Flying without using the natural horizon is…well…unnatural.
It seems pretty simple to the average helicopter pilot. But hauling a load under a helicopter isn’t something that can be done the first time using basic flying skills. It takes knowledge of and proficiency in vertical reference flying. That skill must be mastered first.
Andre Hutchings is the director of operations at Los Angles Helicopters (LAH), a charter service and flight school operation based at Long Beach Airport in southern California. In addition to being a certified flight instructor, he has logged 10,000 hours as a pilot with Columbia Helicopters, where he specializes in flying long line missions in a Boeing/Kawasaki Vertol 107-II aircraft, a civilian version of the CH-46 Sea Knight.
Hutchings, with the help of his LAH business partners Michael Rogers, the CEO; Guillaume Maillet, chief pilot; Lars Fallman, director of maintenance; and several Columbia pilots, operate the company’s Long Line Course. Their goal is to transform the average helicopter pilot into a skilled vertical reference aviator. To learn how, R&W spoke with Hutchings.
R&W: What is vertical reference flying and why do you feel it requires specific training?
Hutchings: Vertical reference flying is the ability to look out and down, or out and back rather than using the natural horizon that you’ve been taught from day one to use. It’s just an extremely unnatural way to fly a helicopter. It’s probably the hardest flying you’ll ever do.
R&W: Can anyone learn how to do vertical reference flying?
Hutchings: I think anyone can learn how to do it. We’ve had all sorts of people through. We’ve taken low-time students and high-time commercial operators and we’ve been able to get everyone out, as long as you get the basics down first.
R&W: Why do pilots sit on the left side of the aircraft when flying vertical reference when most pilots in command are seated on the right side of the helicopter?
Hutchings: If you’re sitting on the left, the collective is right underneath your armpit. If you’re in the right seat and go to look out the door, that collective is a mile away from you, especially in the heavies.
R&W: What type of aircraft do you use to teach vertical reference flying, and is it specially equipped?
Hutchings: We use the Robinson R44. It’s a good, stable aircraft and it’s a good, stable long-line platform. And it’s excellent for vertical reference. It’s about the same size, dimensions-wise, as a [Bell 206B] JetRanger and the [MD Helicopters] 500, so it simulates those aircraft, as well. And it’s just inexpensive, especially right now with the economy and everything.
As far as equipment goes, our engineers have rigged up manual release buttons and electrical release buttons as required by the FAA for Part 133 ops. And we actually bought the long lines from Columbia Helicopters.
R&W: How do you actually go about teaching someone vertical reference flying?
Hutchings: We have six hours of ground school in the course. The first [part of the course] is actually a history lesson with Wes LeMatta…the man who definitely started it all. Then we show a bunch of pictures of Wes doing one of the first vertical reference long-line jobs ever done. He was pulling wire and setting some power poles. That’s when he first started realizing that he could do logging with it. That’s how the whole long-line logging industry started.
We’ll start [flying] off of the pads at Long Beach [Airport], usually the first two days. We show them a totally different seating position; you’re actually up on your left [backside], and you’re twisting your whole torso so you’re leaning out. That in itself is the first step. It freaks everybody out, because your feet are in a whole different position.
R&W: Then what?
We take them up and we show them where to look. One of the instructors sits in the back, and one of the instructors is in the front. We’ll first get them to hold a hover over [a] white line while looking straight down. It’s no use trying to get them to land if they can’t even hold a hover [in the awkward seating position]. We’ll get them to look down to line the skids up at kind of a right angle to the helipad. We want the skid’s aft cross tube [over the line]. That’s the strongest part of that whole skid setup; that’s what you’d want to be sitting on a log.
We get them to line that up and we try to get them to hold a hover over the white line. We’ll start off at a foot-high hover, and then we’ll try to get it down to six inches and then three inches. When they can get to holding it there, we’ll get them to actually start to try to land. We’ve got the instructor in the back making sure [the student’s] eyes are looking at the right spot and keeping up their scan. We get a lot of people fixating and a lot of people wanting to look farther up the skid than the cross tube. It usually takes about 2-1/2 hours [at the controls] before they can actually get to the point where they can land on the logs.
R&W: What are the logs?
Hutchings: They’re bush heliports [also called Alaskan-style heliports]. It’s when loggers go out in the bush and cut you a landing spot. [They] cut logs and set them up to land on.
R&W: What else happens at Long Beach?
Hutchings: We’ll also do a tail rotor exercise. In the bush, most of the heliports are one way in and one way out. They may have to back out to get out of a confined area. We’ll get them to put the tail rotor over the middle of the pad and bring the helicopter around with the tail rotor over one point of the pad. They’ll be out the door looking all the way back at the tail rotor.
In the last exercise at the airport, [the students] will do a simulated pick up and lay down of a long line. All the lines we use here are 200-foot steel lines. We use steel because it’s the most difficult utility line to fly and the least forgiving.
R&W: Why is a steel line so difficult?
Hutchings: There’s a lot of drag on synthetic lines and they fly very slow, so the movements at the bottom are very slow. They’re a beautiful line to fly. With a steel line, the steel has a tendency to cut through the air, so the steel is way less forgiving. On the last day of training, we’ll pull out that synthetic line. It can lift 40,000 pounds.
R&W: What do you have the students do with the steel line?
Hutchings: We’ll get the student to pick the aircraft up by vertical reference. They’ll hold it in a hover at the center of the pad, and then we’ll have them take it up to 200 feet nice and slow, nice and smooth. We’ll take them up that 200- to 250-foot hover and get them to keep it within a rotor diameter of the pad itself. And then we’ll get them to bring it down.
Depending on the wind, we’ll get them to do a turn just to show them what it feels like when you’re crosswind and downwind, and that if you start feeling a vibration, it’s telling you to get faster on your pedals and get back into the wind. Then we’ll get them to bring it back down over the pad again. The first 12 minutes [of flying the exercises] the students are completely humbled-out, big time. We purposely have three students at a minimum, because if you have any less than three, it’s just too brutal on them. So we have three people flying 10-12 minutes; one gets out, has a rest, and we get the next one in and keep it turning all day.
R&W: Once the exercises have concluded at Long Beach, what’s next?
Hutchings: We move out to Perris Valley near Riverside, Calif. There, we’ve got four Alaskan-style heliports that we’ve made up.
R&W: What do the students do at Perris Valley?
Hutchings: We’ll be simulating working in the bush. We’ll do low-level approaches into the heliports and practice different approaches into them; steep approaches, normal approaches; all sorts of things they’ll run into in the bush. We’ve got it setup so that at any one particular time, they’re never going to be directly into the wind, which just simulates real-life work. We’ll do that the first day [of nine days]. Later, we’ll pull a steel long line out. We’ve got logging chokers, we’ve got a medical litter, a net that we fill up with hay bales, and we’ve got a barrel sling that will hold three barrels. We go through how they work and each one is going to fly. We teach them how to preflight the line and preflight the helicopter, making sure that the manual and electric punch-offs work.
We’ll then have them do pick-ups and lay-downs of the line in all kinds of wind. Then we’ll get them to fly that line. We’ll teach them to stay over the top of the hook. If they stay over the top of the hook, it will not pendulum. That will be with no loads. By the end of that day, we’ll be trying to get them to fly a mini pattern and bring the hook to the ground crew.
Depending on how fast and how well they’re picking it up, we’ll start putting loads on the end of the line. We’ll usually start with the chokers, because they fly really slow. We’ll go into the trees and lay out a [target point] and we’ll want them to put the chokers on this spot. The trees kind of freak them out, because they’re so used to running that line across an open field with no obstacles. [Later, we’ll] put on the medical litter. We’ll teach them the reasons you fly slow, the reasons you have a guide rope on them, and how to move the hook. Then we’ll do a round of everything using the synthetic line just to finish it out.
R&W: There’s a photograph of your R44 with a snorkel under it. Where does that training come in?
Hutchings: We’ve got a customized course for Erickson Air-Crane. Their engineers worked on an actual snorkel for us. They adapted it to get down to fighting weight for the R44. So, the last few days [Erickson students] do snorkel training. They practice putting the snorkel into a dip tank. During an 11-day course, they’re probably going to do hundreds of shots. It’s great training for them and cost effective to do it in the R44.
R&W: Can any level of pilot successfully complete this kind of training?
Hutchings: You just have to be a licensed pilot, but [we suggest] having 1,000 hours. The majority of the students to date have been commercial operators that sent people to us. Some people come for one hour, just to try it out.