Helicopter Flight Training Risk Management
Flight training is risky business, and when it comes to Helicopters, it is riskier still. As a Flight Instructor or Flight School operator, there are some steps that can and should be taken to mitigate those risks. One of the most important factors is whether or not both the flight instructor and the student take flight training seriously. You would think everyone would, but I can assure you they don't. Just sit and observe the activities and if you can, listen on the radio at a busy training airport anywhere. I have witnessed much goofing off, even wrote to a couple of schools. Much of the time, those choosing to play like this will do it while at an airport remote to their normal area of operations where they can get away with it. Goofing off while in flight training is very damaging and teaches students that aviation is a joke and these practices continue until an accident happens in the future. So, what can we do about it?
I mention a student many times throughout this website, and I must clarify when a pilot is a student. Though you may be giving instruction to a person for advanced ratings such as Commercial or Instrument, once a person receives the first rating, that pilot is never a student pilot again. Rather, they are a pilot receiving instruction. This misconception commonly results in pilots receving incorrect sign-offs especially when in training for a certificate in an aircraft for which they don't hold a category rating. These mistakes are often not caught by DPEs, nor FAA inspectors because they don't know any better either. This is an instructor failure lead by incompetence at the FAA and its DPEs.
- Tolerances - Flight instructors should always teach their students the precision of commercial standards. Students shouldn't be taught that a level of flying is "good enough", that is for the examiner. Teaching poor standards is the same as teaching a student to give up. Many accidents occur because a pilot gave up and quit flying the aircraft; they just stopped trying. A PTS is often given to students at the onset of training, and they perceive that they don't have to be any better than what those standards say. This perception is poor and incorrect and a student has no useful need for a PTS other than understanding what an examiner is looking for on the date of the practical test.
- Solo - There are specified solo requirements for good reason. Students should not just go out and build time. For a private rating, there are only 10-hours of solo flight required, so that is exactly what the student should do. It can be boring for a flight instructor to babysit a student, but it is a job that should be taken seriously. This benefits both the flight instructor and the student. The student's flying skills won't be degressive, and the instructor can ensure progressive improvement while continuing to log flight time. This wasted time building is common when a student is trying to gain the flight time needed between a private and commercial rating. However, it would be much better to pursue an advanced rating (Instrument) or add a category which would keep the student learning while maximizing money spent. Again, good for both the student and the flight instructor.
- Fuel Reserve - There are a large number of accidents that occur due to fuel exhaustion. I have heard many stories of where flight instructors told their students, "this next autorotation could become real", because they were low on fuel. This mentality teaches students not to take fuel reserves seriously. Fuel reserves should never be utilized as the reserve to get you home, that reserve is what you need to plan to be home with! As a student, you are not stuck with an instructor or school, and you should value your life enough to report such events and go elsewhere. If the aircraft you are flying will only carry enough fuel for 30-minutes with you and the instructor onboard, then deal with it, but don't fly into your safety reserve.
- Weight and Balance - This one often goes hand-in-hand with the Fuel Reserve mentioned above. Training aircraft are small and often weight and balance becomes a fueling issue. Often times instructors have the mentality that the aircraft has a fudge factor built in which is completely FALSE! Fudge factor applies only when you're making fudge, not when you're flying! It is no more acceptable to fly your aircraft over weight than it is to fly it low on fuel. If you only have x-minutes of fuel available, then you must deal with appropriately. Fueling while training teaches proper techniques and prepares students for commercial flying; that is how we have to do there also.
- Hot Fueling - Hot fueling should not occur during flight training for two important reasons. Training aircraft are piston driven and extremely high risk during hot fueling. See this article. Students should never be taught that time in the training environment is so important that hot fueling is worth the risk.
- Low altitude flight - Altitude is a pilots best friend. Remember, you can't use altitude above you, runway behind you, and ten seconds ago. Low altiude flight should not be taught during flight training as there is simply no need for it. Deceleration flares are for the purpose of aborting a take-off, or for terminating an air-taxi. Air taxi for the most part should not be emphasized during private training, rather the student should be taught to request a hover taxi if instructed by a controller to air-taxi. Air taxi can become dangerous very quickly if a pilot loses wind direction and inadvertantly turns into a down wind.
- Agriculture maneuvers - This is what all students want to be shown, they think it is cool and fun. There is no place in the training environment for this type of sporting training. It will be at least two years before a student is ready for this, and they should not be taught or demonstrated before that.
- Autorotation - More accidents occur during autorotation than any other helicopter maneuver or training event. There are some simple methods that can be utilized to mitigate the risks of autorotation training and practice, and strategies to reduce student apprehension and fear of the maneuver.
- Don't rush autorotation training - Autorotations should be talked about early on, but there will be little to gain by training to early, and possibly even some negative training. It is better to be teaching LZ awareness in preparation. I don't begin autorotation training until the student has accumulated 10-hours of experience because at about that time a student is beginning to understand the helicopter a lot more and they tend to remain more relaxed and ready for some advanced taining. Some instructors and the FAA may disagree with this, but the high accident rate should have taught them something by now, and it hasn't.
- Don't start a training session with autorotations - Autorotations should be practiced later in a training session when the student has demonstrated relaxed control efforts, and not before. If a student is tense on the controls, it will only become worse during autorotation training thereby creating a higher risk level. If a student is exhibiting tenseness on the controls, autorotations should not be practiced.
- Begin an autorotation segment with a straight-in - And... begin that first autorotation at a higher altitude such as 1,200 feet above ground and from stabilized cruise speed flight. A higher altitude gives a student time to actually get a grasp on what is taking place.
- Don't slam-dunk the collective - I see this all the time, and it is a poor and out-of-control technique. The entry to an autorotation should always be smooth and controlled from a stabilized flight profile. The collective lowering and throttle roll-off should be a simultaneous input accompanied with an aft cyclic input.
- Throttle chops are dangerous - There is much dispute in this area; some examiners will do it and others won't. The dispute is with regard to the value of the risk not the danger. If an engine fails there may not be much warning, so the intent of the throttle chop is to simulate an abrupt failure. Teaching a good instrument scan is far more important than chopping the throttle. In most cases, there is some sort of indication that an engine failure is imminent and often times that will be indicated by abnormal intrument readings. If a student does not maintain a good scan, and learn what is normal on a particular aircraft, they will miss those early signs.
- Failure to recognize and abort an unstable auto - If an autorotation is not stable before passing through 300-feet AGL, it must be aborted immediately and smoothly. The abort should begin with throttle followed by collective. Go around and try again, or try another day if the student is to tense for safe autorotation practice at the time.
- The H/V Curve - Stop calling it the deadmans-curve; that isn't what it is. This chart is the recommended take-off profile. It depicts the area in which an autorotation would be difficult for the average pilot to complete without causing damage to the helicopter. A highly skilled pilot who practices a lot of autorotations can complete them inside this chart without damage.
- Deceleration Flares or Quick Stops - I have seen so many pilots execute an improper deceleration flare. A propely executed deceleration flare will not be overly aggressive and will have no balloon, and no descent during the flare. A controlled descent will be accomplished after leveling the helicopter.
- Dependance on electronics and GPS - When I was flying fixed wing freight, we lost more pilots at their 6-month instrument recurrent than we did during new-hire. It was because they didn't keep their skills honed. Electronics and GPS increase risk because the pilots using them tend to let other important aspects of flight go unattended. Poor scans take place and the instruments get ignored not to mention the fact that the over-reliant pilot can't fly without out them. I don't allow a private pilot to use any added item, and I don't allow the use of the GPS until they can navigate without it.
- Hands on the controls - Students should be taught not to rely on control lockdowns, and never to remove their hands from controls that are not either locked or held in some way. I witnessed two cases where a collective came up on a running aircraft when the pilot thought they were secure. During a check-ride unattended controls will likely be a failure.
- Landing to close to obstructions - I have witnessed many cases where a pilot was either to lazy to move the aircraft further away, or was showing off. In one case, a pilot who had rented a helicopter landed next to the hanger and then said that someone should probably move the helicopter a little further away before taking off. Inexperienced pilots should not be close than one rotor diameter seperation from any other object. Helicopters should not land upwind of a fixed wing aircraft unless at least three rotor diameters seperation or more.
- Exiting a running aircraft - This is a very foolish risk, and I can't think of a single case where exiting a running aircraft would be necessary. I am aware of a few dead pilots who did think it was safe and/or worth the risk. It isn't, and it better not happen on my watch.
- Communications - As you listen on the radio, you will hear many pilots practicing very poor communication skills. It is because they weren't taught any better. Poor instructors handing down poor information and technique. Don't let this happen to your students, rather make your students stand out to the examiners who check them, believe me it does get noticed. See also Communications.
- The Bad Attitude student - I had a student who on the second training session told me that I was wasting his time. I fixed that, I told him that he needed to find another instructor or school. Sooner or later you will have a student who just doesn't take training serious, isn't interested in learning, or that you simply can't teach. When this happens don't let them risk your reputation and your certificate; it's better to let them go elsewhere.
- The Pilot Logbook - Teach your students how to log their own flight time and let them complete their own logbook from the very first flight. They need to learn how to do it properly and it is their responsiblity to ensure that it is correct. Afterall it is they who must sign every page attesting so. If they don't have it right, don't sign-ff on your training until it is.
- A Three Strikes Rule - I have a three stikes rule that I stick to no matter what. If two events cause me to take notice, I don't wait for a third; I don't take that flight. You will have to develop qualifying factors on your own. For me, I have found that it doesn't happen very often but when it does, I'm not going.
- Limitations - In the flight training environment often times limitations get ignored and this should never occur. The most common:
- Manifold Pressure - Students learning to fly piston helicopters are often not taught to heed the manifold pressure limitation usually because even the flight instructor doesn't understand why it exists. What they learn early on is that when it is exceeded, nothing noticeable usually occurs, though it can. In a piston helicopter, the manifold pressure limitation is equivalant to the torque (N1 or NP) limit in a turbine helicopter. This is where a student should learn torque limitations for flying turbines later. Manifold Pressure is power management, if students aren't taught from the beginning, then when?
- Weight and Balance - As with manifold pressure, students and instructors often don't see a consequence when weight and balance is exceeded so the limitation goes unheeded. What they fail to figure out, is that the first indication that they have exceeded a weight limit, is an exceedance of the Manfold Pressure limitation. When weight and balance is exceeded, additional stress occurs on all other components of the helicopter (or any other aircraft). Of most significance are the rotor blades, the transmission and attaching components. Catasrophic failure can, will and has occurred. Though is may seem to you that you got away with it, you didn't. It may not show up until even much later, and it could result in the death of another pilot who may be someone you know.
- The built in Fudge Factor - When you hear another pilot say this, you should know right away that you're talking to an idiot. There is no such thing as a built in fudge factor in aviation. Thinking there is, and using that ignorance to exceed limitations will get you or someone else dead.
- The Over-confident Student - This is very common, and it is frustrating for the Flight Instructor. This student can show their over-confidence in many different ways. What makes it most frustrating is that you can't just let them make mistakes, so their inability to properly control the aircraft isn't always obvious to them. I have had many students who thought they were ready for their check-ride way to early. You can't let them take the check-ride knowing they will fail because that also goes against your pass rate record. The over-confidence may show up in other ways as well. I had one student who said that I was fighting him on the pedals. I put my feet flat on the floor and asked who was fighting him now. Students don't know what they don't know and you can't let them drive you into doing something that you know you shouldn't do.
You can't fix stupid, but you can train proper and safe techniques. You can give students good examples to follow. Early trained habits are hard to break whether they are good or bad. When teaching the above mentioned procedures, pull up an accident report that was the result of not practicing what you are trying to teach, they are out there. Review the report with the student.
It is of the utmost importance to thoroughly consider what we will be teaching students because they will follow the example we put forth for many years to come. When unacceptable behavior is taking place, speak up and take action. END Jump to Top.