So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 6: Study Hard

Flying a helicopter is more than just knowing how to move the controls and perform maneuvers in flight.

As with any other skill you might acquire in life, learning to fly helicopters is made up of many components. The most obvious is getting the motor skills — including reflex reactions — to handle the actual mechanics of flying: working the controls, etc. But behind all that is the knowledge you need to acquire so you fully understand what to do, why you need to do it, and how it works.

Ground School

Ground school — time spend on the ground with a flight instructor learning the what, why, and how parts of flying — is an important part of flight training. Unfortunately, it’s not usually the fun part and, because of that, most pilots try to minimize it. Instead of learning as much as they can about ground school topics such as aerodynamics, aircraft systems, weather, and physical (or medical) issues, some pilots learn only as much as they need to know to pass the written and oral tests that come later.

This is not a good idea if you intend to build a career as a helicopter pilot. At some point in your career, the gaps in your knowledge will be noticed — perhaps by the chief flight instructor you hope will give you your first job or by the chief pilot who can put you in the seat of a turbine helicopter. Or maybe by the mechanic who asks you to perform and document power checks in flight and you clearly don’t understand what he’s talking about. Or maybe by the new pilot you’re asked to show around — the pilot who did study hard and realizes how clueless you are.

Ground school is where you can learn what you need to know, with an experienced flight instructor who’s there to answer your questions. Dig in and learn. Make sure you understand everything — if you’re hazy on something, ask questions. Discuss topics with other student pilots and flight instructors. When you fly, try to understand how ground school topics apply to flight. Take notes, review them, jot down things in the margins when you connect the dots between topics later in your studies or during flights.

Hitting the Books

There are many books and study materials that can help you understand and learn the topics you need to know.

I’ve already pushed the excellent FAA publication, Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, several times on this blog, but I can’t recommend it often enough. Where else are you going to find a free, generously illustrated guide that explains much of what you need to know about flying helicopters in terms anyone can understand? It’s an excellent starting point for your studies.

FAR on iPadAnother pair of must-have publications is the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) and Auronautics Information Manual (AIM) which are often published in the same volume. The FAR is updated throughout the year and most publishers publish new editions annually. You should get the most recent edition when you begin your training and try to update it at least every two years. Or do what I do: buy it in app format for an iPad (shown here) or iPhone. You can find them both on; once you buy them, updates are free (at least they have been so far for me).

Another handy book to have in your possession is a copy of the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) for the aircraft you’ll be flying during most of your flight training. Yes, I know there’s one in the helicopter — it’s required to be there — but unless you plan to sit in a helicopter to do you studying, it’s nice to have your own copy to jot down notes, etc. I learned to fly in an R22 and bought a copy of the POH the first time I attended the Robinson Factory Safety Course; I added all kinds of notes in the margins during that course.

Cyclic & CollectiveThere are other books about flying helicopters. Many of them have been written by experienced helicopter pilots. One of my favorites is Cyclic & Collective by Shawn Coyle. This is a huge book jam-packed with information that goes beyond the basics offered by the FAA.

It’s likely that your flight school will also recommend or require certain books to help you study. The Jeppesen books are a big hit — especially to your wallet. But, to be fair, they do have excellent illustrations to make important points clear.

But remember, buying a book isn’t enough. You have to crack it open and read it.

Going the Video Route

There are also training videos that you might find helpful to reinforce what you learn in ground school and on your own. I used the King School videos. Although the series is designed for airplane pilots, there was an extra video in the set that covered helicopter operations. In general, I found the videos painfully boring at times, but I admit they were informative. By the end, however, I wanted to grab John and Martha King and crack their heads together. This, of course, was more than 10 years ago; hopefully, the videos have been revised by then. There’s also a good chance you can some of this material on their website.

I think Sporty’s has a set of videos that compete with the King’s — so you might want to check that out as an alternative.

If you decide to buy the videos, I bet you can find them used on eBay or Craig’s List for less than regular price. You can always sell them when you’re done.

Make It Count

Your flight training will cost as much as — if not more than — a college education. You need to take it just as seriously.

If you fail to learn the concepts by studying hard and asking your flight instructor to explain things you’re struggling with, you’re not only throwing away the money you’re spending on your education, but you’re setting yourself up for failure in your career.

Make it count by putting real effort into it and studying hard.

Next up, I’ll explain why you shouldn’t hit the books with a bag of chips within reach.

So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 5: Check Your Attitude at the Door

Attitude is everything.

You think you’re a hot shot because you’re learning to fly helicopters? Check that attitude at the door. It won’t do you any good if you plan to make flying a career.

Attitude is everything when it comes to any career. A cocky, overconfident attitude will not help you in training and it certainly won’t help you get your entry level job — likely as a flight instructor — when your training is done.

Be open to what your instructor and other knowledgeable pilots have to say. If you don’t understand something, admit it and work with your instructor to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Show respect for your CFI, chief flight instructor, flight school employees, other students, and FAA examiners. Act mature. (This isn’t high school, grow up.) Be helpful and cooperative. Don’t be a whiner.

Beyond the Flight School Environment

Attitude also extends beyond training and into your jobs.

Just the other day, while flying in the high-traffic area around the Hoover Dam, I had the displeasure of conducting a useless radio exchange with a tour pilot. This little twerp probably had half the flight experience that I have, yet he talked down to me in a sarcastic manner that was obviously his [failed] attempt to prove how much smarter he was. The radio exchange wasted bandwidth and provided little useful information about what could have been a traffic conflict. It was clearly more important for him to try to intimidate me than to provide me with the information I needed to avoid his aircraft, such as position, altitude, and flight path.

Yet only moments later, another pilot operating nearby communicated exactly what he was planning to do and even offered to wait a minute or two until I was clear of the area.

Which one had the better attitude? Which one do you think other pilots would want to fly with? Or employers would want to hire?

Attitude Extends to Safety, Too

And it’s not just a positive attitude that will help you achieve your goals. It’s a safe attitude. If you don’t conduct yourself as a safe pilot, you will simply not move forward in your career.

Back in 2009, I had a run-in with a tour pilot in Sedona. He was upset that I’d parked my helicopter in the spot across from his at the airport. Apparently, he liked that spot kept free so he could fly through it on departure. To “show me a lesson” he departed nearly right over my passenger’s heads as we waited for him to leave the area. His action was foolish and dangerous. I reported him to the airport manager and the FAA. I later learned that this same pilot had demonstrated his bad attitude at the local FSDO within earshot of one of the inspectors. It was the pilot that was taught a lesson that day.

Accidents like the one at Grand Canyon West in 2001 are teaching employers the importance of their pilots flying safely. The accident pilot had a history, backed up with videotape, of performing aggressive maneuvers during tour flights.

One of the [past] passengers stated that there were particularly exciting episodes during the tour that were frightening to some of the others. As part of the tour, they flew over a site that was used in the commercial motion picture film Thelma and Louise, and the pilot pointed out the cliff. … During the return to LAS, the pilot asked if they wanted to know what it was like to drive a car off of a cliff. She stated that they all said “no” to this question; however, he proceeded to fly very fast toward the edge of the cliff and then dove the helicopter as it passed the edge. The passenger reported that it was “frightening and thrilling at the same time but it scared the others to death.”

On August 10, the pilot and six passengers were killed; the other passenger received serious burns on most of her body that have likely destroyed her life. The NTSB report’s probable cause was:

the pilot’s in-flight decision to maneuver the helicopter in a flight regime, and in a high density altitude environment, in which the aircraft’s performance capability was marginal, resulting in a high rate of descent from which recovery was not possible. Factors contributing to the accident were high density altitude and the pilot’s decision to maneuver the helicopter in proximity to precipitous terrain, which effectively limited any remedial options available.

Evidence shows that the pilot may have been attempting to perform the “Thelma and Louise” maneuver when the aircraft crashed. (You can read the details of this accident to learn more by downloading the full NTSB report as a PDF.)

You can bet that if there are any questions about your attitude regarding safety, you simply will not get hired as a pilot.

Start Now

Getting into the habit of having a good attitude should stick with you throughout your career — and your life. Start now, before you even begin your search for a flight school.

Next up, I’ll remind you why flight training is like any other school.

So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 4: Choose a Reputable Flight School

Get what you pay for.

The quality of your training will be determined by your flight school. And believe me, you want the best training you can get.

Some Basic Tips

Here’s a bunch of tips for choosing a flight school; sadly, most of them are “don’ts” because of the kinds of marketing tactics some schools use:

  • Don’t be lured by ads for cheap training with promises of jobs at 300 hours of flight time. These schools are not interested in turning out quality pilots. They’re interested in attracting as many wannabes as possible to fill out their bottom line.
  • Don’t get fooled by schools that make verbal promises about hiring all graduates as flight instructors. A verbal promise isn’t worth more than the paper it’s written on. Many flight schools will tell you anything you want to hear to get you to sign up. Besides, wouldn’t you rather get trained at a school that chooses the best CFIs as instructors than the one who takes any CFI as an instructor? And do you really think they can hire all of their graduates? What happens when graduates hired as CFIs outnumber students? How many hours of flying will you get then?
  • Don’t look at the biggest or smallest schools. Look at schools somewhere in the middle. These are the ones where you’ll have the benefit of several CFIs on staff while still getting some level of personal attention.
  • Check into the experience of the training staff. Find out how many hours of flight time the chief flight instructor and some of the other flight instructors have. Find out whether any of them have real-life flying experience. Flight schools that offer tour and charter services also offer opportunities for their CFIs to get the kind of experience they’ll use in future jobs.
  • Once you’ve got the flight schools narrowed down to one or two, talk to some of the students and flight instructors there. See what they think. Try to get the contact information for one or two graduates who have moved on to see whether they thought their training at the school helped them succeed.

Don’t be lazy and take shortcuts here. Your future starts with your training. Do your homework. You’ll be amazed by what you learn.


Learn to Fly Here SignThere are a lot of people who make a big deal over the kind of equipment used for flying. There are three basic helicopters used for training: Robinson R22, Schweitzer Schweizer 269/300 (which has a bunch of other names), and Enstrom F28F and 280FX. News flash: They’re all good.

The R22 is an extremely “squirrelly” helicopter. It really takes all of your attention to fly. Its two-bladed system makes it unsafe for aggressive or low-G maneuvers, but ground resonance is not an issue. Robinsons are widely respected and widely used in flight schools.

I can’t speak firsthand about the Schweitzer Schweizer since I’ve never flown one. I know that as a helicopter with a fully articulated rotor system, it’s capable of performing far more aggressive maneuvers than a Robinson. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. It is susceptible to ground resonance. I have heard that its glide slope in autorotation is steeper than an R22 but can’t back that up with facts and figures.

I have flown an Enstrom and, in all honesty, I wasn’t impressed. The excessive vibrations really turned me off, but that could have been caused by the blades being out of balance or some other maintenance issue on that particular aircraft. It also has a fully articulated rotor system, but I can’t recall hearing anything about one getting into ground resonance. I don’t know enough about its flight characteristics to pass judgement on it.

Most pilots favor the helicopter they trained on. That’s true with me. Not only did I learn in an R22, but I owned an R22 Beta II for four years and put at least 1,000 hours on it. But who knows? If I’d trained in a 300, I might have all kinds of love for it instead.

I’m hoping that folks reading this who have more knowledge about the other two aircraft will comment on their experiences. (Warning: I will not allow an equipment-bashing comment thread to form for this post. Present facts about what you know; not hearsay about what you don’t.)

I certainly don’t think you should pass up a flight school because of the brand of its equipment. The age, maintenance quality, and condition is far more important. You want a flight school with its own hangar and maintenance facility. You might even want to take a look at it to make sure it’s relatively neat and clean and the mechanics look like they know what they’re doing. A place with friendly mechanics who are willing to talk to you when you have a mechanical problem or question will certainly help you get more out of your flight training.

There’s one other thing to keep in mind. Some flight schools have one or two turbine helicopters on hand that they use for charter work or even training. When trying to get you to sign with them, they might hint or even promise that they’ll give you a certain number of hours of turbine flight time. Get any promises in writing. It is not uncommon for flight schools to give students the impression they’d get turbine transition training in a package deal and then, for some reason, not provide it. Either the aircraft was down for maintenance or there were too many other pilots queued up for time in it or there was an additional fee that was never discussed. If a turbine aircraft is dangled like a carrot in front of you, get all the facts about flying it before signing up.

Beware of Package Deals

And that brings up the topic of package deals. My advice is this: Do not sign with a school that forces you to enter into a contract for all training and pay them a bunch of money up front. (This was also pointed out by Damien in comments for Part 2 of this series, which discussed funding your flight training.) You do not want to be contractually tied to any flight school (at least not without a contractual way out that won’t cost you anything) and you certainly don’t want them getting money upfront (beyond reasonable prepayments) for services yet to be rendered.

If there’s anything the Silver State debacle taught us, it’s that flight schools aren’t always around forever. If they fold with your money, you’re out of luck.

Equally important is that if you decide after a few weeks or months of training that you don’t like the flight school and want to continue training elsewhere, you have the freedom to do so. And believe me; this happens more often than you think.

Networking Potential

Keith, who has far more experience flying far more equipment in far more places than me, pointed out in comments to my earlier post about age:

I know several aspiring pilots who I have counseled about the helicopter business but I hesitate to recommend a school to them. My usual advice on schools has been pick the best ranked school that provides the greatest possible chance to get that first job.

It is a little discouraging to me to have to tell an aspiring career pilot that all the good grades, excellent flight reviews and mind numbing study may come to not if they don’t make that first job happen for themselves. Perseverance helps but choosing the right place to train and the connections and recommendations that come from certain schools and/or instructors might make all the difference. It is still a small industry where more positions are gained through personal recommendations and associations than any quantity of paper credentials. Your reputation in this industry begins at day one and for good or bad will follow you your entire career.

This is excellent advice for career pilots. I know of at least once school — now defunct — that had a terrible reputation for training. It got so bad that many employers would simply not consider any pilot that had that flight school listed on a resume. That’s a difficult hurdle to jump when you’re just starting out.

But I think what Keith’s saying goes beyond just choosing a flight school. I think it also has to do with how you represent yourself throughout training and your first few jobs. That’s attitude and I’ll cover that next.

Pilot Flying Fears?

Education is the best way to deal with safety concerns — especially if you’re a pilot.

I recently took part in a forum discussion that revolved around safety issues. The person who started the discussion, a helicopter pilot training to be a CFI, was concerned about the possibility of flight schools emphasizing the fun part of flying without adequately addressing the dangers. It wasn’t a failure to teach emergency procedures that bothered him. It was the attitude of flight schools and CFIs. He worried that flight schools, in an attempt to keep enrollment high, were failing to make students understand just how dangerous flying helicopters can be.

While I’ll agree that flying helicopters is dangerous, I also agree that driving a car or or crossing the street is dangerous. In fact, you stand a far more likely chance of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle than in an aircraft. The pilot who started this discussion knows this, but he still wonders whether flight schools should be making student pilots more cognizant of the dangers, especially early on in training.

I understood his point of view, but I really don’t know firsthand how much his flight school is downplaying the dangers. The general feeling I came away from after reading his comments was that he had a fear of flying. (This turned out not to be the case.) While it’s always good for a pilot to be afraid of what could happen, there comes a point where the level of fear becomes unhealthy. Yes, it’s true that pilots need to be mentally prepared to react to an emergency within seconds. But no, we don’t need to spend every moment of every flight actively thinking about all the emergencies that could ruin our day — or end our life.

Experiences Teach

I flew with a 300-hour pilot a few years ago. He’d gone through training and was a CFI looking for a job. (I have flown with quite a few CFIs looking for jobs, but that’s another story.) We were on a cross-country, time-building flight in my R44. I would eventually fly a total of 20 hours with him.

Early on in our first flight, I learned that his CFI, who was the flight school’s Chief Flight Instructor, had been killed in a rather disturbing fiery crash. Although she had over 2,000 hours of flight time, she had only 24 hours in the helicopter make and model. On that fateful day, the NTSB concluded that the accident was caused by:

The pilot’s improper planning/decision in attempting a downwind takeoff under high density altitude conditions that resulted in a loss of control and impact with terrain. Contributing to the accident were the helicopter’s gross weight in excess of the maximum hover out of ground effect limit, a high density altitude, and the gusty tailwind.

(I don’t really want to discuss this accident here; I think deserves a discussion of its own elsewhere in this blog and hope to address it in the months to come.)

Near GormanIt soon became apparent to me that the pilot was unusually fearful of flying in the mountains. Our route required us to fly west from Wickenburg, AZ to the California coast near San Luis Obispo. He started fretting about the mountains ahead of us while we were still in the flat deserts of Southern California. The mountains he was worried about showed elevations of 5,000 to 8,000 feet on the chart; we’d be flying over a road that ran in a relatively straight and wide canyon. That part of the flight turned out to be uneventful and he seemed genuinely relieved when it was finished.

Monterey BayOddly, later in the flight, when the Monterey tower instructed us to cut across Monterey Bay at an altitude of only 700 feet, I was pretty freaked out. Here we were, in a single-engine helicopter flying far from gliding distance of land, without pop-out floats or personal floatation devices. My companion, on the other hand, was perfectly at ease. In fact, I think he thought me cowardly when I asked Monterey tower for clearance to fly closer to shore.

This is a great example of how experience teaches. My companion was a “sea level pilot,” who did all of his training — and flying — in the watery areas around Seattle. He was comfortable with water and low-lying lands, but he was fearful of the conditions that had taken the life of someone he knew very well. I was a desert pilot with most of my experience flying over dry land, much it in high density altitude situations, including more than 350 hours flying tours over the Grand Canyon at 7500 feet or higher. I was comfortable flying over most kinds of terrain at just about any altitude but very fearful of flying over water.

(Nowadays, I wear a PFD when doing any extended flying over water and require my passengers to do the same.)

Learn from Other People’s Mistakes

Back in the forum, I began wondering if the pilot who had started the thread was concerned because he’d lost someone close to him in a crash — much like my cross-country companion had. (That turned out not to be the case.) I said:

If a person thinks too much about the danger of ANYTHING, they won’t be comfortable doing it. I admit that I don’t concern myself with it. I do everything I can to fly safely and maintain a safe aircraft. I’m confident in my abilities and never push the envelope of comfort more than I absolutely need to. I don’t fly around thinking that at any moment, something bad could happen. If I did, I’d hate flying and I’d likely be a horrible pilot.

Later, in the same post, I said:

You might also consider reading NTSB reports for helicopter accidents. What you’ll find is that most accidents are caused by pilot errors. REALLY. Reading those reports will help you learn what mistakes others have made so you’ll avoid them in the future.

He saw these two comments as conflicting and replied that I couldn’t really say that I wasn’t concerned with danger if I was reading accident reports.

My response was:

You need to understand that it’s BECAUSE I read the NTSB reports that I’m NOT overly concerned with the dangers of flying. The NTSB reports educate me about what can happen when you do something dumb: fly too heavy for your type of operation, perform maneuvers beyond the capabilities of your aircraft, fly into clouds or wires, etc. Each time I read a report and understand the chain of events that caused the accident, I file that info into my head and know to avoid the same situation.

I went on to say a lot more about what I’ve learned from NTSB reports. I read them for helicopter accidents at least once a month. Another pilot in the forum said he does the same thing — in fact, he even has a browser bookmark that’ll pull up the reports by month! I cannot say enough about the usefulness of these accident reports for training and awareness.

Unanswered Questions Can Fuel Fear

As I look back now on the flights I took with that mountain-fearful CFI — with the forum discussion in mind — I’m wondering whether the flight school had properly debriefed its students after the loss of the Chief Flight Instructor.

What had the flight school told him and the other pilots? Had they told him what caused the crash? I know that back then, before the NTSB report was issued, the flight school was in denial about the aircraft being overweight for the operation. Had they told their students anything at all? Were my companion and the other pilots and student pilots at that flight school left to wonder how such a great, experienced pilot could have been involved in a crash in the mountains?

Were his unanswered questions fueling his fear?

Another thing I suggested in the forum is that flight schools might want to conduct monthly seminars that students are required to attend as part of ground school training. Get all the students and CFIs into a classroom or meeting room with a few knowledgable, experienced pilots at the front of the room. Pick 3 to 5 recent helicopter accidents for which the cause is known. Talk them out. Explain what went wrong and what could have prevented the accident. Don’t point fingers; present facts.

Why don’t flight schools do this? Could it be because of what this forum pilot originally said: flight schools don’t want to scare off students by discussing dangers? If so, they’re doing their students — and the rest of the aviation community — a serious disservice.

Education and Experience are the Answers

Nowadays, if you want a job as a pilot carrying passengers for hire, you’ll need at least 1,000 hours of experience as a pilot in command. (Yes, I know some companies will take less, but those are few and far between.) There’s a reason for this: they want pilots who have experience flying. Experience leads to skills, knowledge, and confidence.

Some people think 1,000 hours is an arbitrary number and frankly, I have to agree. My first 500 hours were very different from the average CFI’s first 500 hours — in some respects, my experiences are “better,” while in other respects, a CFI’s experiences are “better.” But I also can’t see any other easy way to gauge a job applicant’s level of experience.

But it isn’t just experience that makes a pilot a good pilot. It’s also knowledge and attitude. Both of these things could be the end product of a flight school’s training program.

Many flight schools seem satisfied getting students and putting them through a “program” with just enough skills and knowledge to pass a check ride. Many students, who don’t know any better, are more interested in the cheapest way to get their ratings than the quality of the training.

I believe that with better quality training and better quality experience, less hours of experience should be necessary to have and prove good piloting skills. I also believe that pilots with better quality training and experience will have a better, safer attitude toward their responsibilities as a pilot.

It’s not a matter of teaching new pilots to be fearful of what could happen by stressing the dangers of flying. It’s a matter of educating about dangers — and how to avoid them.

What do you think?

Three Charities You Can Help by Helping Yourself

It’s the time of year for giving, so give!

At the end of the year, many non-profit organizations make their year-end plea for funds. They know the same thing deduction-savvy taxpayers know: a donation before year-end can get you a write-off on April 15th.

In general, I prefer educational charities over other types. (For obvious reasons, I don’t give to religious charities, although I did donate to Non-Believers Giving Aid right after the disaster in Haiti.) I think it’s important to keep quality information flowing from the folks who can create it to the folks who can benefit from it. That’s why I suggest the following three charitable organizations if you’re interested in making year-end contributions to charities that directly benefit you and your family:

  • NPR LogoNPR (National Public Radio) had its semiannual pledge drive last week. I caught the tail end of it while driving to do errands, but never got around to picking up the phone. That’s a shame because they often have matching funds during fund drives, so my $50 donation can get my local NPR affiliate $100. Still, I’ll send my contribution by visiting the Support Public Radio page on its Web site. NPR, if you’re not aware, airs a wide variety of radio programming, from talk shows about current events and science to comedy and music. Even if you don’t listen in on the radio, you can subscribe to podcasts for most shows. And if you listen in more than one listening area — for example, I listen in Washington State during the summer months and Phoenix in the winter months — consider splitting your contribution between both of the radio stations you listen to.
  • PBS LogoPBS (Public Broadcasting Service) is similar to NPR in that it airs a lot of educational and thought-provoking content. From Sesame Street to NOVA, from FRONTLINE to Masterpiece, these are the folks who teach and entertain us with something more substantial than the latest incarnation of CSI and Dancing with the Stars. Although you can donate during a pledge drive and receive a “gift,” you don’t need to wait for a pledge drive to donate. (Seriously: do you really need another tote bag?)
  • Wikipedia LogoWikipedia is the online encyclopedia. Say what you will about its accuracy, but you can’t deny that it’s one of the best free sources around for general information about any subject at all. These days, you can’t visit a Wikipedia page without seeing “an urgent appeal” from Jimmy Wales. That’s because it costs a ton of money to run those Web servers. If you use Wikipedia — and who doesn’t? — why not send a little cash their way? Yes, it is tax-deductible in the U.S.

These are the ones on my list. If you think about it, you’ll probably come up with others that might be more meaningful to you and your family. These are organizations that enhance your life and help round out your knowledge. Don’t they deserve your support?

Take a moment and send a little cash their way. It doesn’t matter how much or how little — even $20 can help, especially when hundreds of people just like you send the same.

And remember the added bonus of a tax deduction in April.