When I began taking lessons, I was assigned to fly with a part-time instructor who worked a full-time day job and gave lessons on the weekend. He was a good instructor but sometimes, the fates worked against us. The weather would cause us to cancel a flight, his vacation or work schedule would delay another, my high school extracurricular schedule got in the way. I was motivated and wanted to have a career as a pilot and therefore wanted to get my private license as quickly as possible. But as the weeks turned into months and weekend after weekend passed with no flight lesson, I thought, there must be a better way.
I talked to my instructor about my frustrations and he mentioned Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. As I told you, I ended up going to school there and the environment was steeped in the culture of producing professional pilots. Rules were strict, the instructors were focused and it seemed everything we did revolved around taking the training we were receiving to the next logical step, a career as a professional pilot. I progressed much more quickly than I had at the local FBO. Another differentiator was the focus on safety and emergency procedures at ERAU. From the very first flight, I was asked to think about what I would do if the oil pressure began to drop, if there was a fire in the cockpit, if the engine quit, if the weather got bad. This mindset was so different from the local FBO I started at, where many people took flight lessons for fun and instructors didn’t want to scare away students by practicing things like stall recognition and recovery too early in the game.
Later, I became an instructor at ERAU. One summer I was part of a cooperative program between the Air Force and the university. It was a screening program for young pilot candidates for the U.S. Air Force Academy. A group of ERAU instructors went through a training program that detailed many aspects of what the Air Force was looking for in their pilot candidates. There were Air Force instructors who set up shop at the university and gave the candidates ground school. Our part was to do the actual flight training. This course was for people that had little or no prior flight training.
The course was very strict—more so than ERAU’s initial flight training. I remember thinking, “How could anyone get through this?” Not only did they attend ground school, they flew and studied and did physical training as well. Secretly, all the civilian flight instructors snickered a bit at the requirement for these young dream-struck pilot wanna-bes to wear a full Nomex flight suit, including gloves, in the wretched Florida heat and humidity. It wasn’t enough that these hopeful young men and women were being pushed to their intellectual and physical limits daily, they also had to be miserably uncomfortable while doing it.
The Air Force instructors gave us very specific rules the candidates had to follow. For instance, we were allowed to demonstrate a maneuver as many times as the candidate requested we do it, however, once they said they were ready to demonstrate it themselves, they were required to do it within very limited standards. In other words, when performing a stall recovery only a certain amount of altitude could be lost.
The key phrase was, “Do you understand?” If the candidate answered, “Yes, I understand,” they were required to do it perfectly. Every failed maneuver was one step further away from their dream and one step closer to being purged from the pilot candidate pool. In some respects, it was heart-wrenching to watch them make mistakes. Some cocky candidates would answer immediately, after the first demonstration of a maneuver, “Yes, I understand,” then struggled to complete the maneuver for the first time themselves. Other candidates would ask for the demo to be done over and over and over. They were so nervous they couldn’t process the steps after repeated demos. Somewhere in between were some very level-headed, quick-learning people who studied the procedures hard when out of the cockpit and learned quickly by watching our every move several times before saying, “I understand.”
I saw quickly how the program was working. Students were being weeded out left and right. They got airsick, they were too nervous, they couldn’t memorize the procedure, they couldn’t make their theoretical understanding of the procedure mesh with the physical act of flying the aircraft.
It was a privilege to be involved with that program and I learned a lot. Having never been in the military, I came away with a deep respect for the military way of training and those who survive it, even though I knew what I experienced was only a tiny microcosm of the real thing.
As we look to producing helicopter pilots of the future, as well as improving the safety record of helicopter operations, I want to implore those who train at independent training facilities to take a hard look at the level and focus of safety in your operation. Training should be hard, challenging and focused on professionalism and safety from the first moment a potential student steps through the door. I’ve seen independent helicopter training operations since coming on board here and know that most are doing outstanding work. But there is always room for improvement.