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FMA FS8 CoPilot 2nd Generation Flight Stabilization and FailSafe Unit Helicopter Inst

Yariv Goldstein explores the installation and use of FMA FS8 flight stabilization system in a helicopter.

Splash

Introduction


Dimensions:
Co-Pilot Receiver:1.25w x 2.375l x .75h (.70oz)
Infrared Sensor:1.375w x 1.375l x .5h (.35oz)
Vertical Sensor:1.125w x .875l x .375h (.15oz)
LED Button Module:.875w x 1.375l x .875h (.20oz)
Ribbon Cables:(.55oz)
Specifications:
System purpose:flight control assist
On-board Components:8 channel receiver, vertical sensor, Z sensor(optional)
Additional components:PC software, PC interface
Remote activation/sensitivity:Available through Tx function
Model types supported:Aircraft, helicopter
CCPM support:Yes
Receiver:8 Channel PPM built-in
Battery:Feeds off the receiver battery/BEC
Safety features:DSR technology, preflight interference checker
Additional functionality:Flight data recorder
Manufacturer:FMA Direct
Available From:FMA Direct

Once in a while a great invention comes along. Take, for example, power steering. When we were kids, we used to laugh at drivers making an effort to park their non-powered steering car. We used to say they have “power steering” because it takes a lot of power to steer the car. Today, we wouldn’t dream of buying a car that doesn’t offer power steering.

The RC world has changed a lot in the past decade. We’ve witnessed the rise of electric powered planes, cars and helicopters, the introduction of computerized radio systems and digital servos, the invention and implementation of Piezo crystals, lipoly batteries and of course – the simulators. It seemed like we made a great leap from the day a 5th channel switch and retracts on a methanol powered balsa plane were considered state of the art.

Surprisingly, there were limited inventions in the automated piloting department. Until now.

Now me, I am a gadget guy. I like all the new electronic gizmos. So of course when I heard of the Co-pilot I thought “this could be the next great thing that happened to RC world”. As it turned out, I was more than right.

The product

The Co pilot is a flight stabilization system by definition. It was said to have the ability to bring a model to a straight and level flight when it got into trouble after the pilot simply released the sticks. This was offered when FMA introduced their generation 1 product back in 2002 (reviewed here by Patrick Plawner).

The company’s second generation product, introduced December 2003 in the U.S. market and mid summer 2004 in Europe was, first of all, a fully functional 8 channel receiver. It's big selling point was of course flight stabilization. But beyond that, the unit then offered a true fail-safe state where all functions could be pre-programmed to bring a model into a controlled descent. It also offered a signature match (called DSR – digital signature recognition) between the user’s TX and the FMA receiver which meant that another TX working on the same frequency could not control a model even if the radio was turned off. Another feature (which was optional) was the addition of an on-board flight recorder. Best of all, and what made this product really useful to the RC helicopter community, was the fact that this unit supported CCPM configurations.

Package and its contents

The Co-pilot box arrived packed in an over-sized pack filled with foam flakes. This eliminated all probability of accidental damage in transportation. Inside the outer box I found the product’s box. Within it were several nylon bags, the receiver wrapped in a bubble bag, the roll/pitch sensor in a bag with its cable, the Z sensor in a bag with its cable and another bag containing the CD with the software as well as the connecting cable to the computer.

Also present was the instruction manual, which proved to be invaluable, and the software guide. Now trust me – the guide was my friend. It was most likely to answer all of any buyer's questions. Read it. Cover to cover.

The guys and girls at FMA put in a small wallet size pre-flight manual. This was a great idea. I think this should have been laminated though, so it could really have been carried around in my wallet/pocket/field box and used at the field and still kept its form.

Installation

Installation of the co pilot was a breeze. As mentioned before, the more than elaborate instruction manual was a powerful tool. I simply followed the installation steps. I also found the double sided tape mounting of the roll/pitch sensor was surprisingly strong.

The z sensor required a trickier installation. I didn’t like the Velcro installation offered by the instruction manual because it felt too loose and I thought that could be a source for trouble later on. I could have been wrong, but I preferred to go the traditional way and used the double sided tape. This provided me a very strong vibration free installation.

The kit came supplied with the conventional command module. It was about 2" long and about 1/2" deep. It was most suitable for use in an aircraft where holes could have been drilled in the fuselage and room would not have been an issue. FMA also offered a flat helicopter version of the panel, but I hadn't ordered it and so I used the normal one. Not wanting to drill the frame of the logo I decided to make an installation plate out of some scrap CF plate I made a while back. I drilled 3 holes using a Dremel power tool and the provided sticker as a jig. I then put the button panel through the CF plate, placed the sticker on the outer side and the whole thing was held together with the washers and nuts provided. The CF plate was then CA’d to the fuselage in an accessible location near one of the cyclic servos. I found that to be a nice touch, having a built-in control panel for the co-pilot.

The FMA 8 is a full FM/PPM 8 channel positive/negative shift receiver. This was a great bonus because it saved around $80-$120 in receiver costs if there wasn't already a receiver for the model, or if buying a second receiver was becoming an option. The receiver accepted all transmitter mixing options, no fuss, no configuration needed. I just plugged in the servos as any receiver, inserted the right channel crystal (not included) and it was all set. Thanks FMA.

The sensors connected to the receiver using flat wires. There were three ports, designated for the right sensor/control module. All flat ribbon wires were supplied, and were long enough to allow for any installation location. Once I decided where to position the sensors, the rest of the wiring was neatly tied together using nylon ties.

Setup and calibration

Calibration was done in two steps and was straight forward and very well explained in the manual. This could also have been done using the FMA software and cable, but I chose to do it manually, as I would at the field (Oh yes, and also because I was experiencing some computer problems...). I explored this option later though, read through flight recording.

Step 1 – This was done the first time the system was hooked up to a model. It took about 5 minutes to complete and was divided into the failsafe setup and the stabilization setup. This could have been done at home so the pilot could take his or her time and do it right. First came the setting for the fail-safe. This again was clear and simple. I simply had to tell the co-pilot it was being programmed by pressing a button, move the corresponding stick to tell it which axis was being programmed and tell it where it should be in fail-safe by pointing the stick to that location. For a helicopter, this was very easy since pitch, roll and yaw were most likely to be programmed to neutral. Collective/motor was set to +1 degree pitch.

Second came the calibration of the pitch/roll sensor. This was done with the Z axis sensor disconnected. I simply let the Co-pilot know it was being programmed (again, a press of a button) and then told it where the ground was by placing a warm object such as a hand in front of a pair of sensors (ground is always warmer to IR than air, as explained in the FMA booklet) and applying the opposite stick motion to tell it to “avoid ground when you feel it”. This step was repeated twice, for roll and pitch. Once it was completed, a button was set to remotely turn on/off/sensitivity of the system. Brilliant.

Step 2 – This step was repeated every time at the flying field, before the first flight, and its role was to determine the IR thermal conditions for that particular day. This was an easy step, and required about a minute of time. I could have flown without that step, using the information achieved from past flying occasions but this was not recommended since IR conditions vary and so will the Co-pilots effect. (This was sort of like flying with a very experienced pilot suffering from Alzheimer’s disease… )

All I had to do was press the red "CAL" button for 2 seconds to enter calibration mode, then count the number of cycles the swash plate went through. The higher the number, the better the system differentiated sky from ground. Anything above 3 was good enough for flying (range 0-10). FMA recommended not to fly under 3 cycles because performance degrades sharply which meant the system would not be able to positively determine which is air and which is ground.

After this step was finished the swash plate continued to cycle slowly. This was when I needed to stand clear of the heli, at least 10 feet (to avoid body signature interference, I presume) and apply the stick in one of the cyclic directions. This terminated the calibration process. Messed up anywhere along the way? Just go through the steps again, it will waste one more minute of flight time but will make a great difference.

Leveling the System During Calibration Is Critical

A word of advice: the heli had to be (and I emphasize HAD TO BE) totally level with the horizon, when looked at from the side and from the front or rear side. Fail to do that, and the Co-pilot assumed it was level anyway, which translated into a drift in the opposite direction when the system kicked in. Find a level spot in a flying area, or use a small table. See the video for how easy recalibration is.

Downloads

Flying

So, this is what I had been waiting for. Well, let me just say,I wasn't disappointed. We woke up, Oded and I, on a bright, sunny winter day, packed our gear and left to the flying field 15 minutes drive north of Tel-Aviv. The gods of R/C were smiling at us that day for sure because we could not have hoped for better weather: around 22 degrees Celsius, wind next to zero knots, apart from some scattered clouds the sky was clear...perfect for our trial flights. We arrived at the field, calibrated the copilot, went through the pre-flight sequence and up we went.

Taking Off and Landing

Both Oded and I were just beginning our journey to the helicopter realm when I started this review, and I decided to let Oded fly because he is a better pilot than I am. I held the camera. We didn't really know what to expect so Oded took off with the Co-pilot sensitivity set to zero and started sliding the control slider up until the system kicked in. Control was perfect all the way. At very high settings the control felt a little more sluggish but when he found his sweet spot (around 60%) the system was truly a dream. We took turns at flying the heli and were impressed at how different it was from normal, unassisted flight on Oded's Logo.

How the system performed:

First came the left/right tilt - release test. As soon as the sticks were released, the heli leveled back to a steady hover. We did experience a slight drift, the result of a less than perfect leveling at calibration. We landed the heli and re-calibrated. (This time there was no need for the manual, we already knew the sequence).

Again we took off, this time Co-pilot engaged, and entered a steady hover. Veering to the left and right and release resulted in a perfect, drift-less hover. Good, we started to gain confidence. When we got used to the system, we tended to think that the heli would remain in one spot. It wont. Altitude control is left entirely up to the pilot so don't forget to use that left stick. Minor input over long "stickless" flight is necessary to hold position. Left alone the helicopter will eventually drift away, in a calm and mannerly fashion, depending on variables such as basic calibration, wind and system sensitivity level. The response time was just amazing. At higher settings the correction was amazingly fast. The system would not let the heli drift off of center for more than a fraction of a second. This would truly be a blessing when learning to hover. As abilities in flight are learned, it is possible to tune it down gradually to allow more play out of steady hovering position, we experimented a lot with it and found it satisfactory all along.

Downloads

Next came the figure 8 flying with a sudden release of sticks at different positions. The Co-pilot took over every time, and the heli recovered safely to a straight and level hover. NICE!!! Then we decided to try the "Look mom, no hands" test. With Oded at the sticks, we decided it was time to let those fingers rest for a while. It was hard to believe but this thing allowed an almost hands-off flight. Why almost? Again, it would not maintain altitude, and this took time to realize and get used to, but then became predictable. It also required an occasional input to either the cyclic or the yaw control to return to center. I guess more experienced pilots wouldn't mind having the heli drift from tail in position, while taking a picture or video for example (for me it was important to stay "incharge" of the tail in position at close range)

Downloads

Watching Oded fly effortlessly, I already had enough confidence to try the system myself. I took off, Co-pilot engaged. I immediately noticed that the heli was much more stable than always. I entered a two mistakes high hover and let go of the sticks. The heli was just sitting there, lazy, hovering, waiting for my input.

Failsafe

I have not gotten around to exploring this feature in practice but I have set it up and simulated it at home. When the radio was shut down, all cyclic servos (and as a result, being a CCPM model, the pitch) converge to the preset spot. Of course, the difference between this system and the failsafe on PCM units was that this unit first brought the heli to an upright and level position, only then operating failsafe. I am planning on checking this out in real life.

Flight recorder:

This extra feature brought the system to a whole new level. Not only could it have been used to help control the helicopter and be used as a failsafe system during flights, it could also have provided valuable information after the flight. Look at it like debriefing of the flight, just like in the air force. All that needed to be done was to connect the little "yellow-box" flight recorder into its socket on the FMA receiver, and I was good to go.

At home, I first installed the software using the provided CDROM and hooked up the serial cable to a free port on the computer end and to the Yellow-box flight recording unit on the helicopter. I launched the program once it was installed, named my model and started downloading flight information. What kind of information? All kinds of information. The helicopters position during flight was displayed in a graphic window (I could actually see what had happened in every second of the flight, with annotations of the angles), the position of each of the servos hooked up to the system throughout the flight, the sensitivity readings of the system, what sensors were reading at a certain moment and what the reading was.

I used a capture software to show you a small clip I ripped out of the demonstration FMA provided for the software.

Downloads

Conclusion

PROS

  • A complete system, including a receiver, sensors and PC software and interface. Combines both a stabilization system and a flight recording device into one product, which happens to also be a receiver.
  • Small and lightweight.
  • Easy setup.
  • Builds confidence.
  • Pays for itself once it saves you from your first crash.

CONS

  • Pricey, although considering what you get maybe not that pricey.
  • Creates a false sense of Auto-pilot.
  • Could cause the novice pilot to skip learning basics skills.

The FMA co-pilot claims to be able to control your heli in a way that would allow it to return the ship to straight and level flight when you let go of the sticks. No matter what we threw at it, be it a sharp turn or sudden tilt, the system would constantly and consistently pick up where we left off and save the day. As my skills as a heli pilot developed, I found the system useful in many ways, as well as a psychological safety net.

Don't mistake this system to be an auto pilot because it is not. It will not maintain altitude or heading, nor will it spontaneously pilot the heli into better performance. It will, however, enable a pilot to lower his or her levels of anxiety when learning, knowing that if you become confused, disoriented, or just want to take an easy breath once in a while, a magical hand will help stabilize the machine. You should always stay alert and keep an eye on your alltitude(in a way think of it as a right stick assistant, the left stick is still totaly up to you). As a more advanced pilot this would assure a smoother better hover, for example for aerial photography applications, mostly at higher altitudes where your heli is not as easily seen and corrections in position require better than 20/20 vision.

So, who would benefit from this system? Well, the way I see it, this system opens a whole new array of possibilities to heli pilots, both novice and experienced.

To the novice it brings mostly security which translates into a more relaxed and secure experience of learning. No matter how many simulator hours you have acquired, flying your >$500 model is quite different and noticeably scarier.

I have heard and read about people, some from new pilots but mostly vintage pilots, who claim that using a flight stabilization system interferes with the traditional way of learning to pilot a heli and could make pilots more dependent on technology than their own instincts. I even read somewhere that experienced pilots prefer not to fly around Copilot users because they say they are totally dependent on the systems and as such are not predictable in extreme situations.

I disagree completely with both of these notions. For those who claim that learning to fly does not require the help of a stabilization system I have only one word I would like to say: GYRO. We all use that, and it is, after all, a stabilization system that controls the yaw of the heli, so what is wrong with having a system to help us with cyclic as well? I can speak for myself when I say I could use all the help I can get and if it's in the form of a little gizmo which I trust to take over if/when I get into trouble, then I want it. As for the second notion I predict this system would become very popular in the near future so you better get used to having them around...

For the intermediate flyer, entering the world of 3D, I assume this could achieve pretty much the same result. Had your simulator hours practicing that new maneuver? Decided to try it outside your screen? Why not have a security net to literally stop you from falling? You will however need to lower the sensitivity to avoid fighting the system out of stability.

For the advanced or experienced pilot, this system could be very useful if you're into Aerial photography, leaving you with a free hand to manipulate your on-board camera remotely.

All users are sure to enjoy the extra functions available through the flight recorder module. It's a convenient way to configure the system, as well as a lot of fun to watch after a hard day at the field.

One more thing that might be of interest to the e-helicopter community is that the system did not seem to have any effect on flight times. I translate this into low current consumption but I am no electrical engineer.

VERDICT

I have had tremendous fun using this system. I think FMA has brought out yet another extraordinary device to make our life a little safer, happier and more sophisticated. I started this review with just some basic hovering and moved on to figure eights relatively fast. I am not saying I would not have gotten around to those figure eights without the system, but having it gave me the extra peace of mind I SO needed to push that stick forward. I highly recommend it.

Downloads

I would like to thank Oded Mazor Ido Lampert and Patrick Plawner for their help in the making of this review.

Interested in using the FS8 in an airplane? Be sure to visit Eric Anderson's article here on E Zone!

Discussion

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Old Apr 15, 2005, 04:32 AM
luc
I plant balsa sticks too
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great test, but llt's be honest on one point:
"This (Rx included) was a great bonus because it saved around $80-$120 in receiver costs if there wasn't already a receiver for the model"
Yeah but if it (The Rx included) had not been inside the package we could have saved the same amount in the unit. Usually, btw, people already have a RX, so it is a double purchase....I would definitely have preferred an option with or without Rx.

PS: I own a CPD4 (small brother of the FS8) and am very happy with it, on a fixed pitch heli.
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Old Apr 15, 2005, 01:31 PM
y_g
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Hi Luc,
I agree that a receiver-less option could have been nice money wise, but the receiver also acts as the electronic brain of the system. Take it out and you're left with just the sensor, and an extra control box would have to be added, adding weight and probably price. They decided to go with a receiver, to my understanding, to save space and weight as well as to up the value of this system.
This is one great receiver, it gives you manual control of the system as well as an 8 channel receiver. Since I actually was planning on buying a receiver, I found that to be a plus but I see what you mean and agree with it.

Yariv
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Old Apr 15, 2005, 02:26 PM
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NE OHIO
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I would agree with Yariv that the system with Rx built in is a nice feature. On the other hand, more choice for the customer is always good.

Just want to point out two things:

First, you can use the system without the vertical sensor. The field calibration is a little different though.

Secondly, when we talk about the heli being "level" we really mean that the main gear is level and not the boom or the skids. When a heli is at a steady hover, the main gear, which is perpendicular to the mainshaft, is level in the for-after axis. The mainshaft (and the main gear) is tilt slightly to the right to compensate the tail rotor's push.

The onboard flight data recorder which can record 90 min. of data is a great addition to the system. You can feed the data into the PC and see the voltage, current draw, power used and even the positions of the servos. If it also has telemetry, real-time, capability, like the Eagle Tree system, then it would be even more interesting.

Overall Yariv has done a very good job in reviewing the system. I've learned a few things reading it.

Thanks, Yariv.

Sebo
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Old Apr 16, 2005, 12:48 PM
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Very nice review, well done !
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Old Apr 16, 2005, 03:48 PM
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Great review!

Impeccable timing as well, I recently installed a CP8 on my Voyager-E heli but have been putting off the maiden because I was a bit unsure of the co-pilot as I had never used anything more than a gyro on the tail for stabilization. After reading the review and watching the videos, I will feel a lot more comfortable letting a little gizmo try to fly my heli.
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Old Apr 19, 2005, 07:48 PM
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Location of the sensor

The FMA Co-Pilot seems like a dream system, however fitting it on the tailboom looks really untidy with the odd looking sensor and the white ribbon cable and what if you have a scale body?

Will it work if the sensor is fitted in front under the canopy? Granted you will need to cut out windows so that the sensor can get the signal but that would be far better, also can it be fitted under the belly of the aircraft, a bit like the fitting in a fixed wing aircraft?
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Old Apr 20, 2005, 01:22 AM
luc
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look at my CPD4 on a scale body. Sensor must be able to "see" the horizon.
Yes, sensor can be put under the belly
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Old Mar 31, 2007, 12:59 AM
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they are well worth it! I have two
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Old Apr 07, 2007, 08:03 AM
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I had a problem with my new fma fs8 copilot and was wondering if anyone out there heard this one.
I got the telementry hook up so I could hook to my computer . I followed instruction exactly, hooked up flight battery to receiver and them plugged in the seriel adaptor to the tel. pin in receiver, noteing polority of plug. All of a sudden the wires in the plug started smoking............. Unplugged quickly. Did not hurt receiver or computer. All systems worked. Flew my heli and auto stablization worked. Ck.ed pin voltage and ok.
Man ,, what happened. The only thing I can see is the plug shorted out due to malfunctin of wireing in seriel plug??
Any help out there? I will contact fma monday..
Thanks, Sanford
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Old Apr 07, 2007, 09:32 AM
y_g
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I never experienced that. I would have the unit sent to FMA for inspection.

Cheers,

Yariv
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Old Jul 16, 2007, 03:52 PM
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I know this was posted a few months ago, but I just came across it because it was linked to from a new thread, here: http://www.rcgroups.com/forums/showthread.php?t=713394

Anyhoo, nice review, thanks for posting it. I do however disagree with how you dealt with concerns about people depending on a device like this. You compared the copilot to a tail control gyro, and implied that it's illogical for someone to have a problem with the copilot, but be OK with a HH gyro. I don't think this is a valid comparison. Here is why.

RC helicopters already have a gyro that stabilizes the pitch and roll axes. It's called the main rotor. Sure, it's not like a HH gyro, since it doesn't return the heli back to a particular orientation. However it does make the heli's behavior around the pitch and roll axes stable and predictable enough that the heli is easily controllable by a person with normal speed reflexes after some practice.

However a heli has no such builtin stability around the yaw axis, so without a gyro the pilot has to constantly be changing the amount anti-torque thrust produced as other control inputs are given. On real helicopters pilots do without a tail control gyro because they don't try to do the kinds of tricks that RC pilots do, such as fast backward flight or sudden extreme collective or cyclic pitch changes. However it would be nearly impossible for a normal human to respond quickly enough to do things like fast backward flight in a heli without a gyro, no matter how much practice they put in. So tail control gyros really just bring the kind of stability that already exists around the pitch and roll axes to the yaw axis.

So in summary, tail control gyros make certain kinds of flying possible that otherwise wouldn't be possible for most people due the the reaction speed that would be required. However the skill that a copilot device replaces is something that normal humans can learn to easily do just through practice for a few months. So it really does seem like more of a shame if people don't learn to control a heli due to depending on a device like this. It also seems like it could instill a false sense of confidence in people, causing them to think they're ready for forward flight before they've even learned to hover, because they "know" they can depend on the copilot if they get disoriented. I can completely understand why people wouldn't want to be around a newbie who was dependent on such a device; would you really want some newbie accidentally flying toward the spectators and then just depending on the copilot to save the situation? I'd rather them be aware that they're not ready for forward flight yet, and keep practicing hovering until they get it down, at which point they won't need the copilot any more.

I do think that using it for camera platforms, or as a failsafe device, makes perfect sense, assuming the pilot is capable of flying without the device. I also think it could be a fine learning tool, as long as users don't think of it as a replacement for learning to fly, and still make sure they learn to hover properly without the device before moving on to other things.
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Old Jul 17, 2007, 04:18 PM
y_g
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Ajenkins Hi,

I basically agree with most of what you're saying.

I think the Co-Pilot is a great learning aid. It won't replace practice and responsible flight but it will help your heli to be pushed away from the ground where they would otherwise meet in a very unpleasent way.

I think that flying a heli is far from child's play. You need to be a responsible enough person to know when you're ready for the next step.

If it takes some of the fear factor out of flying and encourages you to take it to the next level than it has performed it's role.

I know that people have succeded to fly helicopters before the Co-Pilot and still do. I do however think that it is a very nice supplement to a newbie's learning curve.

Cheers

Yariv
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Old Jul 17, 2007, 05:57 PM
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Agreed, I think a copilot, used responsibly, can partially play the role that an experienced flier on a buddy box can play, by taking over the controls whenever you start to get disoriented. Anything that saves you a few crashes while learning is good.

I would however feel very uncomfortable being around someone who was doing anything other than just hovering with a copilot, if they hadn't yet acquired enough control over the heli to hover it without the copilot. It's the idea of someone deciding to blast around the sky with their heli and then when it starts heading for people, they just throw up their hands and hope the copilot saves the day, that bothers me. I think that's what people have in mind when they say they don't want someone who's dependent on a copilot type device to fly around them. There's a limit to what kinds of trouble a device like that can get you out of.
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Old Jul 18, 2007, 04:07 PM
y_g
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I agree completely.
Depending on the FMA to replace your skills as a pilot is foolish, irresponsible and irrational.
My point was exactly as you described it. as an example I would like to use an Aviation GPS unit. When I fly in the US (and now in Israel as well) I like to have a GPS unit with me. It keeps my mind at ease, helps me keep my work load down and assures me while en-route. I ALWAYS HAVE A PLAIN PAPER MAP. I always study the route, plan ahead and try to be prepared for any trouble in a way that my GPS is just a backup and not a crucial AID, although most of the time I use it almost solely for navigation.
I hope this example explains my thoughts.
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