Flight instruction is some of the most demanding flying a helicopter pilot can do. A CFI must allow extremely inexperienced people to manipulate the flight controls, typically in a light, highly responsive, and unforgiving Robinson R22 (the most popular helicopter for primary flight instruction). As such, the briefest bit of inattention can turn a helicopter into a pile of twisted metal. This reality has haunted anyone who has ever worked as a CFI. Yet, as an industry, we rely on the least experienced pilots to do the vast majority of primary flight instruction. It should be no surprise that flight instruction has the highest accident rate among commercial helicopter operations and many of these accidents happen while trying to teach hovering.
Most CFIs are good pilots, however the skill set required to effectively and safely teach primary flight instruction is different. One of these skills include being prepared to handle a student’s unexpected and incorrect control movement, especially while hovering. In September 2002, a CFI was giving a student an introductory hovering demo in a R22. The CFI stated, “The helicopter caught a wind gust and the passenger accidentally pushed the cyclic left. I was surprised and tried to grab the cyclic back. It was too late.” The aircraft caught the ground and rolled over.
However, more docile training helicopters can also challenge instructors. In March 2003, a CFI had his student practice hover taxiing before concluding the last of three flights in a Bell 47D–a model known for its docile flight characteristics and forgiving nature. The student had trouble that day maintaining rotor rpm during maneuvers, so while lifting off the CFI looked inside to check the rpm gauge. When the CFI looked back outside, the helicopter was nose high and rolling to the right. He tried unsuccessfully to recover. The main rotor blades struck the ground.
Instructors must know when to guard the controls and continually assess when the time is right to take over from the student. A student can benefit from correcting his own mistakes, but an instructor should be careful not to jeopardize the helicopter for that benefit. Yet accident reports from the NTSB consistently list delayed remedial action and inadequate supervision as probable causes in training accidents. Such reports offer a wealth of information, and their complete review would bode well for CFI applicants.