Helicopters 101: Ground School

An excerpt from my upcoming book about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot.

Articles in the Helicopters 101 series:
Flight Planning
Hover Charts
Ground School

At least five years ago, I began writing a memoir about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot. I put it aside for various reasons, picked it up, put it aside again, and have now picked it up again. At the rate I’m going, it could probably cover my first twenty years.

Since I’m trying to spend more time working on that book than writing blog posts, I figured I could excerpt some of the book’s text as blog posts. (That kind of makes sense since a lot of the book will come from existing blog posts.) This is an example from my chapter about ground school during my primary training in the late 1990s. I think it provides a good overview of what helicopter pilots learn in ground school. It also provides some very useful links for free learning resources.

A side note here…like any other blog post that will appear in my book, this one is likely to be removed from the blog once the book is published. When that time comes, the content of this post will be replaced with a link to buy the book. A girl’s gotta make a living, no?

My flight training days nearly always included up to two hours of ground school sandwiched between two blocks of flight time. Ground school is required to learn the multitude of things a pilot needs to know to be safe and legal in the eyes of the FAA⁠, such as:

  • Pilot requirements and responsibilities. What a pilot needs to legally fly in the United States and what her responsibilities are as pilot in command.
  • Helicopter aerodynamics. How helicopters fly. (Spoiler alert: they do not “beat the air into submission.”) This includes such concepts as lift, translating tendency, Coriolis effect, gyroscopic precession, translational lift, and more.
  • Helicopter components and flight controls. Helicopter rotor systems, power plant, transmission, cyclic, collective, throttle, and anti-torque pedals.
  • Basic, advanced, and emergency maneuvers and procedures. All of the procedures and skills a helicopter pilot needs to have to fly safely in normal and emergency conditions.
  • Airspace and air traffic control (ATC). The different types of airspace and a pilot’s responsibilities for operating in each of them, as well as the basics of communicating and complying with air traffic controllers.
  • Navigation. The basics of getting from Point A to Point B safely, without getting lost or wandering into restricted airspace. This includes all kinds of tools for navigation, from paper charts and plotters to radio navigation aids to GPS.
  • Weather. Any kind of weather that can affect flight—which is pretty much any kind of weather.
  • Aeronautical decision making (ADM) and pilot preparedness. Cockpit resource management and a pilot’s physical and mental condition to fly.
  • Aircraft specific information. The specific details about the aircraft the pilot will fly, such as mechanical components, performance, limitations, emergency procedures, and weight and balance.

This is only some of the information a pilot needs to know to pass written, oral, and practical tests and get a pilot certificate.

Just about all of this information can be found in four different government-published resources that are available online for free at the FAA’s website1:

  • Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs)2 are the actual laws governing flight in the United States. Written in a form of legalese, they can be frustratingly difficult to understand and often refer back and forth to each other to form a web of confusion. Occasionally, someone puts out a book purporting to translate FARs into plain English, but these don’t usually cover all topics and can contain outdated information when the FARs are updated—which can be several times a year.
  • Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM, formerly the Airman’s Information Manual) is a much easier to read and understand guide that covers most of what a pilot needs to know. Like the FARs, however, it’s geared toward airplane pilots, so there’s a lot of information a helicopter pilot doesn’t really need to know.
  • Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25B) is a textbook-like guide that covers all the basics of flying airplanes in an illustrated format that’s easy to read. Note that I said “airplanes” here—that’s because this book goes into a lot of detail about airplane aerodynamics, design, and controls, most of which helicopter pilots don’t need to know. But it also covers airspace, weather, airport operations, and other topics all pilots need to know.
  • Helicopter Flying HandbookHelicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A) is another textbook-like guide that covers all of the basics of flying helicopters. This is the book I recommend to anyone interested in helicopter flight. The illustrations and examples do an excellent job of teaching complex aerodynamic concepts specific to helicopters. This book does not, however, cover airspace, weather, or other non-helicopter specific topics that helicopter pilots still need to know.

Aircraft-specific information can be found in the pilot operating handbook (POH) that comes with and must be on board every aircraft. Those are often available online from the aircraft manufacturer.⁠3

1 There’s a wealth of information for pilots at www.faa.gov. You can also buy print versions of these resources from various publishers.
2 I should mention here that what most people refer to as the FARs is actually called the “Code of Federal Regulations Title 14 Aeronautics and Space” or just “CFR Title 14.”
3 If you’re interested in seeing the pilot operating handbook for the helicopter I learned to fly in, a Robinson R22, visit http://robinsonheli.com/r22_poh.html.

8 thoughts on “Helicopters 101: Ground School

  1. If anyone can write a clear instructional guide you can.
    But I think you need to clearly identify your target audience. Many of the topics you cite are advanced rather than ‘101’ procedures. Most people drop out of pilot training for PPL (A) and (H). Schools are going bust everywhere sinc 2008. A CPL on an R22 will cost at least £15k and returns from flying are not healthy here.
    Perhaps it is better out West?

  2. Oh, I’m not writing an instructional guide. I’m not qualified to do that. I am not a flight instructor. I’m writing a memoir of my flying experiences.

    The job market is just recovering now. A good pilot who follows the program and gets the hours he/she needs for a real pilot job CAN get ahead. But there’s a lot of competition and I don’t think everyone has the right stuff.

  3. Ah! Your memoir would be good too.
    (BTW, In my earlier post I garbled the numbers. Over here a CPL on R22 would cost over £60k ($75k ish)
    I’m glad your market is picking up, ours is still falling. Candidates for PPL (A) are now mostly in the 40-60 age range here. When I qualified, the weekend sky was full of C150, 172’s and small Pipers. Now the aircraft are still the same very ancient birds but they are rare sightings these days.
    Richard Collins, who runs a good site on your side of the pond says:
    “There was a time when if you said you were a pilot people would say ‘ I always wanted to do that’, now they say ‘why would you want to do that?'”
    He points out that learning to fly involves some degree of intelligence, coordination, courage and commitment. In the world of computer-game couch potatoes these qualities are becoming extinct.
    Perhaps the best way into commercial flying nowadays is via a rigorous military or commercial school (MPL) regime?

    • When I first started learning to fly in the late 1990s, an airline pilot (now ex-) friend of mine asked why I would waste money learning to fly helicopters since I was too old to ever get far enough in a career to make any money. (I was in my late 30s.) It has been a real pleasure to prove him wrong.

      But yes, I think you’re right: military training is the way to go.

  4. Yes, you have worked hard and made an unusual niche (a mixture of frost and rain contracts, with private hire and fun rides) successful.
    I have spent several wallet fulls of cash on flying and never earned a farthing. Would I do it again? You bet!

    I have loved (and still enjoy) every minute. My fist solo and first solo ‘three stop’ NAV exercise were special moments.
    Landing a floatplane on a tiny turquoise Canadian lake high in the Rockies was stunning, as was my first landing in a gyrocopter where the steep, power-off, approach seemed sheer madness.
    But you had the courage to ditch the ‘the day job’ and turn it into a revenue stream. Respect.
    Radio contact between aircraft and ground (and back) is often brief, formulaic and terse. But once in a while, when you really need help, the whole clan pulls together and provides a big warm embrace.
    Have you seen ‘Sully’?

    • Ditching my day job wasn’t by choice. My writing career was winding down just as my flying career was winding up. I was fortunate about the timing.

      At this point, it’s been about two months since I’ve flown the helicopter and I’m starting to go nuts. It looks like it will be done by the end of January, so I’ll have all of February to goof off like I did in the old days.

      I have not seen Sully yet and probably won’t. From what I’ve heard about it, the dramatization turned the NTSB into the bad guys and I don’t think that’s fair to anyone. I did, however, read his book – in fact, it was the first book I read on my iPad. I think I’d like to meet him one day just to thank him for not saying his success was by the grace of God or some other nonsense. He was well-trained and he reacted perfectly for the situation. They say any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, so in my mind he did a great job.

      • Then don’t bother with the film. It adds layers of spurious psychobabble.
        Most of the ‘whole truth’ is available on that 208 second ATC sequence on YouTube.
        That bit appears very late in the movie.
        Hanks is good but truth is braver than fiction.