Helicopters are incredible machines, able to accomplish otherwise impossible tasks in the most remote parts of the world. There is also the glamour associated with flying a sleek vip Bell 430 or rescuing a stranded hiker with an AStar. The desire to become a helicopter pilot is not unusual, but is it the right career for you? If so, how does one go about selecting a flying school?
To find out more about a career in flying helicopters, the anj team visited Lylle Watts, a seasoned flight instructor at Heli-College Canada at Langley Airport, bc. Watts has four and a half decades of helicopter flying experience, while his fellow full-time instructor Geoff Stevens has about four decades of flying experience. Stevens happens to be the most experienced Robinson R22 pilot in the world.
According to Watts, the first step is to consider whether flying helicopters really is the right career choice for you. Because of their extreme versatility, helicopters are often used in areas that are otherwise impossible to reach. Therefore, a helicopter pilot needs to be willing to relocate to where the work is and, if necessary, sacrifice comfort or luxury. Operators look for pilots who are dedicated to getting the job done, problem solvers with a good attitude and perseverance. New pilots often enter the job market with incorrect expectations, virtually assuming that job offers would be raining upon them. The reality is that it requires effort and resourcefulness. Similarly, in advancing one’s career, it is important to remember that a pilot’s reputation goes with him or her. Again, when employing helicopter pilots, companies look for someone who ‘gets the job done’, so a reputation of being reliable is vital. In terms of training, self-discipline and study skills are certainly advantageous.
Still interested? The next step is to choose a flying school intelligently, rather than emotionally. “Do the research, don’t get caught up in the hype and glitz, and make sure the school is interested in you,” said Watts.
Make sure you understand what the total cost of the training is likely to be. When contacting a flying school, ask for a breakdown of the costs. What is the aircraft cost? Cheaper is not always better, as a more expensive helicopter could indicate a better and safer training experience, but make sure that is indeed the case. Is the instructor’s fee included in the aircraft cost? Is fuel and insurance included? Will you be paying for pre-flight briefings as part of the flight time? How much will ground school cost, and will it be taught by flight instructors? What about books, equipment, licence and flight test fees, safety equipment and accommodation? It is also necessary to understand the school’s payment schedule. It is best not to pay one large deposit to cover the whole course. Instead, pay as you learn and fly. Also, find out what the school’s refund policy is, should you decide to leave the course early. Make sure you have this information in writing.
Next, find out how many aircraft the school has on line. It is ideal to have at least one backup aircraft to keep interruptions in your training to a minimum. In the words of Watts, “Even if you are their only student, two aircraft 'on line' (available at a moment's notice) are better than one. Helicopters have a habit of occasionally going 'unserviceable' (requiring maintenance) and this may delay your training.” Also, what helicopter types does the school have available? Does it have turbine-powered helicopters available locally? Does it have an ifr (Instrument Flight Rules) helicopter and its own simulator?
“It has been proven that your performance will likely be best, if you stay mainly with one instructor for most of your course,” said Watts. However, “as with the aircraft, it is desirable to have a backup instructor as well, to minimize delays in your training programme. It may also be helpful to have some experience with an alternate instructor to allow comparison of flying techniques.” Therefore, find out how many instructors the school has on staff, and which class instructor ratings they hold.
Is the school open year-round, seven days a week? Does it have an in-house ground school programme, with training aids such as computer-assisted learning programs or a reference library? Find out how the students do in their written exams, what the passing grade is and if anyone has recently failed the exam.
Make sure you understand how long it will take to complete the course. “Assuming full time attendance, less than three months is probably too short. You need sufficient time to absorb and retain all the information you will with which you will be presented. If you try to cram it in too quickly, you will forget too much,”, said Watts. “More than seven months is probably too long. You must have as much continuity as possible to get the maximum benefit from your flight time. If there are large gaps in your flying schedule, you will waste too much time trying to catch up to where you were previously. Somewhere in between is ideal.” Remember to take poor weather, possible aircraft or instructor unavailability and financial delays into account. Also ask if the flying school has a job placement programme, bearing in mind that no company can guarantee you a job before you commence training.
Lastly, try to meet your instructor and arrange an introductory or familiarization flight. How interested is the instructor in you and your training needs? Would you be able to get along with him or her?
Deciding if and where you should begin your career as a helicopter pilot should not be taken lightly. To someone with enough dedication and love of flying, it could result in one of the best careers in the world.