On a March day this year, a certificated flight instructor (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 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. Both pilots survived.
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, 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.
Flight instruction is the most demanding flying a 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, in which most primary flight instruction is done.
A basic 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 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.
While most CFIs are good pilots, many lack the advanced practical skills required to teach primary flight instruction safely. These include being prepared to handle a student’s unexpected and incorrect control movement. In September 2002, a CFI was giving a student an introductory hovering demo in a R22. The CFI later 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.
Experienced and competent instructors know such things can happen at anytime and are rarely completely surprised. Furthermore, extra vigilance should be exercised during initial flights. CFIs would benefit from better training on how to properly guard the flight controls. This should be a major part of flight instructor training.
Instructors must continually weigh when the time is right to take over the controls. A student can benefit from correcting his own mistakes, but an instructor shouldn’t jeopardize himself or his aircraft for that benefit. Yet accident reports from the U.S. 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 should be mandatory for CFI applicants. Pilots continue to make the same mistakes over and over.
A review of these reports makes it obvious that better communication could have prevented many accidents. Although the FAA has published an advisory circular on the positive exchange of flight controls and the need for clear communication between instructors and students, more thorough and structured training should be required.
Flight instructors should also be aware of their conduct and professionalism. Students observe and listen to their flight instructors more than instructors imagine. The actions, judgments and thoughts of a flight instructor have a profound influence on the behavior of students for years.
Interestingly enough, Robinson Helicopter has precipitated a move in the right direction with a safety course that addresses some of these issues. Likewise, the company supports a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR 73) that raises the requirement to act as pilot-in-command or teach in the R22 or R44. In part, it requires 200 hr. helicopter time, 50 hr. in Robinson helicopters and an additional endorsement to act as a CFI.
Is all CFI training inadequate? Certainly not. I have known some very adept CFIs, and Part 141 schools provide students more structure and consistency.
However, obtaining a CFI certificate should be a much more involved process with higher standards for all applicants. Not only would training accidents decline, but future pilots would be more competent as well.