Some tips for helicopter pilots (and others).
One of the disadvantages of being on the controls of a helicopter is that you pretty much always have to have at least one hand on the controls. Most helicopters do not have autopilots and, in my experience, I’ve found that releasing the cyclic while in flight is a good way to begin undesired aerobatic maneuvers that are likely prohibited by the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH).
The more you fly a helicopter, the more accustomed you are to dealing with one-handed chores like dialing in radio frequencies, adjusting the altimeter, fiddling with the GPS, and even folding maps. But for new pilots and pilots flying to, from, or through busy airspace, navigating and dealing with other cockpit management chores can be a real challenge.
The key to dealing with this gracefully is preparation. Here are some of the things I’ve come up with.
Organize in Advance
I don’t think there’s any simpler or more important tip to share. By organizing your cockpit in advance, you’ll know exactly where everything is and be able to reach it when you need it. I’m talking mostly about things like checklists, charts, pens, flight plans, and notes. But this could also include navigational aids like a handheld GPS, performance charts, and water or snacks.
There’s nothing that bugs me more than when an aircraft mechanic or cleaner or some other pilot moves the things I keep in the pocket under my legs in my aircraft. That’s where I should find all the charts I use regularly, my preflight briefing card (for passenger briefings), my emergency checklist, and my startup/shutdown checklists with performance charts. These are things I sometimes need to reach for in flight — I want them exactly where I expect them to be — not under the seat or in the back or in the seat pocket of the front passenger seat.
By always having things like this in the same place, I can always find them where I expect them to be. This reduces workload in flight — I don’t have to hunt around to find them when I might also need to do something else.
Use an Airport Frequency Cheat Sheet
I’ve had one of these on board since I bought my first helicopter, an R22 Beta II, back in 2000. It’s a standard letter size sheet of paper with a four-column grid on it. The columns list Airport Names, Elevations, Tower/CTAF Frequencies, and ATIS/AWOS/ASOS Frequencies. Each row is for a different airport in the areas of Arizona where I fly. The type is purposely large, so I can read it from a distance. The entire sheet is laminated so it doesn’t get beat up.
In Robinson helicopters, the floor at the pilot’s seat is carpeted but covered with a sheet of clear plastic. I slip my cheat sheet under the plastic so it’s at my feet. When I fly, I can shift one or both feet aside to get a look at the sheet to find a frequency I need. This is a lot quicker and easier than consulting a chart or fiddling with a GPS to get the same information.
Of course, if you don’t want to go all out and create one of these for everyday use, you should consider creating one for the flight you’re going to take. It can be much smaller — perhaps index card size — so you can slip it in a pocket when not in use. My husband uses sticky notes that he affixes to the yoke of his airplane. Same idea. He doesn’t fly as often as I do or to as many places, so that meets his needs.
Configure Your Charts in Advance
By “configure,” I mean fold open to the area of the chart you’ll need to consult enroute. For most helicopter cross-country flights, you’ll likely use only a few panels of a single chart. But if you’re going on a long cross-country flight, you’ll likely need to fold open more than one chart — or fold the chart you need in a way that it’s easy to get to all panels you’re likely to need. Large paperclips or binder clips can come in handy to keep the chart open the way you need it.
A very smart pilot navigating through a new area will likely use a highlighter — pink and orange work best — to highlight his intended route. This makes it very easy to find the line you’re supposed to be on and keep track of landmarks you fly over as you go.
I’ve actually gone a step farther with this idea. I’ve created a “TripTik” (think AAA) by cutting old charts into pieces that I laminated and put on binder rings. I can clip this loose binder full of map segments to a platform I recently had mounted in my helicopter. As I fly, I can flip through the pages to see the segment I need. It was time consuming and tedious to create and it isn’t quite perfect yet, but it sure does make it easier to manage my charts. (You can see a video about it below.) And yes, I still do have all the up-to-date charts I need on board for every flight.
What’s that you say? You have a whiz-bang moving map GPS so you don’t need charts? Try telling that to an FAA inspector. And then think about what might happen if you didn’t have charts handy, weren’t paying much attention to where you might be, and that GPS dropped dead. That was the topic of an AOPA video I saw a long time ago and it’s stuck with me ever since. Situational awareness is vital to flight. Don’t depend on a GPS to tell you where you are. When flying in an unfamiliar area, always keep track of where you are on a chart.
One more thing about charts: make sure the one you’re carrying is the current one. Airport information and frequencies change. Having the wrong information about an airport you’re landing at or flying near can get you in trouble, as this story relates.
Punch in a Flight Plan
If you do have a GPS, make the most of it by punching in a flight plan before lifting off. This is extremely useful when doing a cross-country flight through relatively busy airspace.
For example, when I fly from Phoenix, AZ to Torrance, CA in the Los Angeles area, I fly through about two hours of wide open, empty desert, stop for fuel, and then spend another two hours threading my way though the busy airspace of Riverside and Orange Counties. This can get really intense, especially when LA’s famous smog has settled in the valleys and visibility is right around minimums. Although I mostly follow roads, I use waypoints along the way to make sure I don’t take the wrong exit (so to speak). Punching these waypoints — airports and GPS waypoints on the LA terminal area chart — into my GPS not only helps keep me on course, but it displays the upcoming waypoint and my distance from it so I can make intelligent radio calls when passing through.
While lots of pilots learn how to use the Go To feature of their GPS and stop there, learning how to enter a full flight plan is far more beneficial on a long flight. Suppose I decided to use Go To to move from one waypoint to the next. That means that as I’m passing through Fullerton’s airspace, I might be trying to punch in Long Beach’s waypoint. While keeping an eye out for other helicopter traffic in the busy 91/5 intersection area. And keeping to a restricted altitude. And dialing Long Beach’s frequency into standby. I don’t know about you, but that’s more of a workload than I want when visibility is 3-1/2 miles in smog. Using the flight plan feature to have all waypoints entered in advance significantly reduces the workload in flight.
Get a Capable Companion Involved
If you’re not flying solo, you may be able to shift some of the work to the person sitting beside you — but only if that person is willing and able to perform the tasks you need done promptly, with the minimal amount of instruction.
I’m lucky. My husband is a pilot, too. He knows how to tune in radio frequencies and use the Go To feature on my helicopter’s GPS. He can read a chart and pull off radio frequencies. He knows how to look for traffic. When we fly together, we share the workload. Since he’s got his helicopter rating, too, I usually put the duals in and he does most of the flying while I handle the cockpit chores.
Not everyone is as lucky. Some companions just can’t figure things out — even the simple things, like tuning in a radio. Entering busy airspace is not the time to teach them. Do it yourself — it’ll be quicker and safer. If you’ll be flying often with a person, give him some training when you’re just out cruising around so he’ll be ready to help you when you’re in busy airspace and can really use a hand.
And even if your companion is capable of doing things, he might not want to. As I mentioned, my husband is a pilot and can read a chart. But is he willing to monitor our progress on a chart in flight? No. He’s not a map person and simply doesn’t like using any kind of map unless he needs to.
I’m exactly the opposite. If I’m not flying, I’ve got that chart open on my knees and can tell you exactly where we are — well, to the nearest finger-width, anyway. I recently had an excursion passenger who was the same way. At the start of each leg of our trip, I’d configure a map for her and show her roughly where we were going. Although she had some trouble tracking our progress on the unfamiliar aeronautical chart format, she put in a good effort and did pretty darn well.
Of course, to punch in a flight plan and configure your charts, you must have a clear idea of where you’re going. That’s what flight planning is all about. Don’t just wing it (no pun intended) — plan it out completely so you know where you’re going and how you’ll get there.
I can’t stress how important this is for a long cross-country flight. You’ll need to examine the entire route on a current chart to make sure it doesn’t pass through hot MOAs or restricted areas. You’ll need to know where you can find fuel or lunch or maybe even a hotel along the way. You’ll need to learn about weather and NOTAMs and TFRs on your flight path. And you’ll need to get familiar with the layouts of the airports you’ll be landing at.
This is really part of flight planning the stuff you’re supposed to do before you crank up the engine — not cockpit management. But without a solid flight plan, you won’t be able to properly prepare as outlined above to make your cockpit management tasks easier.
Got Your Own Tips to Share?
If you’re an experienced pilot — helicopter or airplane — and have some other tips to share, please do. Use the Comments link for this post to get a discussion going.