Helicopter instructors

October 7, 2011 by Tim McAdams

A certificated flight instructor (CFI) had his student were practicing 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 the CFI looked inside to check as the student started to apply collective. 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. No one was hurt.

Due to the highly responsive characteristics of helicopters, the briefest bit of inattention by a CFI can result in an accident. This has haunted anyone who has ever worked as a CFI. Yet, in defiance of logic, 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.

One problem is that many pilots instruct just to build the time needed to get a better job. Competency as a CFI requires more than that. To be effective, it requires an interest in and desire for instructing. A CFI applicant needs only a cursory knowledge of teaching theory to pass the FAA’s fundamentals-of-instructing written test. It is a far more complex matter to understand how the mind processes information and learns, but a thorough understanding of this is what separates a professional teacher from a time-builder.

Flight instruction is demanding. A CFI must allow extremely inexperienced people to manipulate the flight controls, typically in a light, highly responsive, and unforgiving Robinson R22, in which most primary flight instruction is done. Instructors must continually weigh when the time is right to take over the controls. A student can benefit from correcting his own mistakes, but allowing a student to go too far might make the helicopter unrecoverable. 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 can be a great learning tool for CFI applicants.

11 Responses to “Helicopter instructors”

  1. Dale Long Says:

    Well said.

  2. Avi Weiss Says:

    I don’t often have occasion to say this but:

    “Amen”.

    In fact, the thoughts expressed here are so resonant that I think it calls for a second “Amen”.

    It continues to amaze me how almost all non-instruction helicopter pilot positions, regardless of helicopter type or mission difficulty, typically requires a minimum of 700-1000 hours, ostensibly due to “insurance requirements”. Yet, these same operations and insurance companies have no qualms about turning loose a zero-hour pilot with a sub-200 hour pilot in an under-powered, unforgiving aircraft on some of the most demanding and smallest-margin-of-error flying next to high-altitude heavy-lift long-line over wooded areas.

    When I took my first student up soon after completing my CFI rating, I wondered how I was going to safely teach auto-rotations when I was barely comfortable doing them myself, let alone correcting for the mistakes of another lesser-experienced pilot attempting them for the first time. I recall thinking “This is absolutely nuts…a sure-fire way to kill two pilots with one stone”. Thankfully I avoided killing my student, and came to believe that being a low-time CFI was essentially a rite-of-passage seemingly designed to function as a Darwinian filter designed extract “real” helicopter pilots from the merely “lucky”. Silly of course, but yet the practice, and to some extent, belief, continues.

    As a CFI who teaches solely “for love of the game”, it troubles me to watch unmotivated, newly-minted “instructors” taking students up in R22s to go do confined pinnacles on hot July days, or demonstrate low-altitude “zero-airspeed” autos just to avoid “getting bored”. In a perfect world, instructing would be something done LATER in ones career after sufficient knowledge, experience, and insight had been developed over years of different operations. Sadly, that has a very low probability of happening, and new students will likely continue to be instructed by those who are barely finished being students themselves.

  3. Jane P Says:

    I recently finished reading “ChickenHawk” by Robert Mason and, not being out of the military myself, it struck me that he flew thousands of hours in combat operations before he was selected to become an instructor pilot. That was the advancement and reward for a job successfully done.

    I agree with Avi Weiss, it’s as if we are waiting to see who lives (in a literal and regulatory fashion) through that first 1000 hours before they get to move on to other work in the industry. Rather than having them placed in the care and keeping of a company flight department with advanced IPs to learn the real job of flying.

    But, what can we do… since we’ve decided to allow the insurance companies to run our industry for us.

  4. Jim Borger Says:

    Most Army instructors from Bob Mason’s time had less than 1,500 hours total flying time, which included 210 hours as a student and whatever they logged in Viet Nam. Very few, relatively speaking, had thousands of hours of combat operations, and then only after 2 or 3 tours. Being assigned as an instructor was neither an advancement nor a reward. There was a huge demand for instructors at that time so that’s what we did. There weren’t enough of us so the Army also used civilian instructors. I started instrument training at 110 hours and my civilian instructor for that phase had 85 hours in helicopters.

    Insurance companies feel that paying passengers deserve a higher level of experience in their pilot than a student learning to fly. You will learn a lot more from instructing than if you started a job at 200 hours. I know that’s of little consolation when you are working for starvation wages but that’s the process.

  5. Guidance Aviation Says:

    Tim,
    I have tried to contact you. Could you please contact us via email provided, we have a question for you! Thanks!
    Guidance Helicopters

  6. Homer Bell Says:

    I agree. Two seconds of inattention can lead to a lot of damage. I built my first helicopter, a RotorWay Scorpion Too, in the early 70′s and taught myself to fly it. I did that by reading and following verbal instruction from other helicopter pilots. Some of that verbal instruction was good, some was bad. Some lead me to believe the helicopter could do things I now know are very dangerous, such as vertical descents into a confined area. While the Scorpion had two seats, it didn’t have enough power to carry me and an instructor. I now have over 1000 hrs. of helicopter time and have flown several hundred different new homebuilt RotorWays. I’m not an instructor, but, I’ve taught many RW owners to do autos and took them thru the first couple hrs. of hover training. I’ve seen several owners take instruction from low time instructors who were not prepared to be doing what they were doing. I’m not sure how to fix that problem. Common sense regulation, not necessarly more regulation is needed. Just as our school systems have shown, just because a teacher holds a PHD, don’t mean they’re a good teacher. Look at how the system has failed to teach them economics, and that goes for some of the top leaders in thois country.
    For those that think I got my hrs. flying around the airport in a homebuilt, I hold the record for a coast to coast flight in my RW EXEC N217HB,back in the late 80′s, Chesapeake Bay to LA.

  7. Ed Friedman Says:

    Having also done some flight training in Canada, I agree the system here is probably backwards. It’s my understanding in Canada the CAA requires you have a good bit of flight time and experience BEFORE certified as an instructor. This does not necessarily make for lower time requirements to obtain commercial pilot positions there but it does make for more capable and safer instructors. How you build the needed time for any position is still a bit problematic. Maybe you come here to teach and then return north? This all said, there are instructors here with lots of experience and in my opinion it is well worth seeking them out.

  8. Greg Bamford Says:

    I think that building time in a helicopter as a CFI is very difficult. Low time pilots that are transitioning from fixed wing or just starting in the helicopter world face many challenges. There is no need to compound that by trying to teach another aspiring helicopter pilot the basics of the rotary wingflight. I instructed in the Bell 206 for three years and 1700 hours as a Navy Flight Instructor. I had 1100 hours in type as a CH-46 pilot before I was assigned to Flight School. The Navy policy is that a new IP must have a minimum of 250 hours instructing in instrument and navigation before an IP is able to transition to the Contact B Instructor stage, which is the stage where we teach the young aviators the basics of being a helicopter pilot (hovers, auto-rotations and engine out prior to them soloing). Even with almost 1500 hours of flight time before transitioning to the Contact Stage, I found basic instruction in a helicopter very challenging. I think it is a good idea for a new helicopter CFI/II to spend time just doing some instrument instruction prior to taking on a brand new pilot.

  9. Dale (Bob) Nesselroade Says:

    I made it through the Army’s 69-35 class, and made it back from SE Asia in one piece. It was a too quick instructor course at Rucker to teach contact in a Huey then Instruments in the Singer Simulator and Hueys. I believe it was by the grace of God and my combat experience which together allowed me to survive the students trying their best to ruin my day during the Huey contact phase! Even after 1,300 hours prior to becoming an instructor it was a “wonderful” challenge. I worked hard at it, stayed very close to the controls, and to date I’ve never bent an aircraft. Today after 40 years of teaching students and “rusty” pilots I think I’ve almost become an asset to the aviation industry and I learn something new each time I strap on an aircraft.

    Problems with new IP’s? You bet! I was one of those a long time ago.

  10. S. Lamb Says:

    One of the biggest concerns for students is how they are going to build flight hours and being hired as a CFI is definitely the easiest way. I think that the schools need to be responsible for only hiring the most skilled, knowledgeable, and most qualified students for instructing (if they are going to hire in the first place) and that they should not guarantee employee after graduation as a selling feature for their school. I don’t think we’re going to see a slowdown of fresh faced CFIs teaching for the sore purpose of building hours. It works in a lot of people’s favor (except for the new students that are not getting the best instruction). Unfortunately the best instructors with decades of experience under their belt are hard to come by.

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