Commercial, Services, Training

Ab-initio Helicopter Training Vetted at Summit

By By Andrew Parker, Managing Editor | August 1, 2010
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Left to right, Ernest Anderson, Dennis Pierce, Christian Gadbois, Cass Howell and Gordon Jiroux. Photo by Andrew D. Parker

A group of five experts from various sectors of the training industry examined proven techniques and best practices to train new helicopter pilots and instructors during a panel at the Rotor & Wing 2010 Safety and Training Summit. Christian Gadbois, owner of Bakersfield, Calif.-based SRT Helicopters, moderated “Ab-initio Helicopter Training”, with presentations from Ernest Anderson, associate professor at University of North Dakota; Cass Howell, Dean of Aviation for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Universal Helicopters President Gordon Jiroux and Dennis Pierce, owner/operator of Colorado Heli-Ops.

Jiroux described the pitfalls of putting a freshly trained helicopter pilot in the position of teaching new student pilots right away.


“Picture a doctor who just finished school to become a surgeon, and his very first job is in the emergency center trauma department. Sometimes that’s what I feel a new CFI is expected to do, and we really need to look at that and try to stay away from that approach,” he said.

Howell noted that “one of the disadvantages of putting people in the university environment—not really a disadvantage perhaps, depending on where you’re sitting—is that sometimes they change their minds. Sometimes they decide, ‘Hey, I found something else that interests me more that what I thought I wanted to be.’ And we have that happen all the time.” He continued that it’s good for people to change their mind, as long at it’s done early rather than later. “We don’t want them to invest $60,000 in a helicopter training program only to find out within a short period of time that, ‘This is not for me, I found something else that interests me more.’ We like to say we train for skills and we educate for professionalism,” Howell said.

Gadbois noted that “one of the things we’ve done to make a better pilot is when I have guys coming to my place looking for jobs, traditionally everybody I see is miserable on weather. They say, ‘We don’t operate in that environment’ and I say well that’s great, how are you going to get from Bakersfield to LA? It’s an 8,000- to 9,000-foot climb. You now have winds aloft you have to deal with, and those winds aloft are not really winds aloft, they’re local mountain winds. There are a lot of things as pilots we don’t take into consideration. To me, weather is a situational awareness tool.”

Jiroux explained that over the course of six to 18 months, “we have to make a person that shows up in our office not only a qualified pilot, but we have to make them pretty much an expert in teaching. What now can be done with a four-year degree—if someone decides to be a schoolteacher and then last-minute turns into a helicopter pilot, that would be the ideal situation for us.” But, he continued, “we don’t have that, we’re never presented with that. … So what we’ve had to do is develop a program that allowed us to make pilots educators, because in our environment, the first job they’re going to get is as a flight instructor.”

This results in a situation where there are “brand new pilots with almost no education background becoming teachers, and to teach zero-time pilots,” Jiroux said. “Considering that they just learned their technique and they just learned their new craft, and the day they learn it they have to go out and teach it, that’s very difficult,” he added.

Jiroux has changed his philosophy over the past decade to address this issue. “My recommendation is that we have a mentoring program, where we don’t just take a brand new flight instructor and turn him loose with a brand new student,” he said. At Universal Helicopters, “we take a brand new flight instructor, and we give that flight instructor an instrument student,” he continued.

“We do that for two reasons. One, we have a tier system on what maneuvers we allow our instructors to teach under—a brand new instructor cannot teach straight-in autorotations [or] things that may cause trouble with a new student. The other thing we found out is that brand new CFIs have the hardest time retaining the instrument portion of their training. So by giving them a new instrument student, that gets them comfortable in the aircraft as a flight instructor, and second, it allows them to perfect a craft and the most difficult thing to retain, which is the instrument flying, as well as the instrument instructor flying.”

Howell pointed to Embry-Riddle’s crash lab as a place where pilots “can learn about what not to do, when you look at mistakes people have made. We’ve had the opportunity to send people through this unique device, which is a collection of about a dozen real-world accidents recreated, laid out in the desert as they fell to Earth. So you can learn a great deal from that, to include from the helicopter side as well.”

One approach to training that causes a little bit of controversy, Gadbois said, is that SRT “encourages people to get their fixed-wing ratings. They get their private helicopter first, flip over to the airplane, do their private airplane add-on, and from there they do their instrument training.”

Gadbois admits that fixed-wing training is not helicopter time, “but I guarantee you the guys we get when they’re back in the helicopter, when we actually do put them in actual instrument conditions in a twin-engine aircraft on a ferry flight or something, is a no-brainer for them. They’ve been in the suit, they’ve experienced that ‘Oh my God this is scary’ for the first time, it’s not a new thing for them. Their radio skills are 10 times better, their situational awareness is much better—they understand the environment.”

“What are we told?” he continued. “Helicopters have to stay out of the way of fixed-wing traffic. If you know where the fixed-wing guys are going to be it makes life a lot easier. We’ve seen a huge increase on their instrument skills, their competency in IFR.”

For videos from the 2010 Safety and Training Summit, visit:

Rotor & Wing Safety and Training Channel

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