw. I change the angle of my tail rotor AOA by use of my tail rotor pedals. Step on the right pedal, my nose goes to the right. Step on the left, it goes to the left. (Note: that’s the way it works for Hueys and all Western-designed aircraft. The Soviet designed Mi-17 I flew in Iraq was the opposite, because the main rotor blades turned the other way.)
- As you see from my discussion so far, not every model of helicopter is the same. I’m currently qualified to fly the UH-1N Twin Huey. This is not the same Huey as you see in old Vietnam movies. For one thing, I have two engines. Does that mean that I couldn’t fly an old-school F- or H-model Huey? No. I probably could fly it. I might not, however, be able to start it. Starting any aircraft (but particularly a helicopter) is worlds more complicated than starting a car. (Which is one reason why it’s a lot harder to steal a helicopter than it is to steal a car.) And that’s just talking about different models of the same helicopter that I already fly! If I were in the back of a Chinook and both pilots suddenly had simultaneous heart attacks, could I safely fly the Chinook? Well, if I had time to get to the controls, I promise you that I could safely get the aircraft to the site of the crash. There might even be some survivors. Maybe. Helicopters aren’t even close to standardized.
- Fixed wing flying is roughly eighty percent science and twenty percent art. Helicopter flying, particularly hovering, is more like fifty-fifty. It takes time and practice to be able to hover a helicopter without spinning wildly out of control and crashing. Some newer helicopters have state-of-the-art hover augmentation systems that will assist, but you’re still not going to have someone walk in off the street, get a couple of hours of instruction, and be a competent helicopter pilot. It just takes longer than that to get the appropriate muscle memory locked in.
- Helicopter flying is hard work. I’m literally using both hands and both feet on separate control surfaces to keep my aircraft in coordinated flight. Unlike in a fixed-wing airplane, I can’t take my hands off the controls to get a drink or something. Not unless I have someone else to take the controls for me. Again, newer helicopters sometimes have some kind of autopilot system, but our methods of control are just so much more complicated than that of a fixed-wing platform that by and large, what I’m telling you is true across most of the board. My autopilot’s name is “copilot.”
- Helicopters don’t have propellers. We have rotors. Admittedly, this is queep, but you wouldn’t believe how often I see this. A rotor is a lifting surface, not just a means of generating thrust. If you’re going to write about helicopters, please don’t make this mistake. You’ll alienate every helicopter pilot in your audience. Oh, and also . . . a chopper? That’s a motorcycle. We fly helicopters.
- Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, helicopters, particularly military helicopters, are actually fairly robust. In other words, a single small arms round is highly unlikely to cause an aircraft to burst into flame and explode. Could it happen? Maybe. Depends on the round and the helicopter. But if you’re writing about small arms vs. helicopters and you need to make the helicopter crash, your best bet is to shoot the pilots.
Just as with a fixed wing aircraft, a helicopter flies because of the interaction of four basic forces: lift, drag, thrust, and weight. Collectively, these four forces are known as the “Four Aerodynamic Forces.” Personally, I like to add a fifth aerodynamic force: caffeine, but that’s probably just me. In a fixed-wing aircraft, lift is produced by the movement of air across the specifically shaped wing, or airfoil. Helicopter rotors are airfoils, too. Put simply, helicopters can hover because our “wings” are in motion, thus generating lift, even if the body of the aircraft is not. In order to fly or hover, the lift generated by our rotors (I’m not calling them wings anymore. I’m rebelling . . . ) has to be enough to counteract the weight of the helicopter. In order to fly in any particular direction, our thrust (which is also generated by our turning rotors) in that direction must be great enough to counteract the drag, or friction between the air and the helicopter, in that direction. (That’s a gross simplification of drag, but it will do for the purposes of this essay.)
So how do we do that? Basically, we tilt stuff. The higher the angle between an airfoil and the movement of the air current (also known as angle of attack or AOA), the more lift is generated. If we generate more lift to the right side of our turning rotor disc, the lift vector ends up being greater than the lift vector on the opposite side of the disc. The difference between the two becomes a force vector on its own; one which “pulls” the helicopter away from the greater lift vector. So the helicopter turns (or slides, if it’s in a hover) to the left. Again, this is a gross simplification. There’s a lot more going on, aerodynamically speaking, than I’ve got room to relay here. If you’re really interested in understanding these concepts, I highly recommend the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook chapter 2. You can find it here. It has really pretty pictures that explain this much better than I ever could.
There are many, many more ways in which fiction uses and abuses helicopters, but my intent is to give you some things to think about when writing (or reading) about helicopters. If nothing else, these principles should at least help you frame some questions for better targeted research.
The other piece to writing about helicopters is writing about helicopter crews. Anyone who’s interacted with aircrew in the military can tell you that we’re a subculture unto ourselves. That subculture is further divided according to our specific platform or weapon system. Helicopter aircrews (and I include civilian crews in this, because most civilian helicopter pilots are, or were, taught by military or military veteran pilots) are often stereotyped as being a little bit crazy. Flying is inherently risky. Helicopter flying is more so. Helicopter aircrews are trained to assess and mitigate risk to the max extent possible while still getting the job done. Sometimes, that means accepting a high degree of risk, simply because the mission dictates demand it. Does that mean that we’re all clones of H.M. Murdock from the 1980s action series The A-Team? Not at all, (although that would be awesome!) but the idea of accepting risk when the mission demands it may help you to form the character of your fictional crews. You may wish to google “Harry Reasoner’s Helicopter Pilots Are Different” for a further illustration of this idea. Or just go here.
Similarly, if you’re writing about helicopter crews, you should understand that flying with someone creates a bond and requires a high degree of trust. John alluded to that in Unto the Breach, when he showed us the extent of Dragon’s anger at her crew chief’s death. In the air, we keep each other alive as much as infantrymen fighting side by side do. Neglecting that depth of connection can lead to the character coming across as inauthentic, even if the characters are not, themselves, military.
Whether savior or destroyer, Dragon or Valkyrie, helicopters and those who fly them occupy a niche role in our imaginations. This is probably fair, as they occupy a niche role in real world operations, too. No other platform can do everything that a helicopter can, and that makes them perfect for use in fiction. There is an inherent drama in the idea of flying through the night to rescue a lost hiker, or taking to the skies to destroy those who would do us harm. And as I said before, helicopters are just inherently badass. But in fiction, they’re even more badass when they’re done right.
Copyright © 2016 Kacey Ezell
Captain Kacey Ezell grew up around the world on various military bases. When she was seven, her mother gave her a copy of Anne McCaffrey's Dragondrums, and shortly thereafter, Kacey decided that she wanted to be a dragonrider when she grew up. She followed her parents into the “family business” and graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, earned her wings in 2001, and has over 2,500 hours in the UH-1N and Mi-17 helicopters. In 2009, while deployed to Iraq, she began her writing career with “Light,” which appeared in Baen anthology Citizens. She consulted on John Ringo's Strands of Sorrow, and has written stories for Black Tide Rising, an anthology set in Ringo's zombie apocalypse universe, and for Forged in Blood, an anthology of stories set in Michael Z. Williamson’s Freehold universe. Kacey is the coauthor, along with John Ringo and Chris Smith, of a yet-to-be titled upcoming post apocalyptic alien invasion science fiction novel coming from Baen. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and an ever increasing number of cats. Sadly, she no longer smokes cigars.