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FAI World Helicopter Championship

We had the chance to meet some truly passionate helicopter pilots in Moscow, Russia. Yes, in Russia! There was also a big surprise waiting for us there!

Helicopter sports competition

We were amazed to discover that some helicopter pilots are participating in an actual International Helicopter Sports Competition! In order to learn more about these pilot-athletes, we met with the World Champion, Maxim Sotnikov from the Moscow region, in Russia. Maxim won many Open Championships all over Europe such as the German, Russian and Swiss Open. The Russian team dominates everywhere!

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What are helicopter sports?

The association includes 15 countries and counting: new ones are joining constantly. The competition consists of five main activities designed to test and sharpen pilot skills:

  • Navigation calls on all the skills and aircraft control (airmanship, navigation and communication).
  • Precision is tested by some of the most spectacular maneuvers in a low-flying course.
  • Fender involves accurate flying maneuvers.
  • In Slalom, communication is key! Fly with a bucket filled with water attached to a 5 m rope (16.4 ft) through a 185 m (607 ft) long course featuring 11 gates.
  • Freestyle is an independent competition that combines all of the above. You have a maximum of 4 minutes to show off your maneuvering skills, all to the music of your choice. Just like in figure skating!

Practice makes perfect. Like all helicopter events, you start with a perfect score and then receive penalties for every mistake. 


International Academy of Helicopter Sports

Arriving in Russia, we were greeted by our hosts, Maxim Sotnikov and his wife, Natalia. I could tell right away that “passionate” is too weak a word to describe them: helicopter is such a big part of their lifestyle, I’d say they’re downright helicopter maniacs!

We head over to their airport (UUEL) in Konakovo, Tverskaya, home of the International Academy of Helicopter Sports. The couple and a few close friends purchased this old airport and transformed it into a private club for helicopter sports training and became the World Helicopter Sports Academy. They even built their own control tower with an elevator: talk about dedication! Discussing with them, we got to put to good use the little bits of Russian we learned before taking the trip. For example, spaseeba means “thank you”.


The helicopter adventure begins

The very first morning, rise and shine, Maxim is already wearing his flight suit. After breakfast, we fly to the private helicopter club: it’s like being on a private golf course! Maxim lets me cruise and land his Bell 407 at our destination, where we’re greeted by over twenty pilots—men and women—who have come to refine their technique, skills … and enjoy the free food! Most weekends (if not all weekends), the club is home to friendly helicopter competitions. They also host the Russian Helicopter Championship, which acts as a qualification event for the World Helicopter Championship, to be held in a different country every three years.


Friendly helicopter competition

For the Navigation Challenge, a trainer determines the drill. Pilots are given the overall dimensions of a search zone, without knowing where exactly on the map their targets are. They have just five minutes to prepare navigation, in order to find 10 hidden targets! Whichever crew finds the most, wins! It was quite difficult. While I wanted to make my country proud, all the instructions were in Russian … not fair!

Next, we test flying accuracy maneuvers. It’s 3, 2, 1 … then GO! Light on the skids, the helicopter quickly takes off. The aircraft hovers at 30 feet (10 m), maneuvering a course where the copilot drops boeys on targets no larger than old American 50-cent coins! After completing the course, they rush back and land to stop the running timer. For this round, my partner joins me as copilot—after a shaky start, we do very well during this challenge.


Helicopter sports winners

Finally, the champions receive their hard-earned medals. After compiling everyone’s scorecards, they announce the winners … and we won GOLD! Our amazing performance allows us to win first place in the “Overseas Category”. We should probably mention that we were the only participants in this category… Still, we’ll always be able to brag that we won a gold medal in Russia. At the end of the day, we all take off and head back home in order to rest, review our performances and figure out how to do better next time.


Flying with a Russian copilot

During my stay, I also had the chance to take part in navigation, fender and slalom exercises at their airport. It was a blast! Because most of the navigation documentation was in Russian, I was paired with an experienced Russian copilot—a big help for translation, and for showing me how it’s done! 

I was also flattered when my copilot told me he thought I was the real helicopter maniac! He says after all, it’s not every day they see a helicopter pilot coming all the way from North America to learn about how Russian pilots have fun flying…

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