In the realm of rotorcraft flight, where unpowered autorotation emergency landings are considered one of the most nerve-wracking experiences, two exceptional helicopter test pilots have taken on the challenge. This daring feat involves relinquishing control to an autonomous system during a crucial moment. Helicopters, notorious for their complexity, demand synchronized efforts of all four limbs to manage throttle, collective control, cyclic control, and pedals governing tail rotor pitch.

In the pursuit of simplifying controls or enabling autonomous flight, various companies are making strides in technological advancements. Airbus has experimented with a single-joystick fly-by-wire system, while Sikorsky demonstrated a fully autonomous Black Hawk mission without a human pilot. California-based Skyryse, operational since 2016, focuses on retrofitting autonomous and fly-by-wire systems for diverse aircraft, aiming to reduce and eventually eliminate general aviation fatalities.

Skyryse, with its Flight Stack technology, achieved the first autonomous flight of its kind in 2019 using a Robinson R-44 helicopter. Anticipated for early next year is the unveiling of the first production helicopter equipped with Skyryse’s simplified control system, featuring world-first safety measures, including fully automated autorotation for emergency landings.

Autorotation, a last-resort emergency maneuver, empowers skilled pilots to execute a controlled descent in the event of total engine failure. The technique involves swiftly dropping the collective control, disengaging the rotor from the engine with an automatic clutch, and counteracting the leftward spin induced by the loss of engine torque.

Skyryse’s system, tested by pilots Jason Trask and Eliot Seguin in July, automates the autorotation process, recognizing engine failure and initiating entry into autorotation faster than a human pilot could. This, in theory, maintains a higher main rotor RPM, providing more stored energy for the pilot to manipulate. Once in glide mode, the pilot is expected to choose a landing spot and navigate towards it.

Executing a flawless autorotation is no easy task, with the risk of accidents during practice exceeding those from real-life engine failures. Yet, the real test came when Trask and Seguin, with nerves of steel, underwent the world’s first autonomous autorotation test in a Robinson R66. The system gracefully brought the helicopter down without incident, showcasing the potential of Skyryse’s innovation in mitigating the guesswork and panic associated with this daunting aviation scenario.

In the face of an automatic autorotation, these test pilots demonstrated exceptional courage, highlighting the cool composure necessary for such a groundbreaking endeavor. Their audacious venture into uncharted territory deserves acknowledgment, offering a glimpse into the future of autonomous rotorcraft emergency procedures.

By Impact Lab