Commercial, Training

Pilot Training: Developing Tomorrow’s Helicopter Pilots

By Debbie Sparks and Tony Capozzi | March 1, 2009
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Tips For the Flight Instructor

They’ve known since childhood that being a helicopter pilot was the only thing they ever wanted to do. Dreams of landing on a deserted highway to assist in medical transport, a search and rescue assignment over snow-capped mountains, or lowering a basket to a stranded boater are just the beginning of the missions they want to fly. As flight instructors, it’s our job to wake them up!

There are a few things a potential flying school student needs to understand before beginning their journey toward a career as a helicopter pilot. First and foremost, the need to know that there are no shortcuts. Secondly, they have to be told that it’s not all glamorous. Lastly, the prospective student should know that piloting any aircraft, especially a helicopter, leaves a very small margin for error. One mistake – even if it isn’t fatal - and it’s over.


On the flip side, this is one of the most exciting career choices anyone can make. The helicopter industry provides numerous opportunities to fulfill their dreams and aspirations in a relatively short amount of time, while earning a respectable salary. Of course, that depends on who they talk to, since experts seem to be giving conflicting reports of job opportunities, salary ranges and requirements in nearly every sector these days.

These mixed signals should and do cause potential students to ask a lot more questions than those of the past. Flight schools often saw young high school graduates delve right into a professional pilot program. Moms and Dads had no problem signing on the dotted line for tuition, housing and expenses that added up to nearly $100,000. With the Silver State Helicopter Flight Academy downfall last year, once readily available flight training loans dried up and thousands were left in the dark. Only time will tell if those responsible for the collapse of Silver State will be held accountable. But one thing remains certain: we are seeing a more determined, better qualified student as a result.

The potential student that walks through the door today is much better educated and not in the mood for smoke and mirrors. They ask more in-depth questions about the various programs, financing and job markets. Another new trend is that they are now asking for references from previous graduates to better gauge the performance of a school.

As a flight school operator, we are exposed to every type of individual with "the dream" on a daily basis. You pretty much know when a potential student walks in the door what segment of the industry appeals to them. If they don’t tell us right up front, it ought to be the first question we pose. Perhaps this sounds a little strange, but let me explain the philosophy behind the question.

Helicopter flight training is only the beginning of creating a safe, professional pilot. Along the path, we have a responsibility to ensure the students are exposed to a variety of segments, such as EMS, law enforcement, petroleum, corporate and agriculture.

It’s not only our job to train them, it is our job to get them where they want to go. This also serves as a model by which we’re measured in the industry. To think that any one flight school could provide specialized training in every segment is not a reality, nor is it practical. But, by creating alliances and partnerships with other schools and specialized training facilities, the students are exposed to a myriad of experts and opportunities. In order to survive today’s tough critic, it is imperative that schools align themselves with programs such as local community colleges, advanced training centers and governmental agencies.

While the criteria for becoming an FAA Part 141 facility may be rigorous, the long-term value in terms of winning contracts and special financing for students far outweigh the obstacles. Veterans’ benefits are scheduled to increase this year as a result of the new G.I. Bill that was passed in 2008 and will be outlined in April 2009. Community colleges have Title IV funding availability as well as scholarships and grants. Most community colleges have an aviation program that allows students to earn an associates degree while pursuing flight training. And while it may take the student nearly double the time to achieve their licenses and ratings, the availability of funding and a degree may offset the delay.

Specialized training comes from several well-formed alliances as well. From night vision goggles to Part 135 operations, such as tours and electronic news gathering (ENG), the student will not only be better equipped upon graduation, but they will be considered a better value for hire, in part due to risk reduction.

We should also give counsel to join the appropriate associations and subscribe to publications within their chosen segment. Often, once a student is exposed to something other than their dream job, it’s amazing how many change their thinking merely because they’ve experienced something new and perhaps more challenging.

Let’s not forget the value of our foreign students, either. To become eligible to accept these valuable clients, schools must become Student and Exchange Visitor Program and Transportation Security Administration-qualified. The process is quite cumbersome and time consuming, but required nonetheless if you engage in foreign student flight training.

A very important question to ask a prospective student is, "What other schools have you researched and how did you hear about us?" This question assures us that they have done their homework. Anyone can have a pretty Web site and tout their attributes, but these young men and women are getting ready to make a huge investment of time and money. It’s important that they are completely comfortable with the programs offered, as well as the staff and facility before making a commitment.

Another matter of importance is the student’s schedule. Are they currently working full or part-time? Do they plan on training full time? What type of schedule works best for them? We can be very aggressive or as laid back as the student desires. These days, many students hold a part-time job while training and can still maintain a schedule that allows them to complete the courses — private through CFII — within 8-12 months. While we offer numerous ground school class schedules, my flight school operation finds that we are performing more one-on-one training to better suit the customers’ schedules.

Potential students should also inquire as to the student/instructor ratio. A good measure is normally 3.5 to 1, which can ensure that each student receives adequate attention and flight time.

When it comes to aircraft, does the school maintain its own fleet or does it use an outside mechanic or maintenance center? My school, as well as others around the world, chose to become authorized service centers to better manage the fleet. By maintaining a large fleet and having one or two extra ships in the mix, it allows less disruption of the schedule and better accommodates scheduled and non-scheduled maintenance.

Another benefit to having an on-site maintenance center is communication. While some discourage students from interrupting or speaking to the mechanics, our thoughts are exactly reverse. In a flight school environment, the inevitable, such as over-speeds, broken components and the like are bound to happen. The philosophy of open communication perpetuates reporting of an incident, as opposed to covering it up. Consider it risk mitigation.

Location, location, location is normally reserved for the real estate market, but potential students need to consider this when on a tight schedule. A school that’s located in an area with minimal interference from bad weather causes airtime cancellations, which equates to less time lost.

"Does the school provide student housing?" This question may also be relevant to the training experience. Most students cannot or will not sign a one- or two-year apartment lease while training. Credit and age may prevent some from getting an apartment, while those who might find a place will have to decided whether or not to default on the lease if they finish training before it expires. Not a good thing!

And increasingly frequent question that students ask about is the number of students the school hires as instructors. While schools get to be very choosy when hiring time comes, students are constantly reminded that every day they are in class, it’s an interview! Some students need to be reminded of that.

Gender and age also come up often during the initial inquiry. But in this industry, nothing matters more than professionalism, dedication and attitude. If it’s not already part of a student’s personality, it’s not for them.

These are the toughest economic times our generation has endured. It’s no mistake that flight school operators that were frugal and forthcoming with their students in the good times are still standing in the lean times. The key today – and everyday, for that matter – is to match the potential helicopter flight student with the right training program and environment. The students are out there and they represent the future of our industry. - D.S.

Student Check Ride Failures

If you’re a CFI it goes without saying that you’ve taken a few checkrides. But now your students have mixed results when it comes to their checkrides. They seem to fail because of varied reasons, not any one skill or knowledge item. So obviously you’ve just had a bad run of students, right?

Experience shows that there are two different kinds of failures: student failures and CFI failures. When a student fails a checkride it’s usually because they have brain freeze and are unable to recall information or unable to perform physical skills, sometimes known as checkride-itis. When the CFI fails the student it can be because something was missed during training, the wrong or outdated information was taught, bad habits and shortcuts were taught or the student never had sufficient skills and knowledge to meet the requirements.

You can see that the list is quite a bit longer for the CFI than the student. Why is that? If you have prepared your student for their checkride, assuring that they have sufficient knowledge and skill to perform to the Practical Test Standards, the only variable is that they succumb to the stress either mentally or physically. Remember, when you signed the application as the CFI you were stating they are able to meet the standards.

Most people will agree that they do not perform at 100% on a checkride. Usually, most applicants do not get a good night sleep the night before, sometimes for many nights before. On the day of the checkride they are so focused on the events they usually do not eat or drink sufficiently to maintain their blood sugar and hydration. Both of these issues have a negative and compounding impact on performance.

If a student is unable to recall information or a procedure, examiners can usually determine the depth of knowledge by asking questions about similar items that will jog the applicant’s memory.

How can you prevent these problems as a CFI? Are items falling through the cracks? If you don’t work for a Part 141 or Part 142 flight school with an approved syllabus you can use an aircraft manufacture’s syllabus or develop your own. As you are going through the training program and you give your students information to read and study prior to the next lesson, introduce the PTS and have them read the tasks and objectives so they know what standards they are striving to meet. The PTS is not a syllabus, but if you and your student have a goal of meeting these performance standards, it is easier to measure progress. Also, when you near the end of a training program, start reviewing the PTS for both ground and flight items. Ask questions and build scenarios based on the PTS to test your student’s knowledge and skill. Don’t skip anything. This will assure that you have covered everything that will be tested.

When it comes to bad or outdated information, are you using the current PTS and reference material? For every objective in it, there is a list of reference material. This material will give the information that is required to fulfill the objective. You should have a library with these references. I can guarantee that your examiner does. Many of the references are available free on the Internet.

Bad habits and short cuts. Do you teach using the manufacturer’s suggested procedures and those recommended by the Airman’s Information Manual within the Federal Aviation Regulations? Student’s are like sponges, they absorb everything they see and hear. If you don’t consistently teach only proper techniques, your students will learn your bad habits and techniques. A good clue that you’re doing this is that during the checkride preparation you are saying "make sure you do this _____". Fill in the blank with anything from "make sure you use the checklist," or "make sure you give a passenger briefing," etc. When a CFI passes on bad habits and shortcuts it’s like passing on a disease. Just teach the correct and proper methods and techniques. Your students will figure out the shortcuts as they gain more experience.

If a student doesn’t seem to have sufficient skill or knowledge, why did you recommend him or her? This goes back to the fact that no one is 100 percent on a checkride. If you make sure that the training is challenging and you set the standards higher than what is required by the PTS, you give your student some wiggle room between what is required and what they are capable of demonstrating. If your student is concerned because they are weak on one item or another you are setting them up for a failure.

If your students are struggling to pass their checkrides you need to ask yourself who really failed. Make sure that you’re giving them the best example to emulate, and both of your successes will surely follow. - T.C.

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