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Teaching helicopters to fly - interview with a famous test-pilot

16.12.2013 / Russian Helicopters Magazine

Gurgen Karapetyan worked as a Soviet and Russian helicopter test pilot, a senior lieutenant in the reserve and Hero of the Soviet Union. During his career he mastered 39 types of helicopters, gliders and aeroplanes, or more than 100 if you count all the different modifications. He spent more than 5,500 hours in the air and flew all types of Mil helicopters. Today, Gurgen heads up safety at Russian Helicopters. He tells readers of our corporate magazine about the challenging but exciting profession of being a helicopter test pilot.

Gurgen, what influenced your decision to pursue a career in aviation?

I chose to follow my childhood dream. In 1944-45 I was living with my mother in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg); my father had been killed in the Second World War in 1943. German aircraft were on display in the main town square, not far fr om our house, as war trophies. All the boys played there. We clambered into the planes and pretended to be pilots. Those were hard and hungry years. The factory wh ere my mum worked gave us a little plot of land, not far fr om the aerodrome, and we grew vegetables there. I’d look up at the planes as I was planting potatoes. Several years later I joined the local aviation club, and started to seriously consider becoming a military pilot. But my uncle Gurgen, who was like a father to me, stopped me. “Being a test pilot with higher education is the best qualification. Go and study!” he said. I followed his advice and enrolled at the Moscow Aviation Institute. I found studying interesting, and was enthusiastic about everything – the classes and the flights. I flew gliders at Chertanovo, planes at Kryukovo, and helicopters at the Tushino Central Aviation Club. I also worked part-time at the Technology Department and at the Aviation Club.

Why did you choose helicopters?

It was pure fate. In the third year, all the students were split up into groups based on their specialisation. Several specialisations were available in various different groups – three for airplanes, one for helicopters, one for aviation equipment and five for missiles. Everyone, of course, wanted to get into the missile group, and I was no exception. I also considered aircraft. However, I ended up in the helicopter group. At first I was disappointed, and even met with the Dean, requesting to transfer. When the helicopter faculty head, Ivan Bratukhin, heard about that he called me in to see him. He started telling me about how the country’s helicopter sector would develop. Everything that he told me then, back in 1957, turned out to be true: I’ve seen it become reality. I was young and impudent, and said I would agree to study in the helicopter group – provided he helped me get into the Central Aviation Club’s helicopter section, which had just opened that year. I did not get in. By the time I applied, membership applications were no longer being accepted. They suggested I try again the next year. A year later they called me in, and said everything’s fine – I was good to fly. It was my turn to fulfil my side of the bargain – and that’s how I became a helicopter specialist.

In 1960 you won the USSR helicopter sports championship. What model did you make your winning flight in?

Mi-1. It was Russia’s first serially-produced helicopter, the first Mi helicopter, and the first helicopter I flew in the Central Aviation Club. Before then I flew gliders and planes. I was immediately struck by the difference in how these different aircraft handled. Flying a helicopter is a completely different experience, and not everyone can handle it, for sure. While a newbie’s first plane flight at the club took place after something like 5-6 or at most 7 hours of preparation, the helicopter training programme took on average 12-15 hours. Look at the science: the helicopter has 19 differential equations for motion – the same as the moon. I performed a landing into the square in the Mi-1, and took third place. The following year I was the best.

Incidentally, there’s a funny story associated with the Mi-1. Development work started on the helicopter in 1947. Three prototypes were built at the Kiev aviation plant. The Mi-1’s first test flight took place on 30 September 1948, flown by test-pilot Matvei Baikalov. Then the Mark Gallai took it up for a test flight. After landing he said: “This thing won’t fly.” He was wrong, as it turned out.

You started working at the Mil plant in 1961, but you didn't become a test-pilot immediately.

That's right. First I was chief engineer, but not for long. This is what happened. A Mi-10 crashed, and at the same time we were instructed to fly 1,000 hours on two sets of blades for the Mi-4. They needed a pilot – and fast. The senior test-pilot, Rafael Kaprelyan, went to Mikhail Mil, who went to the Minister of Aviation Technology, requesting that I be given permission to fly even though I had not been to test-pilot school. This permission was given, and I could get to work. After flying for six months, I enrolled in the test-pilot training school.

Being a test pilot involves huge risks. Did you have moments when you had to make difficult decisions while in the air? What guided you in such situations?

Early on in my career, Rafael said: “Nobody here sees you as competition, you’ve got no flying experience. Your job now is to absorb experience fr om the experienced test pilots. You’ll fly as co-pilot.” So I flew. And during the first three years when I was flying as a co-pilot, something would always happen, whoever I was flying with. Older pilots, who had been through the war, would even say: “No, no, we won’t fly with Karapetyan, he’s unlucky.”

There were many difficult moments. I remember how once, flying a prototype of Mi-28 at over 5,000 meters, the indicator lit up – there was sawdust in the main transmission gearbox oil. In incidents like this you have to switch off the engine and transition to autorotation. We went into vertical autorotation, with a vertical descent speed of about 40 m/sec. Three minutes later we had landed. There really was sawdust in the main transmission gearbox oil.

But despite it all, our flights always ended safely. Over the course of my career there have been many difficult moments when I really needed to be able to make quick decisions.

To this day I am the only pilot in the world who has experienced flexural-torsional flutter 21 times. Once, with a flying laboratory, I got into chordal flutter. There have only been three such cases ever. One of them was with a US Cheyenne helicopter and the other a Mi-34, unfortunately both ended in disaster. We were in chordal flutter for 35 seconds. If the normal vibrations in a helicopter are around 0.1 mm, ours was 15 mm. The blades collided with the abutments. Later, when we analysed the situation and studied the decrypted data, we found that the bending moments on the blades impact lim iters were five times higher than the accepted lim its. It really could have ended in disaster. But we were lucky, we quickly orientated ourselves, identified what turned out to be the right course of action, landed in time and survived. We then reproduced the flutter on the ground and made the necessary improvements. Now pilots fly the Mi-28NE Night Hunter with no fear of any kind of chordal flutter.

Of course, in this kind of situation you rely in part on your knowledge and experience. Before the flight, I would always talk to the designers and I knew approximately how much time there was for the pilot to make a decision in an emergency. But not everything depends on the pilot. I somehow got to talking with His Grace Arseny, one of Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexey’s assistants. He asked me if I was a believer. At first I was stumped. But then I said that I know that in my life there have been times when it was God keeping me safe.

I think one of those moments must be associated with your trip to Chernobyl in 1986 to work on the aftermath of the nuclear accident. What made you go into a dangerous radioactive zone, risking your own life?

On the night of 9 May someone on duty at the plant called me and told me that I had to report to Mil’s chief designer in the morning. I was in the office by 10. The general designer told me that the chairman of the state commission had ordered that work in the affected area of the nuclear reactor must be carried out by helicopter, and that I should go. At Vnukovo airport I met my friend Anatoly Grishchenko, from the Gromov Flight Research Institute. It turned out that we were on the same flight. On the plane, a Tu-154, to Kiev we talked about radiation and the possible consequences. I knew that during the Cold War, the US, Britain, France and the USSR signed an agreement to help treat people affected by radiation exposure. Then I said to Anatoly Grishchenko that if something happens, I'll help him. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. After working in Chernobyl my friend developed leukaemia. We organised for him to be treated at a clinic in the US, but unfortunately he could not be saved. God spared me, although some health problems did start after working in the disaster zone.

In Chernobyl, we used an external sling on a Mi-26 to cover the reactor with a 15-tonne dome in order to stop radiation leaking out. We could have refused. Under law the people aged over 45 cannot be employed to work in these kinds of emergencies. By then, Anatoly Grishchenko and I were already over 50. But in the whole Soviet Union, we were the only two people who could fly a helicopter with a long lower sling. Formally, we could have refused of course, but we had no moral right to do so as human beings.

You have flown all Mil helicopter types, which one would you say is your favourite?

My first experience with testing a helicopter was with the Mi-2. The Mi-24, Mi-26, and Mi-28 are dear to my heart. Especially the Mi-28, because not only were there numerous technical issues to resolve, I also had to defend its right to exist.

Would you say Mil helicopters have any particular distinguishing feature?

Yes. High reliability.

In 1978, you set the absolute world speed record for a helicopter: 368.4 km/h. How did you prepare for the flight?

At that time we were competing against the Americans who had set a world record of 350 km/h. When we realised that the Mi-24 helicopter could beat that record, a special training programme was developed. During this process we gained unique insights, which were later used in the development of a advanced medium helicopter which is being developed by designers at Russian Helicopters today and known as Russian Advanced Commercial Helicopter (RACHEL). Specialists from the aerodynamics department, flight test station experts and so on also contributed to setting speed records. For example, when flying Mi-24 at a speed of 320-340 km/h nobody paid attention to the fact that the engine power increases due to the dynamic pressure. We gathered some interesting information on vibration characteristics, about stability and control, strength and stress in the carrier system, blades, tail rotor and fuselage. At the Klimov plant in Leningrad we tested engines which confirmed that 3,300 hp was safe. The helicopter’s blades were polished and given a special coating. As much as possible was done to get the helicopter into the ideal condition. The helicopter was made as light as it could possibly be, all equipment not directly relevant to this flight was removed. For example, at a cruising speed of 250-270 km/hour the wing does the work, taking the load off the rotor. But since we were trying to increase speed, at that angle the wing hindered – rather than helped – creating resistance and a negative lift.

In total, we made ​​two flights, and during the first we got up to a speed of 375 km/h, but the control station failed to make the necessary recording. During the second flight all went well, the result was recorded, but the speed was slightly lower: 368.4 km/h. When we landed we wanted to make a third flight to achieve a faster speed, but we saw that the vibration lockings had been torn off, although during installation all nuts had been properly tightened. The lockings were torn off, the screws were unscrewed and were held in place by a thread. We decided that this was a good indicator that we shouldn’t play with fire. So we accepted the result we had already got and congratulated ourselves on the new absolute record.

What is the situation with flight personnel these days?

There is a problem, and it is one that exists at state level. There are not enough pilots for military, civilian and experimental aircraft. Today most test pilots are 50 to 60 years old. We’re approaching a time when pilots’ professional qualification will be different: they will not have this kind of experience. Consequently, we are developing new training programmes and improving aircrews. It is important to ensure inter-generational continuity and the transmission of this priceless and unique experience to young professionals.

What would you wish to a young professional who wants to dedicate his life to planes and helicopters?

To love their work and become a professional quickly. It makes me happy that there are young professionals at Russian Helicopters who are very smart guys. Alexey Klevantsev, an engineer in the processing and analysis section, is one example. He studied at the Moscow Aviation Institute, and wrote his diploma on reducing vibration and load on the Mi-38 under the supervision of Marat Tishchenko, former general designer at Mil. Alexey raised one of the most pressing issues, investigated it and proposed a solution. In fact, his recommendations will be incorporated into the Mi-38 and in future into the Mi-171A2. Of course, our main task today is to attract young people into the industry and teach beginners.  

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