When I Became a Pilot

An essay from years ago.

Let me start with an introduction.

Thanks to the enthusiastic encouragement of a local writing group I joined a few months ago, I’m working on a book project about my flying experiences.

I’d started a book about flying back in 2010, intending to document my first 10 years as a pilot, but set it aside when life got busy with other things. Then, when my crazy divorce started, I forgot all about it. Rebooting my life in a new place and building a new home kept it on the far back burner of my mind. I recently discovered the manuscript on my computer’s hard disk and submitted one of the stories to the group. They seemed to love it and asked for more. With an overabundance of free time during the winter months, it seemed like a good idea to dive back in and possibly get it ready for publication by this spring.

I spent most of yesterday learning to use Scrivener, the writing tool of choice among so many of my writing friends. I moved the manuscript into Schrivener and organized the existing content into subchapters while expanding the outline. Then I continued the process of tracking down old blog posts to form the basis of stories that would make up the subchapters for the book.

I have a lot of blog posts about flying.

Although many of the early posts never made the transition from my original iBlog-based blog to the WordPress-based blog I started in January 2006, some of them did. Among them is a post called “The Big, White Tire,” which I wrote on November 6, 2003. (Yes, I’ve been blogging for more than 12 years now.) Near the beginning of that post, I wrote:

In my essay, “When I Became a Pilot” (which has since been lost in various Web site changes), I discuss the various flights I’ve made that have led up to me finally feeling as if I really am a pilot. One of these flights was my private pilot check ride. And in one of those paragraphs, I mention the big, white tire.

I got curious about the essay. Was it really lost? When had I written it? Was it possible that it was on my computer somewhere, hiding in plain sight?

So I did a computer search for “when I became a pilot” and found a Word document with the same name. It was the “missing” essay.

Here it is.

When I Became a Pilot

I became a helicopter pilot this past year, although I’m not sure exactly when.

It wasn’t the day I took my introductory flight. That 0.9 hours on the very first line of the very first page of my logbook isn’t even a clear memory to me. I know my instructor, Paul, and I left Chandler Municipal for the practice area at Memorial field, as we would do for most lessons over the course of my private pilot training. I assume he spoke to me about flying and I have a vague memory of handling the controls, although not all of them at once. I certainly wasn’t a pilot that day.

It wasn’t the day I first soloed, after months of squeezing hour-long training flights into my busy schedule. I remember that day clearly. After doing a few traffic patterns at Memorial, Paul told me to set down. He had a hand-held radio with him and he tuned it and the one in the helicopter to the frequency the flight school used.

“Now when you pick up,” he told me, “the front left skid will lift off first. You’ll have to compensate with forward and left cyclic. Do a few traffic patterns. Make all your radio calls. I’ll be listening and keeping an eye out for traffic.”

He lowered his head as he walked away from the helicopter and its spinning blades. Then he stood facing me, only thirty feet away. I could see his face clearly.

“Go ahead,” his voice came though the radio.

I pulled the collective up slowly. The helicopter became light on its skids. Then the left skid came up while the helicopter seemed to tip backwards. I panicked a little and jerked the collective up. The helicopter popped up ten feet. Paul’s eyes opened wide and his face displayed his concern. I’m sure mine did, too.

I did three or four patterns, landing near him on the cracked asphalt of the runway on each pass. Then he told me to set it down and he got back in. I could tell he was proud of me. (He told me later that the reason he remained a flight instructor so long was because he felt a real sense of achievement every time a student soloed for the first time.) But I still wasn’t a pilot.

It certainly wasn’t the day I did my first cross-country flight. Paul and I had planned the flight and I had circled all the waypoints I expected to see. The chart was folded and strapped to my leg with the flight plan clipped on top of it. It was a warm day in April and the doors were off. But the late afternoon thermals were brewing as we flew south to Eloy and they were particularly nasty as we flew over the Santan Mountains. That’s when I started feeling sick.

Studying a map on my lap while the helicopter bumped through rough air was too much for me. I found all the waypoints and we stayed on course, but about ten miles short of Gila Bend, our second stop, I’d had enough. I asked Paul to take over.

I didn’t get sick. Keeping my eyes on the horizon and off the damn map saved me. I was able to land at Gila Bend. Paul decided we should get out and walk around a bit, so we shut down on the ramp near a small building. Inside was a table, a few chairs, and a soda machine. We bought Cokes. A Mexican man was sitting at the table, patiently cutting the spines off young cactus pads that were neatly spread out in a flat cardboard box. Napolitos. We spoke briefly to him; he didn’t speak English very well.

A while later, we were back in the helicopter, starting up. The wind was howling. I felt Paul’s steadying grip on the controls as we took off. We had a tailwind, and according to the winds aloft information I had, it might be even stronger higher up. So instead of flying back at 500 AGL, we climbed to 2000 AGL. According to the helicopter’s GPS, we had a ground speed of 103 knots. The airspeed indicator read about 85. We were in a hurry to make up for lost time, so we let the wind help us out. I learned a lot about flying and the remote airports of Arizona that day. I also learned not to study a map strapped to my leg while I was flying in bumpy air. But I still wasn’t a pilot.

New Pilot Maria
I found this photo in my logbook case pocket. My flight instructor, Paul, snapped this right after I passed my first check ride in April 2000.

It wasn’t the day I took and passed my private pilot rotorcraft helicopter check ride, either. At that point, I was flying out of Scottsdale, which was a bit closer to home. Although more than a year had passed since my first lesson, Paul was still my instructor. I’d spent the whole week at Scottsdale, staying at a local hotel, flying during the day and studying at night. I think I did more autorotations that week than I did in all my months of training.

The oral part of the check ride went pretty well. The examiner was the flight school owner and he did a good job putting me at ease. Then we went out to fly. I don’t remember much, but I do remember thinking that I was flying pretty badly. I didn’t think I’d pass.

I think it was the tire that killed my meager confidence. It was a huge truck tire, painted white. It was out in the desert and one of these days I’m going to go find it. The examiner told me to hover up to it, facing it. Then he told me to hover around it, facing it the whole time. I did a terrible job, and I couldn’t even blame it on the wind.

I was feeling pretty bad by the time we went back, certain I’d failed. But I did make the absolute best approach and landing I’d ever made to the confined space we parked in at Scottsdale. Maybe that’s what saved me. Or maybe my performance wasn’t any better or worse than most student pilots on their check rides. I passed. When the examiner shook my hand, he told me I was a pilot.

But he was wrong. I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I knew I wasn’t a pilot the following month, when I took my first passenger for a ride. We’d rented the same helicopter for two hours. We drove the 70 miles to Scottsdale to pick it up and I did my preflight as I had so many times before. It was warm and the doors were off. I took off and headed back toward home. The plan was to fly over our town, then bring it back. We had just enough time and fuel to make the trip without rushing.

Although the air wasn’t any more turbulent than it had been on my check ride or when I flew with Paul, it seemed different. I was sharply tuned to the sound of the rotor blades, which changed based on their pitch and the pockets of air they sliced through. It seemed to me that there was an unusual amount of blade slap. My passenger, Mike, was also tuned to the sound and it made him nervous. He held onto the doorframe. He made me nervous. I made myself nervous.

It wasn’t a bad flight, but it wasn’t a good one, either. I wasn’t any more a pilot than I had been during my check ride.

I know I wasn’t a pilot when I started my commercial pilot training at a flight school in Prescott. My new instructor, Raj, didn’t baby me. When he realized that I was afraid to fly in heavy wind, he made me face my fear by having me spend twenty minutes on a very windy day, practicing hovering. I remember the lesson well; it was the first time I’d ever been told to make a hover turn using only one foot on one pedal.

My first helicopter, an R22 Beta II, in a friend’s driveway in Aguila, AZ not long after I got it.

I still wasn’t a pilot when I bought my helicopter, a 1999 Robinson R22 Beta II with only 168 hours on its Hobbs meter. I’d gone back to my first flight school and had a new instructor there, Masohiro. He flew with me around the Phoenix Sky Harbor surface airspace to show me how I could fly from Chandler to Wickenburg without talking to ATC. Then I was on my own, to fly Three-Niner-Lima home with Mike.

I don’t recall feeling nervous that day, although I’d logged less than ten hours since our first flight together from Scottsdale five months before. I don’t recall him seeming nervous either. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the significance of what I was doing: flying my own helicopter.

But I certainly didn’t feel like a pilot a few days later when I flew solo for the first time in over a year to bring Three-Niner-Lima back to Chandler. (I was leasing it to the flight school and I only got it on weekends.) As I took off from Wickenburg, I choose a poor departure route, over the hangars, and for a brief moment, I thought I wouldn’t clear them. (I haven’t done that since.) And I was nervous all the way down to Chandler.

I didn’t feel like a pilot the following month, when I checked out to rent a helicopter in St. Augustine, FL. I wanted to take my stepfather for a ride. The autorotation I did for the flight instructor who checked me out, Ziggy, was so bad, he asked for another one. It must have been okay, though, because they let me rent it. But I wasn’t a pilot yet.

I almost felt like a pilot the month after that, when I participated in a Young Eagles rally in Aguila, AZ. I followed all the rules and worked with a ground crew to give safe rides to five kids. I told them about the helicopter and answered their questions. I knew what I was talking about and what I was doing. And it was clear that everything there thought I was a pilot. But I still wasn’t sure.

I didn’t feel much like a pilot a month later, though, after making my first bad decision regarding weather. The weather forecast called for ceilings of 900 feet along my route from Wickenburg to Chandler and I figured that was enough, since I normally flew at 500 AGL. We took off to the south and soon discovered that the ceilings were lower than expected. They seemed too low along my preferred route, so I decided to take my backup route, which looked a little better. Soon, they were low there, too, and I was flying at 350 to 400 feet AGL, with wisps of cloud bottoms passing the cockpit bubble. The ceilings rose when I was halfway there, but then the rain started to fall. The temperature dropped to freezing and I began to wonder about icing on the blades. The visibility deteriorated to about three miles—still within minimums. But to a fair-weather flyer like me, it seemed as if I were flying in a fog.

I was just about to set it down in the desert and wait out the weather when I picked up Chander’s ATIS and was encouraged by the ten mile visibility it reported. I was five miles out and still couldn’t see the airport, but I followed the familiar route in. I was glad to be on the ground. And fortunately, my passenger—who was from the San Francisco Bay area and accustomed to such weather—never knew about my concerns.

Two months later, on my first long cross-country trip, I realized that I still wasn’t a pilot. I stretched my fuel supply almost to exhaustion with 2.9 hours of flight time. I must have been running on fumes when the fuel guy in Boulder City put 28.5 gallons into a pair of tanks that hold 29.7 gallons. Another few minutes of flight and the Low Fuel (or “Land Now”) light would have come on—possibly while still over Lake Mead.

But a week later, I certainly felt like a pilot. The comment in my log book for that 1.2 hour flight says simply “Yarnell Hill!” I’d followed the Hassayampa River north through the Weaver Mountains and into the valley beyond. Then I’d followed Waggoner Road to Route 89 and followed that to the town of Yarnell. At about 4,500 feet elevation, Yarnell is nestled near the edge of a cliff that the locals call Yarnell Hill. Beyond it, the earth falls away to the Sonoran desert floor near Congress, 1,500 feet below. Worried about the possibility of downdrafts, I’d approached the cliff edge at about 6,000 feet MSL. But the air was smooth. As I cleared the cliff, I lowered the collective almost to the floor and entered a sort of “powered autorotation.” Gliding down at the rate of 1500 feet per minute at about 80 knots airspeed, I got the most amazing rush. I pulled in the collective gently to level off at 3500 MSL feet over the dairy farm, close enough to smell the manure. Now that was flying!

A few off-airport landings for the $200 hamburger also made me feel not only like a pilot, but like a helicopter pilot. My favorite spot is Wild Horse West, about a mile east of Pleasant Valley Airport near Lake Pleasant. I line up with the old pavement of what used to be Route 74 (before it was moved to bypass the restaurant) and land near the entrance to the parking lot. Then I hover-taxi off the road into a clearing where Three-Niner-Lima will be out of the way. A helicopter near the parking lot turns a few heads, but I haven’t gotten a parking ticket yet.

Of course, a new flight instructor who was impossible to please didn’t make me feel much like a pilot at all. I reached new levels of frustration, not long after my departing instructor told me I was ready for my commercial check ride. The only thing that impressed the new guy was my GPS skills—a fact he noted boldly in my student folder. I decided to complete my training elsewhere.

I started feeling like a pilot again when my friends Mark and Gary gave me some formation flying lessons. It was June and I was scheduled to fly along with the world’s largest airworthy biplane (piloted by Mark) to AirVenture in Oshkosh the following month. Gary took off in his Cub and we took turns being lead and wing. It was tough flying slow enough for him to keep up with me when I was lead—and Mike complains that helicopters are slow! I wish I could have seen what we looked like from the ground. I bet it was a sight to see.

The Oshkosh trip fell through but I came up with another cross-country alternative: Colorado. I took a leisurely three-day solo flight, logging 7.0 hours of flight time to Eagle County Airport. Maybe it was that trip that made me a pilot. I learned a lot about flight planning, mountain flying, and weather. And I saw so much! Of course the ride home was tough, especially the 6.1 hours logged in one day, flying from Moab, UT to Wickenburg, AZ with my friend Janet. Heavy departures from high altitude airports, multiple fuel stops, and turbulence combined to make it a flying day I’d rather forget.

But a few months later, I was again doubting whether I was really a pilot.. I had to fly Three-Niner-Lima from Wickenburg to Long Beach, CA to finish my commercial training, and I didn’t think I could do it alone. A private pilot from the flight school took a commercial flight to Phoenix to make the trip to California with me. He wanted to build time; I wanted someone to guide me through the complex Los Angeles area airspace. But when he took the controls on the leg from our lunch stop in Chiraco Summit to our fuel stop at Banning, I knew I was more a pilot than he was. He couldn’t maintain airspeed and let our ground speed drop as low as 52 knots in a 20 knot headwind. Cars on I-10 were passing us! I took control again from Banning to El Monte and showed him how to push into the wind.

I finished my commercial training in just over a week and passed my commercial check ride. (So much for the opinions of difficult-to-please flight instructors in Chandler.) Was I a pilot then? Maybe. Or maybe I became one on the way home the next day. I had to navigate from El Monte to Wickenburg, alone with a late start, handling all radio communications. I had to request special VFR clearances to fly through two Class D airspaces. I had to decide whether to spend the night at Thermal, near Palm Springs or push onward to reach Blythe or Parker before nightfall. I made all the right decisions and had a good, safe flight. I even enjoyed the overnight stay at Thermal, where the FBO generously gave me a brand new car for transportation to and from the hotel.

Trailer Landing
This trailer landing was a piece of cake compared to the platform I regularly land my R44 on at home these days.

I must have been a pilot when I took my first two paying customers up for rides a few weeks later. Or when Mike and I flew to Falcon Field for dinner at Anzio’s and enjoyed the light of the full moon on the otherwise dark trip back to Wickenburg. Or when Mike’s cousin Ricky and I landed at Swansea, in the middle of nowhere, to explore the ghost town’s ruins without making the five hour round trip car ride. Or when I landed Three-Niner-Lima on the back of a 8×16 flatbed trailer so I could show it off in the Wickenburg Gold Rush Days parade. Or when I stayed on the controls with Mark so he could try out a few maneuvers in the only type of aircraft he’s not rated to fly.

Things felt right during all those flights. I felt confident and my passengers had confidence in me. I didn’t do anything foolish, anything I would scold myself for later on. I was still learning from every flight, but I felt that I had built a solid base of knowledge and skills to fly safely—and enjoy almost every minute of it.

But maybe it was the flight that gave me the idea to write this article. It was just the other morning. I’d gone to the airport at 6 AM and had Three-Niner-Lima out on the ramp and preflighted by 6:30. A few minutes later, we were airborne, just me and my ship, headed south.

The doors are off, the cool morning air rushes through the cockpit. The radio is strangely quiet; am I the only person aloft on that normally busy shared frequency? We pass over the top of Vulture Peak, then make a steep descent and continue south and then west, riding along Aguila Road toward Aguila. Trucks hauling rocks make lines of dust in the distance; soon I’m flying right over one of the trucks on the road. A manmade structure atop a mountain to the south of us catches my eye and we go to investigate. Just a radio tower, but down in the foothills, the ruins of a mining building. A good place to land nearby; I mark it on my GPS for investigation with Mike when the weather cools down. Weaving around the mountains, circling around, looking for anything interesting in the empty desert. There’s the mountain near where we found that saguaro skeleton several years ago. And there’s the old quarry we saw later that day. I mark a few other interesting points, then look ahead. Harquahala looms huge in front of me, rising 3,500 feet from the desert floor. I decide to climb, to see if any other early riser has made the 11-mile, 90-minute journey by four-wheel-drive vehicle to the top of the mountain.

I reduce speed to 60 knots and climb at 500 feet per minute. The ground falls away through my open door and the world spreads out as I gain altitude. It’s a clear, calm morning and I can easily see 50 miles or more in any direction. I notice a road along the ridge that I’d never noticed before. Then I begin to pick out the details at the top of the mountain: the antenna array, the solar panels, and the remains of the Smithsonian Solar Observatory. But the observatory is partially demolished and covered with scaffolding. I circle and check the windsock. There’s no wind. I land at the tiny helipad.

I’m the only human being on top of the mountain that morning as I get out to explore. The observatory is undergoing renovations. I sign the guest book, noting that I arrived by helicopter. Then I walk around, enjoying the silence of the mountaintop and the views all around me. For a while, I feel perfectly in tune with the world.

Time slips away and I have to leave to be back in time for an appointment at 9:00. I climb back into Three-Niner-Lima and start the engine. I bring it up into a hover, then move forward, toward the edge of the cliff. Once clear, I push down the collective and go into a steep glide, following the canyons around to the back of the mountain, where the dirt road winds down to the valley floor. I level off at three thousand feet, then make my way back to Wickenburg.

As I put Three-Niner-Lima back into the hangar, I know that I’m finally a pilot.

After reading this, I pulled out my original logbook and searched for the flight to Harquahala, the one that made me realize that I was a pilot. It was on May 29, 2002, about two years after I got my private pilot certificate. I logged 1.6 hours for that flight and, at that point, had less than 300 hours logged as a pilot in command.

I remember that flight as if it were just yesterday — flying around the desert, then climbing to the top of the tallest mountain in the area and setting my little R22 down on the tiny helipad up there. It was dead quiet that morning and I felt like I was the only person in the world. It was still cool that early in the day and I could see for miles. There was something magical about it.

Of course, there would be many, many magical flights to come.

Anyway, I thought I’d rescue this essay and put it on my blog where it belongs. Consider it a taste of the book to come.

Kind Words from a Client

Really made my day.

These days, I make most of my living doing cherry drying work in Washington State. It’s an extremely short season — I consider myself lucky to get 10-11 weeks of work — and 2015 will be my eighth season doing it.

Each year I’ve managed to build up my client base from the handful of clients originally contracted by the guy who brought me up from Arizona to help him in 2008. I now have a total of 10 clients managing 15 orchards. At the peak of the season, I hire three pilots to help me provide adequate coverage for all of it. This year, I might hire a fourth.

Each year, as cherry season approaches, I get more and more stressed. Will last year’s clients sign up with me again? Can I get more acreage to cover? Can I find enough reliable pilots to help me? Will a late-season frost wipe out half the crop, as it did in 2008?

Even when I have all the answers to those questions — usually yes, yes, yes, and no — and cherry season is under way, the stress doesn’t stop. I watch the weather incessantly — several apps on my phone with forecasts and a very good radar app to watch storms moving around the area. I stare at the sky and watch the clouds. I worry about my helicopter being fueled, preflighted, and ready to fly. I worry about the guys working for me and I worry about their helicopters. I worry about whether I trained the new pilots well enough and whether they’ll be able to find the orchards I showed them.

And when a weather event is possible, I worry even more. Which direction is the weather moving? How hard is it raining? Is it windy, too? Will it drench all of the orchards at once? Do my clients have people on hand to monitor the moisture and call me to fly? Will it stop raining early enough in the day to finish drying before it gets dark? Are my pilots really at the airport waiting to launch? Did the pilots get the GPS coordinates for the orchards so they can get there fast enough? Can that new pilot cover the acreage I assign to him effectively in a reasonable amount of time?

Then the rain happens and the phone starts ringing. I fire up my helicopter and launch, sometimes even as I’m dispatching the other pilots. I hover over the trees, at first trying to judge how wet they are after this particular event, trying to get my speed just right to dry them enough without wasting time. I do my job, stealing glances at the radar on my iPad so I know just which client will call next and when. I listen to the radio to hear from my pilots or other pilots in the area. I answer the phone and place calls, sometimes while still hovering within 10 feet of the tops of cherry trees.

Cherry Drying

And I’m always beating up on myself if I can’t get someone to an orchard as fast as I’d like. Last year, I felt that I’d failed one of my best clients. I even worried that I would lose his contract for this year. So this year, when I emailed him to ask if he wanted my services again this year, I pointed out where I could have done better and told him how I planned to handle it.

His response made my day (names changed to protect privacy):

ABC is very pleased with the opportunity to work with Flying M Air again for the 2015 season!

I’m sure that Joe can attest to this also, when the call is made to dry cherries you or a member of your team is on site drying within 15 minutes.

That’s a relationship that I want to continue!

All the stress and worry somehow seem worthwhile now. Our work is appreciated. I have another season full of clients to serve this year.

And the cherries are early. Can’t wait to taste some!

One Pilot’s Stupidity Makes Us All Look Bad

Helicopter pilots: choose your landing zones wisely, please.

As a helicopter pilot, one of the questions I get asked most often is: “Can you land anywhere?”

In most cases, the person asking the question is referring to the legality of landing anywhere — not the ability to land anywhere. Helicopters have the ability to land almost anywhere, but not every landing zone is legal. I address this in quite a bit of detail in a post titled “Finding a Legal Landing Zone” that I wrote back in 2009. The facts still apply.

Unfortunately, not everyone considers the legality — or even the safety — of a landing zone before setting down on it. This brief news piece linked to by Vertical Magazine’s Twitter account is a good example. The gist of the piece:

A Monticello man has been charged by Nassau County Police with landing a helicopter in a grassy area full of pedestrians near the Nassau Coliseum minutes before midnight on Saturday night.

Nassau Coliseum, in case you don’t know, is an indoor arena where the NY Islanders play hockey and concerts are held. I saw quite a few concerts there in my college days. And hockey games.

On the night in question, there were about 100 drunk kids, aged 14 to 18, wandering around the building when the idiot pilot — honestly, what else can I call him? — came in for a landing in his Bell 407. He had to abort one landing before succeeding on a second attempt. At least 20 pedestrians were walking in the area.

I don’t think I need to tell you how stupid this stunt was. Drunk kids in the landing zone? All it takes is for one of them to walk into the tail rotor to turn a fun night of teenage drinking (yes, I’m being sarcastic) into death and mental trauma. Even if the kids weren’t drunk — and the pilot may not have thought they were — they’re still pedestrians in a landing zone. You don’t have to be drunk to walk into a tail rotor, as evidenced here and here.

And it’s not just the tail rotor that’s dangerous. Although visibility around a helicopter is good, it isn’t 360°. The pilot could have struck a pedestrian on the way down — or even landed on one.

Sure — nothing happened in this case. But the cops came, arrested the pilot, and seized his helicopter. And I think he deserves everything he gets.

You see, irresponsible pilots who pull dangerous stunts like this make all helicopter pilots look bad. People connect his action to the group he’s a part of. Hence, all helicopter pilots are reckless individuals who would land among a crowd of drunk teenagers.

We know better. But does the public? Does the local government?

A few years back, the city of Scottsdale, AZ instituted a town ordinance prohibiting the landing of a helicopter anywhere except at an airport or approved helipad. Why? Because an idiot pilot decided it would be fun to land in a culdesac of his subdivision. Neighbors didn’t think it was such a good idea and complained. It went to the city council and they “fixed” the problem by making it illegal.

(Wickenburg has a similar ordinance, although a pilot can get permission, on a case-by-case basis, by talking to the police chief before landing. And the police chief can deny the request.)

My point: think before you land off-airport. Think about the consequences of your actions. Think about the safety of the people on the ground. Think about the potential for complaints.

And don’t be stupid.

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.

So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 3: Start Young

The younger you start, the farther you can go.

In the last part of this series, I discussed the financial aspects of learning to fly helicopters and getting the ratings you need to move forward. I’m thrilled to see that a few folks have added comments from their own experiences. With luck, others will do the same. The more real experiences that are shared, the more real information readers can pick up here.

In this post I’ll discuss another important topic: age. Ideally, you want to have all certificates in hand by the time you’re 30 years old. Even better would be 25. This means you need to start young.

Look at it this way: if you were going to college for career training, wouldn’t you want to have your degree so you could get to work in your chosen field before the age of 30? This would give you plenty of time to pay your dues (discussed in another post), get your foot in the door, and work your way up the career ladder to the kind of flying job you want.

How Young Can You Start?

I honestly don’t know the minimum age for starting helicopter flying lessons. I’ve seen airplane flight schools offering training for kids as young as 14 years. On the helicopter side, however, I noticed that some flight schools require students to be at least 18 years old. I think that’s a pretty good minimum age for getting on the controls of a helicopter.

Rotorcraft Flying HandbookBut that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re 18 to start learning. There’s plenty to learn before you begin taking actual flight lessons. A good place to start is with the FAA’s Rotorcraft Flying Handbook. This free 207-page book in PDF format is an excellent source of information about helicopter aerodynamics and maneuvers. In fact, it’s the book I turn to to brush up on topics like gyroscopic precession and coriolis effect for my annual Part 135 checkride. Start here — no matter how old you are — and get a head start on the basics before you even meet your first flight instructor.

Midlife Career Changes

I get lots of e-mail and comments from guys who are in their 40s or even 50s or 60s who claim that they’ve always wanted to be a helicopter pilot. Always? What I want to reply is: why didn’t you do it when you were younger?

Reality check: 40 is not a good age to start training to become a career pilot. I’m not saying it’s impossible — hell, I was 37 when I started learning to fly. (An airline pilot I knew at the time told me point blank that I was too old to start a career as a pilot.) But it won’t be easy to build your career.

Part of the problem is this: although you’d think that entry level employers would be more inclined to hire older, more mature pilots, they aren’t. They want young guys who will do anything they’re told. They don’t want people who can think and reason based on life experiences. They want cheap robot pilots who will stick around just long enough to fulfill a contract that ends with the tour season. I experienced this first-hand at the Grand Canyon, working with guys young enough to be my sons.

If you’re starting to get up there in years, give this some serious thought before diving in. Do you have many financial responsibilities? Are you prepared to give up your current salary and start at the bottom of a helicopter pilot’s pay scale?

I am fortunate in that my other job as a freelance writer makes it possible to work around my flying activities; I’ve been working two jobs since I began flying for hire. I could never survive in without a serious lifestyle change on what I currently earn as a pilot.

Maybe you’re in a similar situation and have an income that will continue. Or maybe your first career has left you with enough residual income that you don’t need to worry about future income. Or maybe you’ll just prove to be the exception.

If you do decide to go for it, don’t wait. The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

And here’s one more thing to keep in mind: you don’t have to make flying your career to be a pilot. A man I knew got his private helicopter rating on his 65th birthday. No, he wasn’t a career pilot. He just wanted to fly helicopters.

Next up, an important decision: choosing a flight school.

So You Want to be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 2: Save Up

The more you pay up front, the less you’ll pay in the future.

Education is expensive. Helicopter pilot training is very expensive.

The good news is, financing is often available for flight training. The bad news is, the rates can be high. And did I mention that the training is expensive?

The Cost

Let’s look at the real cost of obtaining your ratings. Remember, at a minimum, you’ll need to get your Private and then Commercial helicopter pilot rating. That’ll cost at least $40,000 that’s if you manage to do it with nearly the minimum number of required flight hours. A more accurate number might be closer to $50,000.

Now unless you have access to a helicopter that you can fly to build another 900 hours of pilot in command time, you’ll likely need to get an entry level helicopter pilot job. In the U.S., that’s a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) which requires yet another rating. If you want to make yourself more marketable in the future, you’ll likely go for your instrument rating (which will help if you plan on flying in the Gulf of Mexico or in a medevac job) and, if you’re going to do that, you might go for your CFII so you can provide instrument training for other pilots. Getting all that and building the time you need to get the CFI job will add another $10,000 to $20,000 to the cost of your training.

Don’t forget ground school, books and study guides, flight computer and related flight planning tools, test preparation, tests, and check flight costs.

So you’re looking at a total training cost of $50,000 to $80,000. That’s easily as much — if not more — than degree at a private college or university.

Speaking of which, you may want to get a degree while you learn to fly. Some flight schools are associated with major universities and can make that happen. The benefit is that when you finish your education, you’ll have more than just a pilot’s license. You’ll have a degree that can help you get your foot in the door for any aviation business job.

Financing: Do the Math

Many flight schools offer financing through deals they’ve made with local or nationwide financial institutions. One flight school I know not only offers financing to its own students, but extends financing to students at other flight schools. (Why would it do this? Do the math and the answer is easy.)

While it might seem like a no-brainer to you to sign up for financing, stop and think about the deal you’re being offered. What is the interest rate? What’s the payback period? When do payments start? This information is vital to calculate what the loan will cost you in the near and distant future.

One of the commenters on my popular blog post, “The Helicopter Job Market,” wrote:

Also, how is someone to payback an $80K loan at 19% on an entry level salary of 30K/year? That’s a freakin’ house payment each month without having a house! My “off-the-cuff” figuring say’s that equates to about $800 a month for 20-30 years!

His point was on target but his “off-the-cuff” calculations were way off. Using Excel, I calculated $1,271 per month over 30 years — if they give you that long to pay. (The monthly payment is even higher if the loan term is shorter.) That’s a total of $457K. Ouch!

(To be fair, that 19% number quoted by the commenter was evidently the going rate at the end of 2007. The rate is probably much lower now. At least I hope so.)

Do the math.

The simple truth is, financing your training will leave you in deep debt at a point when you’re least likely to be able to pay it off. While I’m not saying you should pay for the whole thing out-of-pocket — although if you can, do it! — you should try to minimize training debt as much as possible. The more you pay up front, the less you’ll pay in the future.

And do you really want to be saddled with a huge loan just when you’re starting out on a new career?

Pay as You Go

One way to minimize training debt is to do your training part time while working at another job. That’s what I did. It took a long time — 18 months to get my private certificate and another six months to get my commercial — but I didn’t have a penny of debt when I was done. (Of course, my other job generated a good cash flow, so I wouldn’t say my situation was typical.)

On a pay-as-you-go plan, you might give the flight school $2,000 on account and then fly and do ground school until it’s done. Then another $2,000 and so on. Obviously, the faster you train, the more money you’ll need to come up with. Perhaps you can work a deal with financing to pay part of the costs as you pay the rest.

Something I did early on was to join AOPA and get an AOPA MasterCard. Back in those days (late 1990s) the card gave cardholders 3% cash back on training and FBO expenses. I’d make my $2,000 account payment on my card and then pay the card balance when it was due to avoid interest charges. I’d then collect 3% of the training costs at the end of the month. While that doesn’t seem like much, it did add up. The card has since switched to a point system that also offers some cash back; I use it for all my flying expenses.

One drawback to the pay-as-you-go method — especially if it considerably slows down training: if you don’t fly often, you’ll need to fly more hours to get and keep the skills you need to pass a check ride. For a while, I only flew once or twice a week; I found in the beginning that I was “rusty” and needed at least half of a flight to relearn motor skills. I also took off an entire summer — you try practicing hovering autorotations in 115°F weather! Because of this, I probably required at least an extra 10-20 hours of dual flight time over the 18 months of my primary training just to be ready for my Private check flight.

The Military Option

If the military is an option, remember that the GI Bill (or whatever they’re calling it these days) will pay for all or part of career flight training. Do your homework to find out what’s involved and whether this can work for you.

If you’re already in the armed services, you might quality for pilot training. There’s nothing better than having your Uncle Sam foot the bill for flight training and pay you to build hours of experience. (Especially, of course, if your Uncle Sam is your mom’s rich brother who needs a pilot.)

If you’re not already in the armed services but you’re young enough to sign up, consider it. It’s not as crazy an idea as you might think. If you’re young, exposure to a disciplined lifestyle and trying circumstances can make you a better, stronger person. It can also help you mature quickly. And you’ll build relationships with other men and women from all over the country — relationships that’ll last a lifetime.

Remember that not all flight schools are eligible to receive GI benefits. Do your homework before you sign anything.

Ignore this at your Peril

Of all the advice I give you in these articles, this one is likely to be the most ignored. Why? Because in our society we want immediate gratification and don’t think twice about going into debt to get what we want.

Sure, you can ignore this advice and finance your entire flight training. Just remember, when you’re struggling as a CFI trying to build time at a flight school that hires all of its students as CFIs — more on that in a later post — that that loan is likely to be a heavy burden when you also need a roof over your head, food in your stomach, and gas in your car to get to work.

Next Up: Some age advice.

So You Want to be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 1: Read This First

Read up; this will tell you everything you need to know.

I’ve been blogging since 2003 and have been writing about my experiences as a helicopter pilot since the very start. A lot of what I’ve written covers the commercial side of flying helicopters — flying for hire. I’ve also written about the helicopter job market; that post, now about three years old, remains one of the most-read posts on this blog, with dozens of comments that help make it even more valuable for blog readers.

Along the way, I’ve been accused of “shooting people down,” “destroying people’s dreams,” etc., ad nauseam. That is not my purpose. I like to see people achieve their dreams, but I am a realist. I believe that people can achieve their dreams if they work hard and smart and do the right things to make it happen.

Captain MariaAfter all, I did it. I’m a woman (which, sadly, does matter in this particular field) from a middle-class family with absolutely no aviation background. I waited until I was in my late 30s to start flight training, doing it more as a hobby than a career change. I covered the cost of training to get my private and then commercial ratings. When I realized I was hooked, I set a goal of flying helicopters at the Grand Canyon. I achieved that goal in 2004, working as a seasonal pilot for one of the tour operators there. Now my goal is to get a job as an ENG or movie pilot. I’m working on that and believe I can achieve it.

But what are the right things to do if you want to build a career as a helicopter pilot? That’s what this multi-part post will attempt to address.

Who Needs to Read This

If you are a man or woman at least 16 years old with a serious desire to become a helicopter pilot, this post might be for you. Answer these questions honestly:

I want to become a helicopter pilot because:
(A) I love to fly and want to do it as much as I can.
(B) I think helicopters are cool and being a helicopter pilot would really impress my friends.
(C) I want a job earning $80K or more a year.

I’m sure I can fly a helicopter because:
(A) Well, I’m not really sure, but I think a good instructor can teach me.
(B) I can fly helicopters on my flight simulator.
(C) It looks pretty easy.

The most important thing to learn about flying helicopters is:
(A) It’s all important, from basic maneuvers to FAA regulations.
(B) Being able to do autorotations.
(C) Knowing how to fly like the pilots in the movies.

Helicopters are:
(A) Utility aircraft designed to perform missions that airplanes can’t.
(B) Like airplanes but without wings.
(C) Built for fun.

If you knew that the “right” answer to each of these question was A, there’s definitely hope for you. You might have the right attitude to be a helicopter pilot. And that’s important because, as I’ll discuss, attitude is vital to success.

If you honestly picked B or C for any of the answers, you need to think a bit harder about a career as a helicopter pilot. You likely have some misconceptions about what flying helicopters is all about. Why not stop by your local medevac base or helicopter charter company office and chat with some of the professional pilots there? Don’t chat with folks at a flight school — they’ll simply tell you anything you want to hear. Talk to the folks who are actually flying helicopters for a living. They’ll give you the facts and set you straight.

Who Doesn’t Need to Read This

This post is for people who want to build a career as a helicopter pilot. In other words, they want to fly helicopters for a living.

If you just want to learn to fly helicopters — as a hobby or just another skill — you don’t need this advice. Just go find a flight school and sign up. That’s what I did. I never intended to fly professionally. I just got hooked and then needed to be paid to fly in order to keep flying.

If you’re thinking about flying helicopters for a hobby, be aware that it is a very expensive hobby. It’ll cost about $10K to get your private helicopter pilot certificate. Flight time in the cheapest helicopter you can find will cost at least $180/hour and likely much more. Ownership is even more expensive — especially if you don’t fly more than 100 or so hours a year. Even home-built helicopters are costly to acquire and operate.

I’m not trying to talk you out of it — I’m just pointing out the facts. I know quite a few private helicopter pilots, most of whom own their own helicopters. They’re all rich guys. All of them. I am the poor kid on the block; I need paying passengers to fly.

And if you’re interested in helicopter ownership, be sure to read this.

The Advice

In the next part of this series, I’ll start providing my advice. While you might be tempted to skip one or more of the parts, don’t. Every single one will provide vital information you’ll need to succeed. Read them all; post your questions as comments on the appropriate post. I’d love to see a good discussion start — something that’ll really help you and others achieve your goals.

Oh, and by the way. I think the information you’ll find here applies to getting started in a career as any kind of pilot — even fixed wing.