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Post-Apocalyptic modern world, a group of civilian survivors about three dozen in number find themselves trapped in a military base. They have no way out except by air.

The military base has a dozen helicopters but none of them knows how to fly the damn contraption. Assume they have endless food, fuel, and time, and access to training and operating manuals, video, etc, for the helicopters.

What is a reasonable time frame for at least one of them to learn how to pilot that on their own, assuming they are of average intelligence and ability?

EDIT: I'm not looking at exceptional cases, stroke of luck, or Hollywoodian handwavium. I asked for a reasonable, realistic timeframe.

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    $\begingroup$ I seriously doubt that they can achieve that. They might try, and some of the attempts might even result in the people on board surviving. But it seems safe to assume that every single attempt results in at least one helicopter less. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ In February 1938, Hanna Reitsch performed a demostration flight of the Focke-Wulf Fw 61, the first helicopter prototype built in Germany. She must have somehow managed to learn from scratch how to fly it very safely, given that nobody else had ever flown a helicopter in Germany, and the demonstration took place indoors, on the 9000-seat Deutschlandhalle enclosed sports arena. It is true that she was a decorated test pilot... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 13:10
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Without even checking, Reitsch was also an experienced (fixed wing) pilot, who access to a vast array of engineers who were there to walk her through the theory of the thing. Not to mention it was almost certainly a more forgiving helicopter than any likely to be found in a modern military base. It was a proof of concept, after all. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 16:46
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    $\begingroup$ Having watched Gundam I know for a fact that skimming the operators manual is sufficient to turn random civilians into highly skilled operators of arbitrarily complex military hardware. So the answer is obviously that it depends on how long the operators manual is. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2022 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, Hanna Reitsch was one of the most skilled test pilots in the world. Very much not "someone of average intelligence and ability". $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 21:46

5 Answers 5

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Frame challenge

If they have a PC, a joystick controller and a copy of Microsoft's Flight Simulator (specially versions 9 or later), they can play for weeks until they are comfortable with the basics of some helicopter model close to what they have in the base.

Then they can try their skills on the real thing, maybe crash a couple helicopters along the way (killing half of the survivors in doing so). Then finally a few people can fly out of the base and have a very bumpy and painful landing somewhere else.

But flying the helicopters is just one thing they would need to do. Aircraft are very complex machines with very complex maintenance routines. Learning how to keep such machines in good shape takes years when you have a proper education. They won't learn it in a military base during the zombie apocalypse.

It would be much more realistic to salvage parts and hack them into an autogyro for just a couple of survivors to escape, but being realistic this would require everybody to be an engineer and still would be borderline a ticket to Darwin Awards.

It would be even more realistic and efficient to scrap the metal to build a makeshift armor for a van or truck, a la Dawn of the Dead/Left 4 Dead/Army of Darkness and escape by land.

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    $\begingroup$ Not really a frame challenge, but you get the green checkmark anyway. if they can't reasonably learn it in months or years, that's fine too. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2022 at 14:33
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    $\begingroup$ On top of that, someone out there has probably already made the Zombie Apocalypse mod for Microsoft's Flight Simulator. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @GaultDrakkor A helicopter has FOUR inputs. Changes in cyclic (stick), collective, anti-torque pedals, and THROTTLE, are all coupled. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ Lots of military bases have dedicated simulators available, with current versions being almost as good as the real thing. If they have a simulator available with all controls as per a real helicopter (agree with the comments about muscle memory for the real controls being very important) then the task becomes much more feasible. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2022 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 Excellent point and perhaps deserving of its own answer. This is really the only way that I see this being feasible at all without an almost certainty of deaths. Granted, I'm not sure how common it is for random military bases to have sims. I would think that those would normally only exist at a handful of training bases, just as airlines don't have them lying around at each airport (or even each hub) that they fly out of. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 14:00
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You ask "how long till X" but your actual problem is that X is undefined. Without an instructor there would be no way for them to tell if they actually learned anything or just got lucky so far. And if they got unlucky they die.

With enough luck, they could read/watch everything and fly away with (extreme caution) on the first try. As Daron said, surviving the first landing is the hardest part, so never training for that seems to be the most plausible option. If there are parachutes in the base my bet would be to learn the theory, fly away and jump.

I think the most believable option would be to use unmanned delivery vehicle, something like K-MAX. I don't know how autonomous it actually is, but assuming the best, your protagonists probably could program a route for it, climb onto a cargo pallet and get delivered. Or jump out of the pallet. Kaman added some remote-control capabilities so something like flying a drone while swinging from it comes to mind. If there are many such delivery drones in the base, they could practice remote controlling them without risking lives. However, even the Wikipedia article highlights how complex it is, when unforeseen wind caused one to crash.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Without an instructor there would be no way for them to tell if they actually learned anything or just got lucky so far. And if they got unlucky they die." - That's zombie apocalypses in general. You do what you can, since if you don't do it, you'll definitely die (somehow). $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2022 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ Jumping out of an unmanned helicopter seems like a really bad idea unless it can hover by autopilot. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2022 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ @user253751 hovering is difficult and dangerous, I wouldn't risk trying it. Bailing out at reasonable forward speed seems reasonable. $\endgroup$
    – Agent_L
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Agent_L Agreed, but the point is you need an autopilot. The second you let go of the anti-torque pedals without an AP, the helo goes into a spin. Jumping out of a spinning helo is very unlikely to be survivable. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 19:12
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The legend is that, unlike the movies, a non-pilot landing a plane is impossible, even if there is someone giving them verbal instructions, even if the non-pilot is familiar with other types of planes.

With that in mind it is hard to believe someone can teach themself to fly a helicopter. Perhaps if they had a simulator at hand to practice landing and crash landing they could do it.

In that case you should start researching the process by which one gets a helicopter license. How much training is required. I imagine you don't have lessons every day. So you can smoosh all the training together. Then multiply it by two or three times as long.


Extra: As The Square-Cube Law points out, there is one case of a non-pilot landing a Cessna 208 while on the phone with a flying teacher.

enter image description here

The Cessna is very unlike the passenger airliners in the movies. But perhaps that is a good thing because it is more like a helicopter. Note: According to the pilots in the comments this is a load of bull honkey and there is almost nothing in common between a Cessna and a helicopter.

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    $\begingroup$ @TheSquare-CubeLaw "The runway's gonna be kinda narrow. But as you get in closer it's gonna get bigger." That man is a good teacher. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ Pilots and air-traffic controllers talk non-pilots through the process of landing small, forgiving aircraft on a fairly regular basis. A helicopter is very much not a forgiving aircraft: where a Cessna 172 will tend to fly straight-and-level as long as you keep your hands off the controls, a helicopter is constantly trying to crash. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark is absolutely right. It is totally doable to talk a non-pilot through landing a small craft with relatively simple controls like a Cessna or a Piper. I have personally seen it. Instructor had stroke and first time in the air student behind the controls. I was also in the air and traffic control asked me to fly behind him and keep a visual on how he was handling the plane and following instructions. As long as the novice doesn't panic and TC knows what they are doing (if possible they will call in an instructor or very experienced pilot to talk him through) it usually ends well. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ "But perhaps that is a good thing because it is more like a helicopter.". That is total nonsense. A modern helicopter (and especially a military one) is nothing like ANY fixed wing plane. I'm a very experienced pilot in small aircraft. I have over 6000 hours in at least 20 types of fixed-wing craft (powered and gliders). I also took helicopter lessons. I gave up on that after just 2 training sessions. I just don't have the feel for it and if you don't you'll never be safe flying one. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented May 12, 2022 at 22:52
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I see you have already acceptd an answer, but i'd like to propose a number. The others are right with the maintenance problem though.

I'm thinking about myself. I like plane, i've nevered flew one but i enjoy playing flight simulation. Been playing "DCS World" on and off, and some time ago i tried my first helicopter (KA-50). What i've learned, it's that helicopter are hard to flight, and they can kill you in plenty of new way compared to plane (did you know about vortex ring state for exemple ?).

So if i was in that situation, I think it would be at least 50 hours before i try starting the engine (no flying yet), and a good 100 hours before i try some "real" flying, away from the base. Most of the time would be reading the manual (note: if no manual, i don't even try), and flying on simulator if there is. And then, i'm talking about "flying". Not "safe flying". Any kind of unexpected thing (mechanical failure, bad weather, ...) would probably end very badly.

For reference i took a quick look at getting a license pilot, my first link says :

  • 45h briefing
  • 90h theoric course
  • 35h flying with instructor
  • 10h flying solo

So, my 100h are really a minimum. With some previous basic knowledge. If your guys don't know shit, they'll have a very hard time. Or a rude awakening in their first flight.

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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, it's that 35 hours of "flying with instructor" that will be extremely hard to do without for a helicopter. Even for an airplane, it takes a while to get used to landing, but a student with enough knowledge has a reasonable chance of doing it well enough to survive if one doesn't care too much about reusing the plane. A helicopter, on the other hand, is seeking new and exciting ways to kill you. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 15:07
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The question isn't time. It's their approach (yeehaw or careful) that would determine who If any survived.

The next question is what kind of helicopter we are discussing. Controls are more or less identical, but responsiveness might be different and the amount of instrumentation (lights, sounds and buttons) and procedures can vary greatly. A military helicopter would have more difficult procedures, more instrumentation that would distract a learning pilot, and sluggish throttle response then a trainer helicopter with a reciprocating engine.

Considering they have training materials and literature, they can takeoff within a few minutes of reading the manual on a trainer helicopter. Up to a couple days on a military helicopter. Next - it's much easier to crash a turbine helicopter than a reciprocating one, by simply cutting throttle at the wrong time and the turbines taking too long to spin up afterwards. But basically the next maneuver is landing. Start by hopping around - take off and land immediately. Then hovering higher and higher before landing. Then maneuvers.

The big things to watchout for are - wrong input (especially if nerves get the better hand), too much input (just be gentle), overcorrection.

I've never flown a helicopter myself, but I am familiar with the controls, but the more difficult part for md would be the startup sequence.

Someone absolutely oblivious to helicopters? I'd give them a week or two.

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