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No two are the same

Recently Mick Cullen, of the Rotary Wing Show, invited Hover Power editor Ian Twombly and me to a podcast interview (episode 31 if you want to check it out). The end of the podcast had an offer for an AOPA hat, given to the first three listeners who offered topic suggestions for Hover Power. Thanks to Lee Rilea, who asked us to describe: flight characteristics of different helicopter types, and how pilots can prepare for them.

Each model helicopter is a unique and aerodynamically complicated machine, and all have differences the pilot must be cognizant of. Even sister ships have differences, such as the 62-inch versus the 65-inch tail rotor in the Bell 206 series. The differences can be subtle too; simply changing low to high clearance landing gear can alter slope limitations for a particular aircraft.

With proper training and proficiency these aircraft differences are manageable. While the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook is a good general resource, the Rotorcraft Flight Manual and Factory Training Manuals will have specific information for a particular helicopter.

I will cover a few differences, and Hover Power blog readers can add more in the comment section.

Main rotor systems

An example of a unique flight characteristic involving the main rotor is the rigid rotor system of the BO-105, BK117 and EC145. Unlike most other rotor systems, which are semi-rigid or fully articulated, it is capable of negative Gs. Sounds great, but as in most cases there are compromises, and mast bending is one. The rotor blades, rotorhead, and mast are attached together rigidly without hinging capability. Turbulence, abrupt or extreme pilot control input, settling with power, and slope landings can all generate high mast bending. Think of the rotor system, mast, transmission, and airframe as one solid unit without any ability to hinge, with the mast actually bending when there is a shear force between the airframe and main rotor. A strain gauge is mounted inside the mast and is connected to the mast moment indicator on the instrument panel, so the pilot can assure mast-bending limitations are not exceeded.

Let’s also consider Vne and retreating blade stall in the rigid rotor system. Some aircraft are fairly docile when encountering retreating blade stall, just a gentle shutter as the aircraft slowly pitches up or rolls, but not the BO105.

One day, while flying a BO105CBS across the mountains of New Mexico I experienced retreating blade stall in a rigged rotor system for the first time. I had just a few hours in type, but fortunately was flying with an instructor. As one increases altitude, the Vne will decrease accordingly and we had made that adjustment. However, as any mountain pilot can tell you, turbulence and altitude can make for a wicked combination. A strong updraft can momentarily increase the angle of attack on a blade, creating a retreating blade stall condition. There is nothing gentle about this in a rigid rotor system, as I found out that day. We hit a particularly strong updraft at about 7000 feet, when the nose pitched up abruptly. Forward cyclic had no effect, and in fact would not even move. I didn’t recognize this as a retreating blade stall condition, but the instructor did and immediately decreased collective or we probably would have looped. Decreasing the collective removed the stall condition caused by the updraft, and allowed the cyclic to regain its effectiveness. I learned to always have my hand on the collective when flying the BO105 over mountains or when the possibility of turbulence existed. I also learned a smoother pitch attitude could be maintained in the BO105 by actually flying the collective with slight cyclic inputs. Increase collective slightly to pitch up and decrease collective slightly to pitch down, resulting in a smoother ride through turbulence.

Another characteristic of the BO105 is a phenomenon called “divergent roll.” In a descending low airspeed right bank, there is a tendency to run out of left cyclic. When turning right, one needs more and more left cyclic to maintain the bank angle without having it increase. One can reach the point where the cyclic is hitting the pilot’s left leg, which is already pinned against the center console. The remedy is left pedal, which is responsive in correcting this condition. This is not considered a cause for concern among experienced BO105 pilots, because they are prepared and knowledgeable of this characteristic.

The tail rotor and Notar

All helicopters with a tail rotor or Notar (MD Helicopters’ acronym for No Tail Rotor) are susceptible to a loss of tail rotor effectiveness in a hover or at low speed. The effectiveness of the tail rotor is dependent on a stable and relatively undisturbed airflow. There are many factors that can affect this airflow and cause LTE, such as main rotor downdraft and vortices, density altitude, gross weight, turbulence, forward airspeed, and relative wind speed and direction. Some of these factors contribute to the need of increased tail rotor pitch, resulting in a higher power requirement and a higher angle of attack of the tail rotor blades, leaving less thrust available in reserve. Other factors can disturb the airflow through the tail rotor creating a vortex ring state, such as the relative wind direction; also known as the critical wind azimuth. No two model helicopters are alike and the pilot must know the aircraft’s tail rotor limitations, typically found in the limitation and performance sections of the RFM.

A pilot flying at lower altitudes may not give the critical wind azimuth much thought, such as during a hover taxi in a right quartering crosswind. However, an increase in density altitude and gross weight also increases the required pitch from the tail rotor, making it more susceptible to LTE when wind is from the critical azimuth direction.

A different technique may be prudent to account for the increased susceptibility of LTE in certain aircraft. The MD902, with its Notar system, is more prone to LTE than any other aircraft I’ve flown when operating at altitudes over 3000 feet and at high gross weights. When hovering at altitude in the MD902, I would avoid any right crosswinds during takeoff, approach or hover; even to the point of doing a 270 degree turn at a taxi intersection rather than the 90 degree with a right crosswind. It is a manageable characteristic, as one learns “everything is into the wind above 3000 feet” in a MD902.

Another aircraft I’ve flown prone to LTE were the early Bell 206s. These had the smaller 62-inch tail rotor (Bell later went to the 65-inch tail rotor), and the early flight manuals did not have the critical wind azimuth chart or its inclusion in the hover ceiling charts.

HP chart 2

For this BH206, the critical wind azimuth area is depicted to be from 050 to 210 degrees, and the hover chart shows the altitude, temperature, and gross weight that area would be designated the avoid area B.

Gross weight

Lighter helicopters can respond faster to pilot input than heavy helicopters. An acceptable descent rate below 1,000 AGL for an AStar 350 (GW of 4960 lbs) would not be acceptable for an AW139 (GW of 14994 lbs). Just as a heavy truck on a highway needs more time to accelerate and decelerate, so do larger aircraft. The pilot of a heavy helicopter needs to recognize a negative trend sooner, such as an unacceptable descent rate on short final, as it will take more time to correct.

I typically fly out of Houma, Louisiana, which is probably the busiest airport in the United States for civilian helicopter operations, with over 71,457 helicopter landings in 2014. One can watch variations in approaches and departures for different helicopters. The most obvious variables are the approach speed, profile and descent rate. Heavy helicopters, such as the Sikorsky S-92, make a slower and steeper approach than lighter aircraft. Each pilot is flying their specific type helicopter in accordance with the RFM and company flight standards, and it’s a good opportunity to see how this varies among different helicopters.

What differences have you experienced? Tell us in the comments section.

Markus Lavenson is currently flying for Era Helicopters as a captain in the Sikorsky S92 and Leonardo Helicopters AW139 in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in oil and gas support missions. His varied career began shortly after graduating from the University of California at Davis, and has included everything from flight instruction and powerline patrol to HEMS and external load operations. His more than 10,000 hours of flight time comes from more than a dozen different types of helicopters and airplanes. Holding an ATP helicopter and commercial multi-engine fixed-wing, he also is a flight instructor fixed-wing and instrument flight instructor helicopters. Lavenson enjoys the intricate work of helicopter instrument flying, whether it’s to an airport on Alaska’s North Slope or one he creates to an oil rig hundreds of miles offshore.

Man vs. Machine: The Challenge of Staying Sharp in the 21st Century

So there I was, sitting in the cockpit of a 2015 Super Decathlon the other day, twisting my sunburned noggin into a pretzel trying to decide whether the ship was a throwback to the 1940s or a glimpse of general aviation’s high-tech future. You’d think that would be an easy call. The Decathlon is a derivative of the Aeronca Champ, after all.

But tube-and-fabric airframe aside, the Garmin GTN750 touchscreen, Aspen Evolution 1000, ADS-B data link, and other gadgetry made me realize that the greatest advances in avionics and aircraft automation are not found in airliners. They’re found in general aviation aircraft, many of them with the same reciprocating engines (and, on occasion, steel tube fuselages) they had seventy years ago.

We now live in a world where you can ask your iPhone to whip up a flight plan and wirelessly transmit it to the avionics in your airplane so you don’t have to input a thing. For the IFR pilot, did ATC give you a re-route? No problem — and no buttons to press (except perhaps the Staples “easy” button). Just touch the screen of your Garmin navigator and drag the course line to wherever you want it to go. Flying: “so easy a caveman can do it”.

Or is it?

I’m not anti-technology. Far from it. I’m a computer nerd and can’t get enough of the stuff. Nor am I suggesting that a high-tech cockpit even makes life easier. Especially when equipment fails or doesn’t respond as expected, the work load can ratchet up very quickly. But the truth is that once you’ve got the boxes figured out, automation can and does rob us of basic flying skill unless we take a proactive stance to prevent the erosion of those skills.

How could it not? Automated aircraft make us flight managers, not pilots who physically control the aircraft. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s something pilots far and wide need to acknowledge and be aware of.

The insidiously perishable nature of flying skill is ironic, because as most manufacturers will tell you, from a statistical viewpoint aviation is considerably safer due to the march of technology. What remains unsaid, however, is that much like beefing up a weak point on an aerobatic aircraft, we’re just shifting the hazard to another area. The wing might be able to withstand 16 Gs, but that doesn’t mean the engine mount can. If you strengthen the engine mount, then the empennage or longerons become the weakest link. Each component has its own failure point and mode.
Likewise for automation. Sure, it relieves fatigue from hand flying. It brings amazing weather, terrain, and traffic information into the cockpit. Situational awareness is a snap. Fuel burn can now be accurately estimated to within a few pounds on a multi-hour flight.

But it also means we’re more disconnected from the airplane since we aren’t physically flying it. Up and down drafts are masked because the autopilot handles them for us — until it trims all the way to the critical angle of attack. I’ve seen that happen multiple times without the pilot even being aware of it. Our hand flying skills and instrument scan decay due to lack of use.

This sort of thing is especially unnerving to me because I’m aware of it and yet have also fallen victim to it myself on occasion.

I think of automation the same way I think of air traffic control. It’s a safety asset, but one I must constantly monitor because it has failed before and it will fail again some day. I’ve been vectored into traffic, sent across a localizer toward a mountain (ie. forgotten about), and given instructions meant for another aircraft. I’ve even had a controller attempt to cancel my active IFR flight plan in mid-flight without my assent.

Automation is no different. The challenge is to keep our skills sharp and expect the unexpected. If hand-flying skill was well established in the beginning of a pilot’s flying career, that’s not an insurmountable challenge. The modern aviator, though, sees this automation from a very early point, and for some of them, the basic flying skills are not well established. The automation serves to mask the inadequacies. As long as everything keeps running properly, no harm/no foul.

When it doesn’t? Well, that’s where the rock meets the not-so-proverbial hard place, as we’re starting to discover.

It occurs to me that flying “raw data” after a long period away from hand-flying can be as challenging as the transition to a new airplane. I see many similarities in initial pilot performance, especially if the aviator has been confined to a single aircraft type for a long period.

In that regard, I believe one of the best ways to keep yourself sharp is to fly varying types of aircraft. If, for example, you fly an aerobatic plane or a glider in addition to that shiny jet, odds are you’ll enhance and retain skills you probably aren’t even aware of. Perhaps that aptitude is simply the mental agility to move from one cockpit to another. Maybe it’s an improved competence with pitch/power relationships or comfort with unusual attitudes.

However poorly I may have explained it, I’ve simply noticed that those who fly multiple types of aircraft seem to be able to adapt to changes faster than those who don’t. I doubt this has as much to do with physical ability as it does mental acuity.

The rudimentary flight skills must be developed in primary training because there is little room made for them during advanced ratings, and automation can easily mask the lack of those abilities until they are the only thing standing between a pilot and a Very Bad Day. As such, the case is made for conducting primary flight training in a non-automated aircraft, or at the very least, with the automation fully disabled.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d take it one step further and suggest that every pilot should learn to fly in the most stone-simple tailwheel airplane available. They’re economical. They put the focus on primary flight skills most likely to atrophy later. They simply will not abide poor airmanship. And most of all, they’re fun to fly. Isn’t that why we got into aviation in the first place?

Unfortunately, the trend is headed in the opposite direction — even Cubs come with glass panels these days! But as far as I know, they’re still making them with an “off” switch, so the hope for a better training experience will continue to spring eternal.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Master your environment

Helicopter pilots work in an amazing, ever-changing environment. The skills necessary to accomplish the task at hand require a high level of concentration, ability, and finesse. Whether it is flying circles around some of God’s greatest work, air medical operations, or instructing the next generation of helicopter pilots how well you utilize your skills can easily be determined by how aware you are with all components of your flying duties. In other words, you must be fully involved and a master of your environment.

WHAT IS YOUR ENVIRONMENT?

You can’t master what you don’t know. Environment can be defined as “the setting or conditions in which a particular activity is carried on.” The activity is easily defined as flying, however, it is the setting or conditions that can make or break you. It would be impossible to list all of the components that define a particular flying environment but several are common to most, if not all, flight operations. These mainstays include: aircraft, airspace, weather, and regulations.

AIRCRAFT If you really want to get to know your aircraft, its systems, and emergency procedures, make a plan to review the Rotorcraft Flight Manual on a regular basis. Pick a chapter in the RFM each month of the year and review it religiously. Know the RFM inside and out.

AIRSPACE I used to wonder why designated pilot examiners and check airmen were so stringent about airspace during checkrides. After a few years of operational flying and getting the life scared out of me by people that didn’t know understand it, I realized why this was a pet-peeve of many examiners. Not knowing airspace is like driving in a foreign country with road signs in a language you can’t begin to comprehend. If it has been a while since you actually used a sectional chart to navigate the various classes of airspace here is a good way to humble yourself; on one of your next flights turn the GPS off. Use good old fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning to find your way. Ask yourself where you are on the chart, where you came from, and where you are going. What airspace are you travelling through? What are the weather minimums? What equipment is required? Transponder? Who do you need to talk to? On what frequency? You get the idea. If you are going to master your environment you must know everything about the airspace you are transiting in and out of.

I have a rule about avionics and eyeballs that are in any aircraft I am flying. No avionics or eyeballs ride for free. If you got’em use them! As an example, if you have two GPS systems use both of them. Use one for your destination and the other for a nearby airport close to your departure area that has an instrument approach in the event you inadvertently fly in to the clouds shortly after take-off.

WEATHER If you think all you need to know about weather comes from those ridiculous questions on the FAA knowledge exams you are mistaken. Most areas experience some sort of regional microclimate. Get to know the weather patterns in your area and when to expect them. If you are flying in an area unfamiliar to you, reach out to other helicopter pilots and pick their brains on local weather patterns. The accident statistics are full of stories about helicopter pilots that didn’t have a working knowledge of local weather patterns.

REGULATIONS In this day and age of technology the current regulations can easily be placed in electronic format on all of your neat gadgets. Know all of the regulations that apply to your particular operations and know them well. If you don’t understand a particular regulation, seek clarification. Wiggle-room has no place when The Man is ready to take enforcement action against you. A quick survey of NASA reports shows several high-time pilots making mistakes involving regulations. Like the Rotorcraft Flight Manual, the federal regulations pertaining to your certificate privileges and operating activities need a periodic review.

HOW TO STAY SHARP? Whatever you do, don’t lose the awe factor. Not long ago I read a story about a 39-year physician. This fellow was in his late 80’s, and he still went to the office every day. His friends and family tried to get him to retire, but he simply refused. He had invented a procedure that he had performed more than 10,000 times. He was asked in an interview if he ever got tired of doing it, if it ever got old. He said, “No. The reason why is because I act like every operation is my very first one.” If you find yourself losing that awe of spooling up and pulling pitch, it may be time for a break. Taking pride in what you do and doing it with excellence can foster an attitude that enables you to master your environment.

Advancing an Aviation Education … The Hard Way

Cessna 150

Cessna 150

Last month I pointed the finger at a couple of unique instructors, both of whom were key to my life of flying airplanes. A few e-mails rightly took me to task wondering about my own role in years of education experience, so this month, I decided to share an early experience from not long after I earned my private certificate. It proves, yet again, that many of us live to be old pilots certainly because of our experience, but sometimes too thanks to plain dumb luck.

I was returning home on a warm July afternoon in a Cessna 150 with maybe 125 hours penned in my logbook. Sky Harbor airport, my base back then in Chicago’s north suburbs, is long gone, but was remembered as a single north-south, hard-surfaced runway about 3,000 feet long. The approach from the north was clear, except for the Walgreen’s HQ a mile or so away, but there were trees near the approach from the south, something the local town refused to trim because they were considered a necessary element to the graveyard they shaded near the runway 36 numbers.

My FAA examiner told me a few months earlier my private was a lesson to learn, but sometimes we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

On final approach that afternoon I saw another aircraft on the runway and knew I needed to keep an eye on him in case he didn’t clear. But of course they always did so I added flaps 40 and of course a bunch of power to make up for all the drag. For those of you who fly the 152 these days, you have no feeling for just how much drag “flaps 40” on a Cessna 150 added to an approach. Let’s just say it’s a bunch and was one reason the later 152s were limited to flaps 30. In the July humidity I could feel there wasn’t much elevator room to play with as the nose pitched up and down, but it was flying.

Then the other airplane stopped dead on the runway and I knew a go-around was needed, one that meant full power and a climb to the side of the runway to keep the airplane on the runway in site.

With all that drag and full power, the 150 kept trying to pitch up and I kept pushing back to avoid a stall. So there I was pushing the nose down for safety and not climbing and now scared to death to let the nose pitch up because it might stall. I did the next best thing … I just kept flying straight ahead creeping up a few feet at a time watching the hangars pass below with people obviously staring up wondering what I was doing.

Readers are probably wondering why I didn’t raise some of the flaps to dump some of that drag. Great question. I guess I didn’t remember much from training about go-arounds or a good way to milk the flaps up while close to the ground right then. I’m sure I must have seen a go-around at least once or twice in flight training but right then and there I kept thinking I was about to fall out of the sky.

At this point, I’m maybe half a mile north of the airport still no more than about 200 feet agl. when it came to me … the flaps were still down. So if the flaps hanging down was the problem, getting rid of them was the solution I thought. I remembered about then not to bring them all up at once, but honestly I was pretty scared watching the roof of he Walgreens HQ coming up beneath me and the Interstate just beyond.

I hit the flap switch to bled off the drag and instantly felt the old burgundy colored airplane leap ahead … that is, just before it started to fall. The early Cessna 150s had a flap switch that had gotten more than their fair share of novice pilots into trouble because it used three positions … down, neutral and up. In order to milk the flaps up, I should have brought the switch to up long enough to return to flaps 30 before returning the switch to neutral.

Of course, that’s not what I did. In my haste to climb, I just flicked the switch and in about 15 seconds went from flaps 40 to 0. The part about flaps adding lift seemed to have completely escaped me too I guess.

I only avoided parking the 150 in the Walgreens’ employee lot that afternoon by yanking back on the control wheel more out of fear than anything else. With all the drag gone and me being the only passenger, the little airplane climbed just fine back to pattern altitude and around the patch for a safe landing a few minutes later.

Forgetting that flap switch was one mistake I never made again. I also made sure I reminded students about it when I became a teacher myself years later. And yes, we practiced plenty of go-arounds before I even sent them out solo.

Just say no to traffic patterns

Over the past eight or so years, I’ve done more than my fair share of long cross-country flights with newly minted commercial pilots or CFIs. In most cases, the purpose of the flight was to reposition my helicopter at a temporary base of operations 500 or more miles away and the typically 300-hour pilot on board with me was interested in building R44 time. I was on board as a passenger and got a chance to observe the things these pilots did–or didn’t do. I think the fact that I’ve never been a flight instructor gives me a unique perspective on what I observed.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that typical flight training does very little to prepare students for a commercial flying career. Instead, students are taught to perform maneuvers “by the book,” often so they can teach those maneuvers to their own students in the future. While it’s obviously important to know how to perform maneuvers properly, there are other concerns that are important to commercial pilots. In my upcoming posts for Hover Power, I’ll tackle a few of them, starting with traffic patterns.

I can tell lots of stories about new commercial pilots and CFIs entering traffic patterns to land for fuel at nontowered airports in the middle of nowhere. I can even tell you about the pilot who landed on the numbers of an empty airport’s runway, hover-taxied to the taxiway, and then hover-taxied a half mile down the taxiway to reach the midfield fuel island. They did this because that’s what they had been trained to do. That’s all they knew about landing at airports.

Our flight training teaches us a few things about airport operations, most of which are school-established routines at the handful of airports where we train. There’s a procedure for departing flight school helipads and there may be a procedure for traveling to a practice field nearby. Once there, it’s traffic patterns, over and over. Normal landing and takeoff, steep approach, maximum performance takeoff, run-on landing, quick stop, autorotation–all of these standard maneuvers are taught as part of a traffic pattern. It gets ingrained into our minds that any time we want to land at an airport, we need to enter a traffic pattern.

The reality is very different. Remember, FAR Part 91.129 (f)(2) states, “Avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft, if operating a helicopter.” Your flight school may have complied with this requirement by doing a modified traffic pattern at the airport, operating at a lower altitude than the typical airplane traffic pattern altitude of 1,000 feet, or landing on a taxiway rather than a runway. But despite any modifications, it’s still a traffic pattern.

But is a traffic pattern required for landing? No.

Experienced commercial pilots–and their savvier clients–know that traffic patterns waste time. And while the pilot might not be concerned about an extra few minutes to make a landing, the person paying for the flight will be. Why waste time flying around the airport before landing at it? Instead, fly directly to or near your destination and land there.

Before I go on, take a moment to consider why airplanes use traffic patterns. They enter on a 45-degree angle to the pattern to help them see other traffic already in the pattern. They then follow the same course as the other planes so there are no surprises. This is especially important at nontowered airports that don’t have controllers keeping an eye out for traffic conflicts.

But helicopters are avoiding this flow, normally by flying beneath the airplane TPA. As long as they stay away from areas where airplanes might be flying–remember, avoid the flow–they don’t need to worry much about airplane traffic. Instead, they need to look out for other helicopters and obstacles closer to the ground. If a runway crossing is required, special vigilance is needed to make sure an airplane (or helicopter) isn’t using the runway to take off or land. Obviously, communication is important, especially at a busy airport when a runway crossing is involved.

Now you might be thinking that this advice only applies to nontowered airports, where the pilot is free to do what he thinks is best for the flight. But this can also apply to towered airports.

Airport controllers who are accustomed to helicopter traffic and understand helicopter capabilities may instruct you to fly to and land at your destination on the field. You must be prepared to do this, even at an airport you’ve never been to before. That’s part of what your preflight planning is all about. Consult airport diagrams or even satellite images of the airport. Know where you’ll be flying from and where you need to park. Imagine the route to that spot. Be sure to take note of where the tower is–it’s often a great landmark for navigating while close to the ground. Never assume the controller will put you in a traffic pattern. And don’t be afraid to admit you’re unfamiliar if you didn’t do your homework or if things in real life look different from how they looked on paper or a computer screen.

What if a controller does instruct you to enter a traffic pattern and you don’t want to? As amazing as this might seem to new pilots, you can ask the controller to allow you to go direct to your airport destination.

I’ll never forget the flight I had one day as a passenger on my friend Jim’s Hughes 500c. Jim was a retired airline pilot who had been flying helicopters for at least 10 years. We were flying into Prescott Airport (PRC) in Arizona for lunch. When Jim called the tower, he asked for landing at the restaurant. The controller told Jim to enter a traffic pattern that would have required him to fly all the way around the airport, taking him at least 10 minutes out of his way. “Negative,” Jim barked into his microphone. “One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is a helicopter. We want to land direct at the restaurant.” A new pilot at the time, I was shocked by his tone of voice. There was an uncomfortable silence and then the controller came back on and told him he could fly direct to restaurant parking.

 

The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.

The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.

 

Will the tower always grant your request? It depends on the situation. If a runway crossing is involved and the airport is busy with traffic, they might not. It might be safer or more convenient for them to keep you in a pattern with the airplanes. But it can’t hurt to ask, although I don’t think I’d be as aggressive as Jim was that day.

One of the big challenges of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot is thinking like a commercial helicopter pilot. There are things we can do that seem to conflict with what we were taught. Landing at airports without the formality of a traffic pattern is one of them.

Goodbye Sikorsky S300

The focus at last week’s Heli-Expo in Orlando was naturally on the larger end of the helicopter market, from the first public display of the AgustaWestland AW609 Tiltrotor to Airbus Helicopters’ snazzy unveil of the H160. But one of the more interesting moments came almost as a footnote at a poorly attended Sikorsky press conference.

“Everyone’s always interested in the lights,” said Dan Hunter, director of Sikorsky’s commercial line. Yet despite that interest, Sikorsky has all but killed the S300 and its derivatives. Hunter said the company won’t take any new orders, focusing instead of filling its very slim backlog that has come from foreign government sales as part of group buys. Hunter said Sikorsky is working hard to firm up the supply chain in order to produce these few orders, and to a certain extent, to fill parts requests.

And therein lies the good news for current S300 operators. What was a dire situation a year or two ago with parts availability and factory support now seems to be something less than an emergency situation. “We’re not there yet, but we’re working to get it done,” Hunter said. The same inventory and support goals for the company’s other products also extend to the S300 and its variants.

On some level, I don’t blame Sikorsky. The aftermarket support brings in about $10 million a year, Hunter said. For sake of comparison, that’s about the cost of a new S-76D. When the bosses are sitting in a board room trying to figure out where to allocate resources it’s hard to justify the expense of establishing an inventory and support staff for a business that brings in the same revenue as one additional airframe sale. Why give a business unit leader a few million bucks and tell her to spend all her time contracting and supporting a supply chain when you can give Jim an expense account and tell him to sell one more helicopter?

Which does open the question of why Sikorsky bought the type certificate in the first place. To that, Hunter says he is convinced that knowing what they knew at the time it was a good buy. Peel back the layers, he says, and problems started to emerge. The manufacturing process wasn’t up to Sikorsky standards, he said. No offense, Elmira.

So, does that mean the S300 and its cousins are destined for a long life of purgatory, existing only on a piece of paper? Maybe not. Hunter hinted many times that Sikorsky could offload the business at the right time. It might work under someone else, he said.

Flying Backward

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

Aviation insurance pioneer A. G. Lamplugh uttered that oft-quoted phrase more than eighty years ago, and it’s as valid today as it was back then. Like Newton’s Laws of Physics, it’s one of the basic, unchanging truths about flying: certain things simply must be done properly if we’re to avoid disaster in the air. One of the best examples would be dealing with a low-altitude engine failure.

Last week’s TransAsia ATR-72 accident is a potent reminder of this aphorism. While we don’t know the cause yet and probably won’t know the whole story for a year or more, it got me thinking about how oddly things are done in aviation sometimes. For example, airline pilots move “up” the food chain from turboprops to jets. If safety is the paramount concern, that’s backwards. Shouldn’t the most experienced pilots should be exercising their skills on the most challenging aircraft rather than the least?

While jets certainly have their pitfalls and perils, a low-altitude engine failure is generally more challenging in a turboprop. The dead engine’s propeller creates tremendous drag until it’s properly secured. Many multi-engine turboprops are equipped with mechanisms to automatically feather the offending prop, but if that system doesn’t function properly, has been deferred, or simply doesn’t exist, the pilot is faced with six levers in close proximity, only one of which will do the trick. It’s easy to pull the wrong one.

Worse yet, if the craft has an autofeather system, the pilot would logically expect it to function as advertised. He or she would have to first detect the lack of feathering, then run the identify-verify-feather drill. Unlike training scenarios, there’s a major surprise factor at play as well. In a simulator, is anyone really surprised when the engine quits? Of course not. In the real world, pilots make thousands of flights where a powerplant doesn’t fail. As much as you tell yourself with each takeoff that “this could be the one”, empirical evidence in the form of a pilot’s own experience suggests against it. That makes preparation for a low-altitude emergency a constant battle with oneself. Are we always honest about how we’re doing in that fight? Probably not.

When I flew ex-military U-21A turboprops for a government contractor, we did all our training in the actual aircraft. I’ll never forget how marginal the aircraft’s performance was, even when engine failures were handled properly and expediently. We would fly a single-engine approach into Catalina Airport, where the missed approach procedure takes you toward the center of the island and some fairly high terrain. On one training flight the autofeather system initially worked as advertised, but then started to slowly unfeather.

Turboprop flying also comes with increased risk exposure due to the flight profile. A jet pilot might fly one or two legs a day versus five, six, or seven flown by the guy in the turboprop. With more legs comes an increased statistical opportunity for that engine to quit on takeoff. Turboprops also fly at lower altitudes where they tend to be in weather rather than above it.

The reciprocating twin pilot has it even worse when it comes to performance. Most of them have no guarantee of any climb performance at all on one engine, especially with the gear down, and few are equipped with automatic feathering systems. Yet that’s where we all start out.

Contrast this with engine failure in the modern jet, where the pilot need do nothing but raise the landing gear and keep the nose straight. In my aircraft, at least, we don’t even add power on the remaining engine. Unless the plane is literally on fire, we just climb straight out for a minute or two, gaining altitude and doing… nothing. No checklist to run, and only two levers in the throttle quadrant rather than six.

John Deakin described the contrast between prop and jet quite colorfully when he transitioned into the G-IV:

“If you hear a Gulfstream pilot whine about poor performance when high, hot, and heavy, please understand, he’s whining about less than 1,000 feet per minute on one engine. I sometimes feel like slapping a chokehold on, and dragging one of these guys out to the old C-46, loaded, on a hot day, and make him do an engine failure on takeoff, where he’d be lucky to get 50 feet per minute.”

There are other places where you can see this same phenomenon at work in aviation. Consider the world of flight instruction. The least experienced CFIs typically start off by teaching primary students. Again, that’s backwards. It would seem more logical to start instructors off with checkouts and endorsements for experienced pilots or commercial certificate training. Putting the best, most experienced CFIs with the neophytes might help accelerate their progress and alleviate the high student pilot drop-out rate.

The Law of Primacy — something every CFI candidate learns about — tells us that “the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression. Things learned first create a strong impression in the mind that is difficult to erase. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time.” Primary flight training literally sets the foundation of an aviator’s flying life, to say nothing of the fact that teaching primary students is one of the most difficult jobs a CFI can undertake. So why is this critical task mainly entrusted to the newest, least experienced instructors?

The answer to these questions usually comes down to money. The almighty dollar frequently plays a powerful role in explaining the unexplainable in aviation. While it would be unrealistic to deny the importance of financial concerns in defying gravity, whole sections of the aviation ecosystem run backwards and one can’t help but wonder if perhaps safety suffers because of it.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Upset Recovery Training vs. Aerobatics

Upset recovery training has been all the rage over the past couple of years. A Google search of that exact phrase returns more than 24,000 results. There’s a professional association dedicated to such training. ICAO even declared aircraft upsets to be the cause of “more fatalities in scheduled commercial operations than any other category of accidents over the last ten years.”

Nevertheless, I get the impression that some folks wonder if it isn’t more of a safety fad than an intrinsic imperative. It’s hard to blame them. You can hardly open a magazine or aviation newsletter these days without seeing slick advertisements for this stuff. When I was at recurrent training a couple of months ago, CAE was offering upset recovery training to corporate jet pilots there in Dallas. “If I wanted to fly aerobatics, I’d fly aerobatics!” one aviator groused.

He didn’t ask my opinion, but if he had, I’d remind him that 99% of pilots spend 99% of their time in straight and level flight — especially when the aircraft in question is a business jet. I’m not exaggerating much when I say that even your typical Skyhawk pilot is a virtual aerobat compared to the kind of flying we do on charter and corporate trips. For one thing, passengers pay the bills and they want the smoothest, most uneventful flight possible.

In addition, these jets fly at very high altitudes – typically in the mid-40s and even as high as 51,000 feet. Bank and pitch attitudes tend to stay within a narrow band. Yaw? There shouldn’t be any. The ball stays centered, period. We aim for a level of smoothness that exceeds even that of the airlines. Passengers and catering may move about the cabin frequently during a flight, but it shouldn’t be because of anything we’re doing up front.

Fly like that for a decade or two, logging thousands and thousands of uneventful, straight-and-level hours and the thought of all-attitude flying can become – to put it mildly – uncomfortable. I’ve even seen former fighter pilots become squeamish at the thought of high bank or pitch angles after twenty years of bizjet flying.

Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of things that can land a pilot in a thoroughly dangerous attitude: wind shear, wake turbulence, autopilot failure, mechanical malfunction (hydraulic hard-overs, asymmetric spoiler or flap deployment, etc.), inattention, and last but not least, plain old pilot error. Look at recent high-profile accidents and you’ll see some surprisingly basic flying blunders from the crew. Air France 447, Colgan 3407, and Asiana 214 are just three such examples. It may not happen often, but when it does it can bite hard.

So yes, I think there is a strong need for more manual flying exposure in general, and upset recovery training in particular. This isn’t specific to jet aircraft, because some light aircraft have surpassed their turbine-powered cousins in the avionics department. I only wish the 1980’s era FMS computer in my Gulfstream was as speedy as a modern G1000 installation.

Defining the Problem

To the best of my knowledge, neither the NTSB or FAA provide a standard definition for “upset”, but much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we pretty much know it when we see it. The term has generally come to be defined as a flight path or aircraft attitude deviating significantly from that which was intended by the pilot. Upsets have led to loss of control, aircraft damage or destruction, and more than a few fatalities.

As automation proliferates, pilots receive less hands-on experience and a gradual but significant reduction in stick-and-rudder skill begins to occur. The change is a subtle one, and that’s part of what makes it so hazardous. A recent report by the FAA PARC rulemaking workgroup cites poor stick and rudder skills as the number two risk factor facing pilots today. The simple fact is that windshear, wake turbulence, and automation failures happen.

The purpose of upset recovery training is to give pilots the tools and experience necessary to recognize and prevent impending loss of control situations. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s why teaching recovery strategies from the most common upset scenarios is actually a secondary (though important) goal.

What about simulators? They’ve proven to be an excellent tool in pilot training, but even the most high fidelity Level D sims fall short when it comes to deep stalls and loss of control scenarios. For one thing, stall recovery is typically initiated at the first indication of stall, so the techniques taught in the simulator may not apply to a full aerodynamic stall. Due to the incredibly complex and unpredictable nature of post-stall aerodynamics, simulators aren’t usually programmed to accurately emulate an aircraft in a deeply stalled condition. Thus the need for in-aircraft experience to supplement simulator training.

Upset Recovery vs. Aerobatics

It’s important to note that upset recovery training may involve aerobatic maneuvering, but it does not exist to teach aerobatics. Periodically over the years, discussions on the merits of this training will cause a co-worker to broach the subject of flying an aerobatic maneuver in an airplane which is not designed and built for that purpose. This happened just the other day. Typically they’ll ask me if, as an aerobatic pilot, I would ever consider performing a barrel or aileron roll in the aircraft.

I used to just give them the short answer: “no”. But over time I’ve started explaining why I think it’s such a bad idea, even for those of us who are trained to fly such maneuvers. I won’t touch on the regulations, because I think we are all familiar with those. I’m just talking about practical considerations.

Normal planes tend to have non-symmetrical airfoils which were not designed to fly aerobatics. They feature slower roll rates, lower structural integrity under high G loads, and considerably less control authority. You might have noticed that the control surfaces on aerobatic airplanes are pretty large — they are designed that way because they’re needed to get safely into and out of aerobatic maneuvers.

That’s not to say an airplane with small control surfaces like a business jet or light GA single cannot perform aerobatics without disaster striking. Clay Lacy flies an airshow sequence in his Learjet. Duane Cole flew a Bonanza. Bob Hoover used a Shrike Commander. Sean Tucker flew an acro sequence in a Columbia (now known as the Cessna TTx). However, the margins are lower, the aerobatics are far more difficult, and pilots not experienced and prepared enough for those things are much more likely to end up hurt or dead.

Sean Tucker will tell you that the Columbia may not recover from spins of more than one or two turns. Duane Cole said the Bonanza (in which he did inverted ribbon cuts) had barely enough elevator authority for the maneuver, and it required incredible strength to hold the nose up far enough for inverted level flight. Bob Hoover tailored his performance to maneuvers the Shrike could do — he’ll tell you he avoided some aerobatic maneuvers because of the airplane’s limitations.

Knowing those limitations and how to deal with them — that’s where being an experienced professional aerobatic pilot makes the difference. And I’m sure none of those guys took flying those GA airplanes upside down lightly. A lot of planning, consideration, training and practice went into their performances.

Now, consider the aircraft condition. Any negative Gs and stuff will be flying around the cabin. Dirt from the carpet. Manuals. Items from the cargo area. Floor mats. Passengers. EFBs. Drinks. Anything in the armrest or sidewall pockets. That could be a little distracting. Items could get lodged behind the rudder pedals, hit you in the head, or worse.

If the belts aren’t tight enough, your posterior will quickly separate from the seat it’s normally attached to. And I assure you, your belts are not tight enough. Getting them that way involves cinching the lap belt down until it literally hurts. How many people fly a standard or transport category aircraft that way?

Now consider that the engine is not set up for fuel and oil flow under negative Gs. Even in airplanes specifically designed for acro, the G loads move the entire engine on the engine mount. In the Decathlon you can always see the spinner move up an inch or two when pushing a few negative Gs. Who knows what that would do with the tighter clearances between the fan and engine cowl on an airplane like the Gulfstream?

Next, let’s consider trim. The jet flies around with an electric trim system which doesn’t move all that quickly. The aircraft are typically trimmed for upright flight. That trim setting works heavily against you when inverted, and might easily reach the point where even full control deflection wouldn’t be sufficient.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the more I learn about aerobatics, the less I would want to do them in a non-aerobatic aircraft – and certainly not a swept wing jet! Sure, if performed perfectly, you might be just fine. But any unusual attitude is going to be far more difficult — if not outright impossible — to recover from.

Dang it, Tex!

Every time someone references Tex Johnson’s famous barrel roll in the Boeing 707 prototype, I can’t help but wish he hadn’t done that. Yes, it helped sell an airplane the company had staked it’s entire future on, but aerobatic instructors have been paying the price ever since.

Aerobatic and upset recovery training: good. Experimenting with normal category airplanes: bad. Very bad.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.

Slaying the dragon

Regardless of what helicopter you are flying, whether it’s the Robinson R22, Bell JetRanger, or any helicopter for that matter, you need to be comfortable with autorotations. At our flight school we have broken the auto in to three flights. If you’re a CFI reading this, try it. If you’re the student or certificated pilot looking to get proficient, ask for it.

Start with talking on the ground, sitting in the helicopter, and going through the physical motions. Move the controls the way you would actually respond. If you are the CFI, play the whole thing down (mentally) and don’t let the student get beaten before they even lift off. If you are the client/student try to put past bad experiences with autos behind you.

First Flight: Auto-rotative decent. Climb to at least 3,000 feet. I like even higher. The only thing you want at first is RPM control. There is plenty of time to adjust airspeed. RPM is the constant in most cases. Climb back up and then try adjusting the airspeed all the way through the decent from 30-70 knots, noting what cyclic control movements do to the RPMs. Get comfortable with controlling RPM with mostly cyclic movement. The ONLY thing you want to achieve by the end of this lesson is comfort with RPM and airspeed control in the decent.

Second Flight: I like to start with quick stops from 50 feet and 60 knots, which is very similar to the flare in an autorotation. End this lesson with auto-rotative descents, followed by a flare (quick stop). Join the needles (rotor and engine RPM) very early so it seems just like the two maneuvers put together. By doing this you’ve learned to join the needles at 300 feet AGL, and not in the flare where most over-speeds occur. End this lesson being comfortable with descents and the flare.

Third Flight: Go over all three maneuvers and then combine them all together. Join the needles a little further down the line each time. Don’t be crazy about that; the auto looks the same regardless of where you join the needles.

If you want to accomplish full down autorotations, add a fourth lesson of hovering autos and run-on landings, which will be the same as a touch down from zero ground speed or from 15-20 knots if you are unable to zero out the ground speed.

This should build your confidence and make it fun, regardless of what helicopter you are flying.

The Ab Initio Flaw

Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. Where the pilot shortage debate is concerned, that’s definitely true. More than one industry veteran has wryly noted the “impending pilot shortages” of every decade since the Second World War. And considering the number of pilots trained during that conflict, you could say the shortage history goes back a lot further. How about to the very dawn of powered flight? I mean, Wilbur and Orville could have saved themselves tremendous time and money if only they’d had an experienced instructor to guide them!

Every “pilot shortage” article, blog post, and discussion I’ve seen centers around short-term hiring trends and possible improvements in salary and benefits for aviators. Nobody asked my opinion, but for what it’s worth, it seems both clear and logical that the regional airlines are hurting for pilots. The pay and working conditions at those companies are horrific. Major airlines, on the other hand, will probably never have trouble attracting people. I don’t know if that qualifies as a pilot shortage. I tend to think it does not. It’s more of a shortage of people who are willing to participate like lab rats in a Part 121 industry cost-cutting experiment.

What the pilot shortage mishegas really has me thinking about is the long-term possibility of ab initio schemes migrating to the United States and what a profoundly bad thing that would be for aviation at every level.

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas?  For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

Who knew that JAL operates a huge fleet of Bonanzas? For decades they operated an ab initio program out of Napa, California

According to Wikipedia, “ab initio is a Latin term meaning ‘from the beginning’ and is derived from the Latin ab (‘from’) + initio, ablative singular of initium (‘beginning’)”. In aviation, it refers to a method of training pilots. In fact, it’s the de facto technique in use for the majority of airlines around the world. Essentially, foreign airlines will hire people off the street who have no flight time or experience. They are shepherded through the various ratings and certificates necessary to fly an Boeing or Airbus while on the airline’s payroll.

This might sound like a brilliant idea — and to an airline, it probably is. Imagine, no bad habits or “we did it this way at my last job” issues, just well-trained worker bees who have been indoctrinated from day one as multi-pilot airline crew members.

I don’t know if the airlines love ab initio or not. What I do know is that non-U.S. airlines use it because there’s no other choice. The fertile, Mesopotamian breeding ground of flying experience we call general aviation simply does not exist in those countries. Without GA’s infrastructure, there are no light aircraft, flight schools, mechanics, or small airports where aspiring pilots can learn to fly. Those who do manage to get such experience more often than not get it here in the United States.

To put it another way, the “pilot shortage” has been going on in foreign countries since the dawn of aviation, and ab initio is the way they’ve solved the problem in most places.

So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, sea planes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.

If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?

The problem is, all those crap jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.

These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they are create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.

Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?

Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting The Continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.

Addendum

Apparently I’m not the only one with ab initio on my mind. The day before the deadline for this post, AVweb reported on a major announcement from Boeing:

Now, with its subsidiary company Jeppesen, [Boeing] will undertake ab initio airline pilot training to provide a supply of pilots with an “Airline Transport Pilot License” (certificate in the U.S.) and a Boeing type rating who “will be ready to move into the first officer’s seat,” according to Sherry Carbary, vice president of flight services.

Boeing’s ab initio training program is divided into two parts. The first, run by Jeppesen, will take an applicant—referred to as a cadet—who must hold a first-class medical at the time of application, and put her or him through a screening process. Those who pass will go through 12-18 months of flight training, resulting in, according to David Wright, director of general aviation training, an Airline Transport Pilot License. The second phase involves the cadet going to a Boeing facility for another two months of training where she or he gets a first exposure to a full-motion jet simulator, and that will result in a type rating in a Boeing jet. Wright said that cadets will come out of the $100,000-$150,000 program with 200-250 hours of flying time and will be ready to go into the right seat of an airliner.

Boeing jets are operated by major airlines, not regionals. An American pilot would typically sport several thousand of hours of flight experience before being hired there. Now Boeing is proposing to put 200 hour pilots into their airplanes on a worldwide basis. That won’t fly (yet) in the U.S., where 1,500 hours is currently required for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. But I believe the ab inito trend bodes ill for airlines and general aviation alike.

Ron Rapp is a Southern California-based charter pilot, aerobatic CFI, and aircraft owner whose 9,000+ hours have encompassed everything from homebuilts to business jets. He’s written mile-long messages in the air as a Skytyper, crop-dusted with ex-military King Airs, flown across oceans in a Gulfstream IV, and tumbled through the air in his Pitts S-2B. Visit Ron’s website.
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