I Blame Television

By Simon Roper | September 1, 2005
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For one student, seeds planted by the sight of helicopters on television flowered into a fledgling career as a pilot in Australia--with an embarrassing start.

I blame television. Growing up in the late 1970S and early `80s exposed me to all kinds of junk that proved simply too formative to ever shake off. How could any kid, having watched Airwolf and Blue Thunder, ever NOT want to be a helicopter pilot?

The desire to fly was further nurtured in my early teens by countless action movies and numerous Discovery Channel-type documentaries on choppers. Later, remarkable books like Robert Mason's "Chickenhawk" provided further inspiration.


But it was only with the onset of adulthood that my fascination with these machines was confirmed. I realized just what a difference they make to our world--the technology employed, and the skill used in mastering it, means a helicopter does things nothing else can. To pilot a machine and use this skill in conjunction with such amazing technology meant I could really make a difference in the world. And have a lot of fun doing it.

Yet somehow I had ended up as a journalist whose flying experience amounted to one trial instruction flight in a Cessna, several in R22s, and half-baked plans to obtain a private pilot's license when time allowed. Despite my earlier aspirations, I had doubted a career in aviation. It just seemed too unobtainable--but I kept the dream alive, buying all the magazines, keeping abreast of the aviation community in general.

And, because of that, I kept reading articles stating that ex-Vietnam veterans were beginning to drop out of the top end of the pilot market for medical reasons, creating openings for those below them. It seemed that a hole for newbie pilots could soon be emerging. Moreover, helicopters were being used for ever-increasing applications. Surely pilot demand was on the up?

My decision to make serious enquires into pilot training was galvanized by the fact that I had, some years back, given up a perfectly good job with Bloomberg News to start my own media company, only to see it flounder in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the consequent contraction of global financial markets.

At this time I lived by the River Thames in Wandsworth, London. My apartment was located under the Heathrow glide path, but more interesting was its situation by Battersea Heliport, the capital's only helipad, operated by Harrods owner Mohammed Al Fayed. Every day that I toiled over my laptop these graceful machines whirred and purred overhead, luring me to my balcony to watch them land and take off instead of concentrating on the revival of my journalistic career.

One further event set me down the track to being a pilot. My father died after a battle with cancer. While the event was devastating, I knew that he would be proud that it could mean an entirely new start for me. Using my inheritance, I was going to better myself and use the money to part-fund a commercial helicopter pilot's license--CPL(H). I was about to realize an ambition--but at 35, this was a re-training exercise, not just some mid-life crisis.

My research into British-based training schools was brief, lasting no longer than one phone call to a flight school based just north of Oxford, England.

"Hello, I'm thinking of becoming a pilot. Could you quote me on the price of the full-time CPL(H) course you run for Joint Aviation Authorities certification please?"

"Sixty-five thousand pounds," was the reply.

"Thanks very much. Good bye."

So much for Britain. My financial situation indicated it was time to look outside Europe. English is my first language and the only one I could attempt to study in, and that meant my choices were Australia, Canada, South Africa or the United States.

Given the favorable exchange rate when converting pounds Sterling to Australian dollars, coupled with the fact that my doctor fiancé ·asn't prepared to sit the medical exams necessary for her to work in Canada or America, I settled on Becker Helicopters, a mid-sized flight school located on the aptly named Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Australia. A residential course here would cost me almost a third of its U.K. equivalent and the weather would be mostly CAVOK (ceiling and visibility OK).

I had considered six other flight schools in Australia, using the Internet as an invaluable and cost-effective resource. Becker Helicopters shone through due to its strong corporate identity, excellent client liaison skills and informative web package.

I shortly found myself paying my deposit to Becker and booking two one-way flights to Brisbane. Two days before I was due to leave, I received a delayed email from a senior recruitment aficionado at Bristow Helicopters, one of the world's largest fleet operators, whom I had canvassed months back for information on pilot demand.

"The market for low-hour pilots remains bleak. I would recommend a fixed-wing career," it said.

I reluctantly kept this from my fiancé® I didn't want to worry her--or perhaps it was the onset of denial already. Either way, we were both committed because she had quit her job as a general practitioner and had already made good progress towards gaining employment Down Under. Would I be so lucky after flight school was over, I wondered.

We arrived at Becker's in 38C heat, dehydrated and needing sleep. My personality was not at home. Yet as soon as I decamped from the bus and laid eyes on the airport and its facilities, I became re-energized and strode purposefully in to meet the people with whom I had been in email exchanges and telephone conversations over the past months.

As we were being introduced to everyone, a particularly charismatic individual grasped my hand and welcomed me to the school. I asked him three times who he was during the course of our greeting exchange, but he never answered the question. As he moved on to engage my fiancé ©n conversation, my eyes trained down his flight suit to his wings and name badge. "Captain Mike Becker," it read. "Senior Flight Instructor."

Trust me to not recognise the main man! Had I marked my card with the head honcho already?

"Student View" chronicles the path of Simon Roper, a career journalist, in his recently launched training at Becker Helicopters at Sunshine Coast Airport in Mudjimba, Queensland, Australia to become a commercial helicopter pilot. Injuries from a July 2004 motorbike accident, which occurred the day before his first scheduled solo flight, interrupted Simon's training and confined him to a wheelchair for 2.5 months. He resumed training early this year. The next installment of "Student View" will appear in our January 2006 issue. If you have comments or questions for Simon, send them to or Rotor & Wing, 4 Choke Cherry Road, Second Floor, Rockville, MD 20854.

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