Student View

By Simon Roper | April 1, 2006


Just Like Riding a Bike?

Just shy of his solo flight, Simon Roper's helicopter training was derailed by a motorbike accident. After a lengthy recovery, he resumes that training in this, the third installment of his account of the pursuit of a commercial pilot's license (helicopter)--CPL (H). The previous installment appeared in February on page T8--The Editor.

"It's just like riding a bike," said one of the flight instructors. "Once you've done it, you never forget."


This was in reference to the accident that had befallen me some 14 months earlier, which occurred 17 hr. into my flight log, on the eve of my first solo flight, and left me with broken legs and macerated knee ligaments.

Let alone flying, I'd had to learn how to walk again! And given that the accident had happened so early into my flight training, I distinctly lacked the confidence my instructor seemed to have in my abilities to pick up where I left off.

But, with a visit to my designated aviation medical examiner resulting in me departing with a clean bill of health attached to a Class One Medical, I was back in the cockpit, had made my call to ground and was ready to lift up.

I have to confess the hover wasn't rock solid. Yet amazingly, after such a lengthy absence coupled with such horrific injuries, I pulled it off with my instructor merely shadowing the controls. A true credit to motor responses . . . I was back in the business of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot.

I had planned to complete my training in a Hughes 300, a small, two-seat trainer, the same machine that has trained generations of U.S. Army helicopter pilots since the 1950s. But I opted to swap over to the iconic Bell 47, a more complex machine that was dubbed the Angel of Mercy for its part in carrying injured soldiers from the battlefields of the Korean War.

"Welcome to a real helicopter," smiled Mike Becker, chief flight instructor at Becker Helicopters, in Queensland Australia. "This will be a little different to what you've been used to."

The transition between the two was less painful as I had only flown the Hughes for a relatively short period of time. But nonetheless there are significant differences between the two helicopters. One being that control inputs in the Bell take a longer time to transfer to the machine's attitude. This means everything happens more slowly, especially autorotations. In the Hughes, the entry to autorotation is a hurried affair given the twitchy nature of the machine. The Bell, in comparison, makes it all appear to happen in slow motion.

But I soon grasped the differences between the two helicopters and felt competent at all basic flight maneuvers. This was confirmed on Aug. 14, 2005 at about 0615 local time, when on a sunny morning, Captain Becker looked across at me and offered to let me loose in his expensive helicopter. Other pilots have told me that you never forget your first solo, and as Mike jumped out and secured the hatch, I really felt that I was about to take my life into my own hands, which in a way I was. I had no idea how I would react to the feeling of flying 500 ft. agl with nobody to fall back on. But I can happily report to anybody reading this with a view to obtaining a license that it was a liberating experience that, as predicted, I will never forget. It bolstered my confidence no end, and was a signal that I was moving forward. Even though I had to wait 14 months for that solo flight, it was well worth it.

The next few flights saw me going solo much more, fine-tuning my abilities in the helicopter training area, with circuits and pattern hovering. I needed the basics second nature so I could begin to fit out my pilot's arsenal with some more essential weapons, like how to navigate.

I think the instructors must have mixed feelings about accompanying students on dual "navs."

On the one hand, they have little to do regarding flying the helicopter, because by this stage students are competent with the controls.

But with the increase in pilot workload linked to radio calls as you enter or depart zones, plus navigation itself, it's scary just how quickly it all can unravel.

And I think this is a constant source of amusement for the instructors, as they watch you begin to veer off course, whilst you are convinced you are heading in the right direction before finally realizing that the view of the ground bears little resemblance to the map that you are frantically fighting with.

My instructors let me trip up several times because the only way to learn is by making mistakes.

Navigation has many ways of spoiling a helicopter pilot's day. It's rare that once you are in the air the wind is doing what it was when you planned your flight. So, despite your efforts to correct for wind and steer a certain heading, you rarely make your track for long.

But coping with this teaches you to navigate from ground to map, in addition to drilling you in essential "lost" procedures, taking you that step closer to being a real pilot.

The first "nav," like going solo, was another milestone for me training-wise. It was the first time I had actually gone somewhere other than the skies above the airport, landed and headed back via several landmarks.

It's surprising just how much it takes it out of you, even though you are essentially sitting still. In the early stages, you land exhausted and aching. Once again, I was not much fun in the evenings for my long suffering fianc�!

Still I was soon planning the second of five dual "navs," a jaunt of about 100 nm. With this one under my belt, I could move forward and complete a further three dual "navs," then on to five solo ones ahead of my CPL (H) test in a couple of months, weather permitting.

Alas, for my second "nav," the weather was not permitting. I was trying my best to stick to my carefully engineered flight plan. But it was a case of the best laid plans of mice and helicopter pilots, as the weather closed in around me. I have to say I became a little anxious as the wall of cloud rose up in front of me and the rain started to hit the bubble.

Disorientation No Option

If you fly through cloud as a helicopter pilot without an instruments rating, you can become disorientated very quickly as--unlike planes--helicopters are statically and dynamically unstable. Therefore, a loss of control would be inevitable if you can't see the horizon.

This was not an option. Nor was sticking to my flight plan. It subsequently went out of the window and had to be left for another day as we banked round for base.

And, for a while, the weather in Queensland was mostly inclement, reducing the opportunity of completing long-distance "nav" flights. But I will get through them, and this period did allow me to practice other essential handling skills in and around the airport area, such as slope landings, confined areas and jammed controls.

The pressure is beginning to mount up, although I am mostly enjoying the flying now. The next months will see me airborne all the hours available. I've logged 45 hr. dual and seven solo.

So I need to pile the pressure on myself for a PPL (H) at around 65 hr. in preparation for the commercial exam at the 105-hr. mark. Wish me luck!

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox