Smooth Sailing–Until the Crash
By Simon Roper
Having relocated from London to Becker Helicopters in Queensland, Australia, Simon Roper begins his pursuit of a commercial pilot license (helicopter)--CPL (H). This is the second installment of his account of that pursuit. The first appeared in September 2005 on page T10--The Editor.
After introductions and handshakes at Becker's, I headed off to my motel to get over some serious jet lag. Before I left, one of the admin staff handed me my course materials--a big, heavy, cardboard box.
Just a few minutes later, at the motel I made the mistake of unpacking this larger-than-expected delivery of syllabus, maps and equipment for my CPL (H). Amongst it, at this point that I first encountered my whiz wheel.
The rotational slide rule is, frankly, intimidating to the untrained eye. Later, this mechanical computer would become my most trusted onboard aid, but at this point it looked like the scariest piece of equipment I had ever seen. Not for the first time in my relocation, I wondered if I had done the right thing.
With two weeks of acclimatization under my belt and accommodation and proper sleep patterns acquired, Day One of theory loomed. I had already met my fellow students. We were a diverse bunch, including a former broadcast journalist (me), a circus acrobat, an oil rig mechanic and a hotshot manager from a global software concern.
With the accelerated course to which we were committed, all four of us were about to cram all CPL (H) theory into nine weeks. I hadn't set foot in a classroom for the best part of 15 years and was dreading the whole experience.
And indeed it was a taxing time that, as my fiancï¿½ explained to me, left me with all the conversational abilities of a vegetable at night. Besides daily home studies, our theory teachers piloted us through all things aviation, from the advanced Otto Cycle in Aircraft General Knowledge to the vestibular system in Human Factors.
With an exam almost every week, the pace was fast and furious. But given that we were to all accounts an adult class, the learning process was not one of learning by rote but more of discussion, disbelief, frustration, and then the joy of clarity, .
After nine weeks and a lot of hard work, I was ready to use my newly formed knowledge and--with the rest of the class--take to the skies.
Becker's has access to most types of helicopters, but owns a training fleet of three Hughes 300s, a Bell 47 and a Eurocopter AS350. Most people use the Hughes up to about 55 hr. of a 105-hr. course, before switching to the Bell to take advantage of its better navigation equipment. Only the rich took a turbine endorsement in the Squirrel. The piston-engined helicopters had no governors, the device that matches power with pitch; the pilot needs to do everything. Becker's theory behind this: if you can fly those, you can fly anything!
I'd already logged 4 hr. prior to theory, but given a break of over two months in the classroom, was right back at square one in the air. And one habit I had yet to overcome probably struck fear into the hearts of the flight instructors,
I'm a self-confessed petrol head. All my life I've owned fast cars and some of the world's fastest production motor bikes. Thus I had developed a notion that to increase power you rotate your wrist towards you. Not so the helicopter. After twice causing the need for a hasty recovery from my instructor as I killed the revs on the climb, I came up with the idea of drawing an arrow on my hand indicating the correct direction to twist. It worked for me, and in just a couple of flight hours I was competent with the collective.
In the time that followed, I concentrated on the hover. The aeronautical feat separating helicopters from most aircraft eluded me for some time. One minute I was hovering, brain overloading and control inputs overflowing. I'd hold it for 10 sec., then suddenly I'd find myself gaining and losing altitude, confusing pedals and quickly being rescued by the hands and feet of my instructor. But like all things, practice made the difference and I was soon pattern-hovering, working limited-power take offs and basic circuits. With 13 hr. logged over two weeks, I'd also just become competent (my words, not my instructor's) at "quick stops," possibly the most fun I'd had to date in a helicopter.
Every day as students, we all spent from 0700 to 1730 in flight ops. Days consisted of fine-tuning basic skills like radio calls, circuit protocol and swatting up prior to a flight. Only a few people were training then, and it was a family atmosphere with a lot of friendly advice changing hands.
I'd been through autorotation theory and watched the training video several times. I'd sat in a helicopter and done dry run after dry run on the ground. With a Class One Medical in my possession, this was the only skill I needed before I would be granted my first basic solo flight. When you hear the revs die, it is a most disconcerting feeling whilst at an altitude of 1,000 ft. But thanks to the brilliant design of helicopters, as long as you catch the situation fast enough and reverse the pitch, you can float to ground.
After four more hours on circuits and basic autorotation, instructor Mike Becker turned to me and said, "I'm confident you won't kill yourself or my helicopter, so bring in your medical certification tomorrow. You're going solo."
Riding home on my motor bike, my sprits were soaring. Solo! I observed a car indicating left on a roundabout and positioned accordingly. To my horror, the car turned right. Car and bike met and I was catapulted into a clump of trees at 30 mph and altitude of 10 ft. I regained consciousness in the hospital and discovered that I had fractured my right femur (in two places) and left tibia, shattered my pelvis and totally destroyed my right knee ligaments.
It's now 14 months later and, after months in a wheelchair followed by months of physiotherapy and gym work, I've made an amazing recovery. Considering the damage, I'm lucky I'm not stuck in that wheelchair for life. But the upshot for my studies is I need to re-learn everything.