Helicopters 101: Ground School

An excerpt from my upcoming book about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot.

Articles in the Helicopters 101 series:
Flight Planning
Hover Charts
Ground School

At least five years ago, I began writing a memoir about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot. I put it aside for various reasons, picked it up, put it aside again, and have now picked it up again. At the rate I’m going, it could probably cover my first twenty years.

Since I’m trying to spend more time working on that book than writing blog posts, I figured I could excerpt some of the book’s text as blog posts. (That kind of makes sense since a lot of the book will come from existing blog posts.) This is an example from my chapter about ground school during my primary training in the late 1990s. I think it provides a good overview of what helicopter pilots learn in ground school. It also provides some very useful links for free learning resources.

A side note here…like any other blog post that will appear in my book, this one is likely to be removed from the blog once the book is published. When that time comes, the content of this post will be replaced with a link to buy the book. A girl’s gotta make a living, no?

My flight training days nearly always included up to two hours of ground school sandwiched between two blocks of flight time. Ground school is required to learn the multitude of things a pilot needs to know to be safe and legal in the eyes of the FAA⁠, such as:

  • Pilot requirements and responsibilities. What a pilot needs to legally fly in the United States and what her responsibilities are as pilot in command.
  • Helicopter aerodynamics. How helicopters fly. (Spoiler alert: they do not “beat the air into submission.”) This includes such concepts as lift, translating tendency, Coriolis effect, gyroscopic precession, translational lift, and more.
  • Helicopter components and flight controls. Helicopter rotor systems, power plant, transmission, cyclic, collective, throttle, and anti-torque pedals.
  • Basic, advanced, and emergency maneuvers and procedures. All of the procedures and skills a helicopter pilot needs to have to fly safely in normal and emergency conditions.
  • Airspace and air traffic control (ATC). The different types of airspace and a pilot’s responsibilities for operating in each of them, as well as the basics of communicating and complying with air traffic controllers.
  • Navigation. The basics of getting from Point A to Point B safely, without getting lost or wandering into restricted airspace. This includes all kinds of tools for navigation, from paper charts and plotters to radio navigation aids to GPS.
  • Weather. Any kind of weather that can affect flight—which is pretty much any kind of weather.
  • Aeronautical decision making (ADM) and pilot preparedness. Cockpit resource management and a pilot’s physical and mental condition to fly.
  • Aircraft specific information. The specific details about the aircraft the pilot will fly, such as mechanical components, performance, limitations, emergency procedures, and weight and balance.

This is only some of the information a pilot needs to know to pass written, oral, and practical tests and get a pilot certificate.

Just about all of this information can be found in four different government-published resources that are available online for free at the FAA’s website1:

  • Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs)2 are the actual laws governing flight in the United States. Written in a form of legalese, they can be frustratingly difficult to understand and often refer back and forth to each other to form a web of confusion. Occasionally, someone puts out a book purporting to translate FARs into plain English, but these don’t usually cover all topics and can contain outdated information when the FARs are updated—which can be several times a year.
  • Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM, formerly the Airman’s Information Manual) is a much easier to read and understand guide that covers most of what a pilot needs to know. Like the FARs, however, it’s geared toward airplane pilots, so there’s a lot of information a helicopter pilot doesn’t really need to know.
  • Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25B) is a textbook-like guide that covers all the basics of flying airplanes in an illustrated format that’s easy to read. Note that I said “airplanes” here—that’s because this book goes into a lot of detail about airplane aerodynamics, design, and controls, most of which helicopter pilots don’t need to know. But it also covers airspace, weather, airport operations, and other topics all pilots need to know.
  • Helicopter Flying HandbookHelicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A) is another textbook-like guide that covers all of the basics of flying helicopters. This is the book I recommend to anyone interested in helicopter flight. The illustrations and examples do an excellent job of teaching complex aerodynamic concepts specific to helicopters. This book does not, however, cover airspace, weather, or other non-helicopter specific topics that helicopter pilots still need to know.

Aircraft-specific information can be found in the pilot operating handbook (POH) that comes with and must be on board every aircraft. Those are often available online from the aircraft manufacturer.⁠3

1 There’s a wealth of information for pilots at www.faa.gov. You can also buy print versions of these resources from various publishers.
2 I should mention here that what most people refer to as the FARs is actually called the “Code of Federal Regulations Title 14 Aeronautics and Space” or just “CFR Title 14.”
3 If you’re interested in seeing the pilot operating handbook for the helicopter I learned to fly in, a Robinson R22, visit http://robinsonheli.com/r22_poh.html.

Want to Learn How to Hover?


Sheesh. This is the kind of email I get:

Maria, I just recently found you when I was researching the R44.
I am a new helicopter student, roughly three hours, and hovering or the cyclic in general, is kicking my butt! I have a good grasp of the movements and how you push in the opposite direction and so on, but I tend to move it too much or over-compensate. Would you have any pearls of wisdom you could pass on about how you were able to lick this difficulty? Was there anything you practiced on at home or did you try visualization techniques? Anything would help.
Thanks a lot in advance.

Okay, so this guy thinks that any 3-hour student pilot should be able to hover. That’s there’s some magic trick I can teach him that will make him a whiz at this. Or that he can “visualize” something and it’ll just work.


The answer is easy: practice.

Seriously: practice makes perfect. Ever hear that one? It’s true.

Learn to Fly HereIt takes, on average, 5 to 10 hours for a student pilot to learn how to hover. To hover, you need a feel for the controls. You can’t get a feel for the controls without actually manipulating the controls. The more you manipulate the controls, the better you learn how they feel.

In other words, practice makes perfect.

This guy is new and naive and somehow thinks he’s dropping the ball on this. He’s not. He’s floundering the way every single one of us did.

I blame his CFI for not explaining to him that hovering isn’t easy. I’m wondering if his CFI is one of those cocky know-it-alls who is just doing time as a CFI, hating every minute of it and taking it out on his students. The kind of CFI who’ll likely die in an accident on his first or second job — if he isn’t lucky enough to get fired first — because his crappy attitude causes him to cut corners or let complacency take him by surprise. Or he attempts one too many “watch this” moments.

We all know the type. You can read about some of them in the NTSB reports.

In fact, hovering is probably the hardest thing a helicopter pilot learns to do — and we have to learn to do it first. You can’t fly a helicopter unless you know how to hover.

So my answer to him and any other new helicopter pilot who is struggling to learn this basic skill is simple: practice.

And one day soon, you’ll just be able to do it. It’s as simple as that.

A Suggestion for an In-Flight GPS Data Logger

Foreflight on an iPad is all you need.

The other day, I got an email from a blog visitor who’d apparently read my 2009 post titled “My Geotagging Workflow.” This post discusses the rather convoluted process I used to add GPS coordinates to photos using a GPS data logger and some software on my Mac. (That was six years ago; I have a different process now.)

But the email I got the other day wasn’t about photography. It was about in-flight GPS logging:

Hey. I came across your post on data loggers.

What have you found in your search. I am looking for a great option as well– but something that does alt. Speed. Position. Specifically downloadable in 3D in google earth through kml. I am looking for something that we can use for training stabalized approaches. Set it up to record during flight. And then download and make points or a line that showed speed and altitude. Showing later students speed and altitude errors that they might now have noticed during actuall approaches distracted by actual flight.

Have you came across anything like this?

My answer: Yeah. Foreflight.

Foreflight is my application of choice for flight planning and navigation. I run it on an iPad Air and have it mounted securely beside the instrument panel in my helicopter. Not only has the FAA approved my mounting of this device, but it has also approved Foreflight as an electronic flight bag (EFB). Indeed, it has been added to my Part 135 OpSpecs and it is not legal for me to conduct a Part 135 flight without it onboard.

I cannot say enough positive things about Foreflight. Not only does it do everything I need it to do — and more — for the VFR flights I’m limited to, but it has a wealth of features designed for IFR flights, including the instrument approaches the reader is referring to. With the right subscription, it can even place a marker for an aircraft in flight on an instrument procedure chart. Who could ask for more?

As far as GPS data logging is concerned, Foreflight has him covered, too. You can set up Foreflight to create a track log of any flight. Once saved, you can access it on the Foreflight website, where you can view it on a map and download it in KML, GPX, and CSV formats. That’s exactly what the reader is looking for.

Example Track Log on a Map
I remember this pleasure flight. I’d gone up the Columbia and Methow to check out the fire damage and then came straight back.

Frankly, I’m surprised that this CFI hadn’t thought of Foreflight. In this day and age, I’m surprised that any professional pilot doesn’t have Foreflight or a competing product on a tablet in the cockpit. For a relatively low investment — $500 or so for the tablet (which can be used for a host of other things and will last at least 5 years) plus $75/year for Foreflight Basic, it’s a must-have tool for any professional pilot who is serious about his career.

Do you fly? Are you using Foreflight or a competitor? Either way, how about sharing some of your experiences in the comments on this post? I’m sure other pilots can learn from them.