Flying with a Student Pilot

Dealing with questions about the R44 Raven I vs. Raven II and weight and balance, and instruction from a non-pilot.

Note to Visitors from Helicopter Forums:

I’ve been blasted on Facebook by a number of “readers” who obviously didn’t read this entire post before sharing their inane comments on Facebook and elsewhere. If you can’t be bothered to read something, you have no right to comment about it.

And here’s a special tip for the folks who like to read between the lines and find fault in what they’ve “read”: if you read and comprehend the actual words instead of your angry and cynical interpretation, you might just learn something.

Just saying.

The other day, I flew with a client who has been taking helicopter flight lessons for about a year. We’ll call him Don. I’m not a CFI, so I can’t train him. He’s flown with at least one CFI in R22s and R44s and, more recently, with an experienced ENG pilot now flying an R44 Raven I for other work.

Observations and Instructions

Don was the first of my two passengers to arrive for the flight. He climbed into the seat beside me as I was shutting down. For the first time, he really seemed to study the R44’s simple panel. He began pointing out the differences in what he saw: no carb heat control or gauge, mixture in a different place, Hobbs meter in a different place, etc. I attempted to explain that it wasn’t just the absence of carb heat that made the R44 Raven II different. The performance charts were also different. But not having the Raven I charts handy, I couldn’t really explain.

When the second passenger arrived, Don passenger insisted on putting him in the seat behind me — despite the fact that I always put the two men on the left side of the aircraft. They each weigh in at under 200 pounds, so balance is not an issue. But Don had learned that the larger fuel tank is on the left side of the aircraft, thus making that side naturally heavier. Someone had apparently “taught” him that it was better to put a second passenger behind the pilot to better balance the aircraft. For the record, it didn’t really matter to me — I’ve flown my helicopter in all kinds of balance situations. I admit that I was amused when he tried to justify his decision on takeoff by observing that it seemed more balanced when I lifted into a hover. I honestly didn’t notice a difference.

During the flight, Don made quite a few observations about the wind and weather conditions. None of them really affected the flight, although the wind did kick up and storm clouds moved in a little later on. (I had been monitoring the weather on radar while we were on the ground and they were in meetings.) But what kind of bugged me is when Don began telling me how to land in the off-airport landing zones that I’d landed in before. He explained that that’s how he’d done it when he was with the Raven I pilot he’d been flying with recently.

While I listened to his input, I did it my way, which, in some cases, was the same as he advised. After all, I am the pilot in command and I don’t blindly follow the instruction of non-pilots.

What his nearly constant string of advice told me, however, was that he trusted the other pilot’s judgement and guidance more than mine, despite the fact that I’d been doing charter flights for his company for two years and had obviously gained the trust of his boss, who happened to be the other man on board.

I held my tongue — after all, this was a client — but I admit that it really got under my skin after a while. Not only had he overridden my usual loading setup, but he was telling me how to fly. I ended the mission hours later with a bad taste in my mouth from the experience.

Setting Him Straight

Since I had already promised to send him my R44 weight and balance spreadsheet that would clearly show him how it was next to impossible to load an R44 out of CG laterally, I figured I’d address all of his concerns with one instructional email. The following is drawn from that email with names changed, of course, to protect my clients’ privacy. I think it might be helpful for student pilots trying to understand how what they’re learning applies in the real world — and why not all pilots do things the same way.


I just wanted to follow up on our discussion regarding R44 Raven I and R44 Raven II performance, as well as weight and balance.

I’ve attached the performance charts for IGE and OGE hover ceiling for both models of R44 helicopter. As you can see, performance for the Raven II is far superior to that of a Raven II, especially out of ground effect. Frank Robinson designed the Raven II for better performance in high density altitudes, and that’s why I paid the extra $40K to buy one. In Arizona, I routinely operated at elevations above 5,000 feet and temperatures over 90°F. I recall one particular flight when I was able to take off from Grand Canyon Airport, elevation 6609, on a 86°F day at max gross weight. Another time, I was able to depart with 3 adults and some luggage on board — at an estimated weight of 2300 pounds — from Bryce Canyon Airport on a day when the AWOS reported density altitude over 10,000 feet. Both of those flights would have been impossible in a Raven I.

R44 I IGE Hover Chart R44 I OGE Hover
The hover ceiling charts for an R44 Raven I.

R44 II IGE Hover R44 II OGE Hover
The hover ceiling charts for an R44 Raven II.

Some of the kinds of flying I do for your company would be very difficult in a Raven I — particularly the confined space landings and departures with 2 or 3 passengers on board. As you know, a maximum performance takeoff makes a “ground run” impossible, putting the pilot on the left side of the power curve until clear of obstacles. On a day when carb ice is possible, additional power is robbed by carb heat in a Raven I. It would take a lot of pilot skill to avoid a low rotor horn (or worse) on a departure like that in a Raven I.

The Raven II also has an extra 100 pounds of payload. That’s what makes it possible for me to take you, Alex, and Walt together, since we often depart the airport at max gross weight for those flights.

So the difference between the two aircraft is considerable. While a Raven I is great for cherry drying, photo work (with one photographer on board), and other low-payload missions, I think the Raven II is more flexible and reliable for charter operations.

We also talked a little about weight and balance. I almost always put both of my passengers on the same side of the aircraft and I do so for a reason: so they both have the same view. I’ve witnessed the frustration of passengers on one side of the aircraft talking about something that they see that’s impossible for the person behind me to see. To avoid that frustration, I seat people together. This is especially helpful in hot loading situations where it’s impossible for me to keep an eye on both sides of the aircraft at once.

While it is true that the larger fuel tank is on the left side of the aircraft, making that side heavier, that additional 80 pounds of fuel weight does not make a significant difference when loading the aircraft. This can be confirmed with the W&B spreadsheet I created and use for my flights. You can play “what if” with it all day long and find that it’s extremely difficult to load an R44 out of CG laterally. I’ve attached the spreadsheet for your reference; I pre-entered the information for Wednesday’s flight with Walt sitting behind you. Putting him behind me simply shifted the weight to my side — in either case, the weight was about 1-inch off center. Now if you were both 230 pounds, things would have been different! Play with the spreadsheet and see for yourself.

Weight and Balance Example

I’m glad to see that you’re enthusiastically learning all you can about flying helicopters. It’s also great that you’ve had an opportunity to fly with so many pilots. You can learn from all of us, especially since we all have different backgrounds and experience. I hope you keep in mind the fact that I’ve put more than 1700 hours on my Raven II (and more than 1400 hours on other helicopters before it) and have a pretty good handle on how to load and operate it. I know how it will react in just about any circumstance. I hope you’ll continue to quiz me as you work toward your private pilot certificate. It’s my pleasure to help you learn!


What do you think? Did I get my point across without getting rude?

April 27, 2014 Update

Less than an hour after I sent the above email message to Don, I got an email back from him that was followed up by a phone call before I’d even read the email.

Don thanked me enthusiastically for sharing the information, including the spreadsheet. He told me that he’s flown with 6 different instructors in R22, R44 Raven I, and R44 Raven II helicopters over the past year. He’s so early into the training process that he hasn’t even practiced any autorotations yet. He confirmed from his own experience what he’s noticed about the power differences between R44 I and R44 II helicopters. He believes that working with so many instructors has been a good learning experience.

My point is, he took my message in the spirit in which it was intended: as a tool for learning. So I guess I did okay.

19 thoughts on “Flying with a Student Pilot

  1. Hi Maria, I think you were very diplomatic with Don. I would have been much more scathing!
    I regularly fly a Raven 2 and the power difference compared to the R 1 Is noticeable. I flew recently with an experienced pilot who did not get the principle of density altitude and complained that we were only making 100 kts IAS. When I pointed out that we were at a DA of 7000 ft, so our TAS was over 110 kts, he was mystified!
    Maybe flight schools can cover this aspect more deeply.
    BT W what do you think of the R66? John.

    • The power might be better, but a Raven I owner friend of mine could get about 5 knots more speed at max continuous power. I was very surprised. The manifold pressure limitations are different for a Raven I.

      Haven’t flown an R66. Would like to. Love the design and all that luggage space.

      As for flight schools, I wish more of them would offer advanced training that covers real-life scenarios. This particular student was too new for that, of course, but a commercial student could really benefit.

  2. I don’t think it was rude at all. Dealing with students can be tough because they’re learning all these new things and want to apply them. It can produce a kind of “know-it-all” situation without the experience to back it up.
    That being said, during my training, several times CFIs tried to give me misinformation because they were mistaken on some small issue, nobody’s perfect.
    In your example Don was right about the loading being more balanced with the rear passenger on the right. But you’re also right that the small loading difference doesn’t ultimately matter.
    I think you did a good job with your explanation.

    • You’re exactly right about the W&B situation. Don was correct but it really didn’t matter. That’s why let him have his way. But I’m hoping that by sharing my W&B worksheet with him he can experiment with the numbers and see for himself.

      I don’t think I was rude or that I put him down. Yet some folks in Facebook who read this apparently disagree. Or maybe they just read something else? Or, more likely, commented without reading it all.

  3. ugh. backseat pilots.

    … maybe he was just trying to show off his newfound skills to his pilot boss in the hopes of maybe getting paid to be a pilot or considered part of the gang?

    • I do think there was a certain amount of showing off, but I don’t think that was driving him. He came across more like someone who wanted to share his knowledge. But it was book knowledge, not practical knowledge. While the two sometimes intersect, they often don’t. The W&B issue is a good example. The books say he’s right, but in all practicality, it doesn’t matter. I have a good reason for sitting them on the same side of the aircraft, but do I really care where they sit? No.

      He’s not up for a corporate pilot job. Not for quite some time. The company has very wisely decided to leave the flying to professional pilots. They had a scare two years ago — right before they started flying with me — when the boss was piloting his Cessna and the engine failed. Fortunately, he was right near an airport and was able to land safely without damaging the plane. But since then, they use professional pilots for all transportation.

  4. I think you should tell him that the Raven II flies a lot better when all passengers keep their mouths shut- with no hot air flying around the cockpit, it cuts into your lift!

  5. I read your message to the guy and I had a question or two. Where does he stand in the employment/ customer chain for you? Is he writing the check to pay for your services, or is he the payload you were contracted to transport? He definitely took a strong interest in what you were doing and how you were operating the aircraft it seems, however what you present as him potentially pestering you during flight may be his way of sharing his budding skills and knowledge. I would imagine his shared interest in your profession was his way of trying to bond and maybe boost his own ego a bit. Maybe even searching for affirmation for what he learned from others, or seeking your input when he knows you are the one with the experience. I have yet to meet a junior pilot who really felt they had it all figured out, especially after they have finally learned to hover. Humility goes a very long way in every business, and if yours is based on customers service I would imagine it is a lesson you have learned well. Your email comes across as well written, if not a bit on the condescending side. I have a junior pilot I work with who is extremely intelligent and although his brash manner can sometimes be grating, he is a sponge for knowledge and appreciates me taking the time to share what I know and help him learn.

    • “Payload.” That’s a funny way to look at a passenger!

      You’re right — he WAS trying to share his skills and knowledge. And I think that on a shorter flight, it would have been a lot less bothersome. But we were in the air together for a total of 3.6 hours.

      There’s something else, though. I was put into an awkward situation. I wanted to make it into a learning experience, to explain why I did and didn’t follow his suggestions. But with his boss in the back seat, I didn’t want to seem as if I was putting him down. In other words, I didn’t want to embarrass him. So I just listened and kept my mouth shut and did what I thought was right.

      And yes, I think I was a bit condescending in the email. But I needed to remind him that he was a student and that I am a relatively seasoned professional. I take the “pilot in command” role very seriously.

  6. I updated the post to include comments I got from the student pilot in question. Apparently, I wasn’t as harsh as some of the folks on Facebook and in the helicopter forums believe.

  7. I think it inappropriate for unqualified pilots to make any sort of demands. You’re the PIC, you’re experienced. He hasn’t even done auto’s.
    Doesn’t matter if he was trying to bond or impress his boss.

    I suppose it must have been awkward for you. As you said, this wasn’t the first time to have flown with his boss. Has it been the first ever flight with you.

    In any situation, especially in aviation, you must query decisions made by the PIC if you feel theres something wrong with the decision, but this guy was way ahead of himself, tell him to go pass his Human Performance & Limitations first.

    I’m currently busy with my JAA PPL(H)

    • He’s flown with me before, but not since he’d done so much flying with other pilots, including one that’s new to the area. I think I was feeling my authority questioned and that might be why it pissed me off more than it should have. But don’t worry — I agree that the PIC is the ultimate decision-maker on any flight.

  8. Hi, Maria, A quick question if you don’t mind. You mention the Grand Canyon airport elevation as 6609′. Might you know the elevation of the former airport on the Kaibab Plateau near the North rim? In 1969 I came thisclose to seeing a Piper Comanche crash land. The car ahead of me did. I suspect it is higher than the South Rim airport. No one was injured, but the Piper was finished.

    • I don’t know of any airport near the North Rim inside the park. But I do know that the North Rim is roughly 1,000 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim.

  9. I read what you wrote and it all looks like a situation very well handled. Good good Maria. A very professional response to a kinda awkward situation.
    Those guys who were annoyed and commented on this on Facebook (Helicopter Pilots Group) are assholes. Their criticism lacked merit. Screw them.
    I’m a big fan of your blog. Take care.

    • Thanks, David. I know their type and I don’t let them bother me. It simply amazes me that people can exist in a “social” networking environment with such crappy attitudes.

What do you think?