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.

12 thoughts on “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 6: Study Hard

  1. I personally prefer the videos. John and Martha. are great and provide many attempts at humor. Accent on “attempts”. They incorporate many memory aids and learning shortcuts. True, they can become boring, but reading can too. Videos are generally easier to learn from for mild dyslexics like me.
    “Make it count” indeed. Sometimes you feel burnt out and that you’ve learned enough to pass the test on a certain topic. It often helps to move on to another subject and come back to the roadblocks later and try to learn more about it. Just don’t forget to come back. It’s not so important how you learn, but that you learn as much as you can. When I’m trying to learn something, I imagine myself trying to teach the subject. If I can’t teach it, then I don’t understand it sufficiently.

    • To be fair (and clearer than I probably was in the post), I found the King videos very helpful. They do try humor — I just think they have a different sense of humor than I have.

      Thanks for adding some more tips. It is indeed important not to cram too much in before it can all be absorbed.

  2. I really like your website, you cover the most important information that a student and any level pilot should know.
    I believe that most of us ( Pilots ) only knows enough to pass the test and when we need that knowledge we have to go back to the basic.
    There is out there two videos that I strongly recommend.
    1- Helicopter fundamentals. ASA( only $26 )
    2- Helicopter concepts / Autorotation in the R22 ( $48 worth it every penny ) This is really,really good!!

    Best Regards,


  3. Maria,

    Thoroughly enjoyed your “Heli Pilot” series. A comprehensive hands-on narrative from a personalized vantage “where the rubber meets the pavement.”
    Now, on to a different blog entry about your use of Portmanteau. Why are you defining the word in the context of the article? Maybe tech nomenclature or pilot jargon….. but less common english language? If a person is unfamiliar with a word, don’t be lazy….. look it up. That’s how they improve their vocabulary. One of my pet peeves.

    • Glad you’re enjoying this series.

      As for the post that included the word portmanteau — it was not in this series and has nothing to do with flying; it was about slacktisim by Facebook users. I don’t understand why you’re commenting on it here. I’d appreciate it if you’d post comments on the post the comment refers to. This prevents off-topic conversations. I’m sure the pilots reading this post could care less about my use of a word that they might not know as it related to a topic they might not care about. In addition, the folks reading the post you commented about here will never see your comment.

      I guess you can call off-topic commenting one of my pet peeves.

    • Alright Maria, I stand corrected on the off-topic reference.
      However, you should know this. I’m never sure which I enjoy reading more. Your blogs or your comments section.
      You always make me smile! I mean that sincerely.

    • Thanks! I think one of the reasons the comments here are readable is because of strict comment moderation: it keeps most of the jerks (and their inane or obnoxious comments) out.

  4. Maria

    You are an inspiration!
    I found your blog brilliant for a complete novice who has never flown but has been obsessed with Helicopters since a kid. Now no longer a kid at 45 am going to have my first lesson in the Summer in the UK
    Thank you for all the info and advice it has made me more determined to follow my dream, but more as a hobby than a career.
    Look forward to reading more of your blogs….you have really really inspired me!!!!
    Becks London UK

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