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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Rocky Mountain Rush

The high altitude terrain over which helicopter pilots in the Rocky Mountains must train to fly is a pure rush of peaks and valleys. By Vicki P. McConnell

Mindful of the Safety & Training Summit at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center in Denver June 8–9, Rotor & Wing talked to operators about the challenges for helicopter pilots flying in Colorado and the training facilities available in the state. Commercial operators discussed special training for pilots to handle mountain conditions, and local flight schools reflected on the best training methods to help student pilots make the critical training/safety connection.

Aviating at Altitude

That’s high altitude we’re talking, above 10,000 feet, and Richard Westra, president of Aviation Technology Services (ATS) at Centennial Airport (APA) in Denver, has flown 20,000 hours of commercial operations in this environment. ATS has a fleet of four single and twin-engine turbine-powered helicopters to conduct air tours, pipeline surveillance and charter flights. According to Westra, around 20 percent of the company’s business involves training experienced helicopter pilots in the unpredictable world of high-altitude terrain flight.

“In that high-density flight zone, where the air is thinner and you have less lift, your whole world changes,” he says. “Weather can be tricky, fuel locations can be few and far between, and it’s hard to visually ascertain just how remote the terrain can be. It’s critical to recognize this and to understand the limitations of yourself as a pilot and your aircraft.”

Not a white-out in sight flying the Rockies on this day, but ATS pilots keep IFR proficient because the weather can change very quickly over remote mountain terrain. ATS
An unexpected whiteout at high altitude might demand IFR flying, and Westra believes this proficiency is critical. “Our own pilots review IFR every 12 to 18 months.” He also notes the demanding pilot control and accuracy required for external load missions in the mountains—ATS has delivered everything from lumber to hot tubs to microwave dishes.

For Denver’s largest air medical transport service, Air Methods, accident scene locations and weather conditions are always variable. Plus the company operates 16 different helicopter models, including the Eurocopter AS350B3 and EC135, Bell 407 and Bell 429. Chief pilot Chris Bassett says that the company requires 2,000 flight hours beyond the FAA minimum for its pilots and has developed a dedicated syllabus for its training program. “We have increased basic indoctrination ground school time from five to eight days and increased in-flight training days for all our aircraft,” he adds.

A helicopter pilot for 25 years, Bassett observes that pilot training has changed primarily in terms of utilizing interactive media and simulators, “which win hands down over other methods for certain procedures, such as inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions.” IIMC is a prevalent hazard for EMS pilots, and Air Methods is working with AeroSimulators of Englewood, Colo. to build EMS-specific flight training devices (FTDs). This includes two portable FTDs for training pilots in IIMC recovery anywhere in the field. Air Methods pilots are also night vision trained.

Turbine at Piston Price

The relationship of air density to engine power is a critical one, and that density in the Rocky Mountains is as high as the altitude. Jack Ferguson, co-owner and chief pilot for Mountain One Helicopters, makes this observation: “Most Colorado mountain passes are not higher than 12,000 feet but in the thinner air conditions, pilots simply can’t get the same amount of power to climb above unexpected obstacles or contend with powerful downdrafting.”

That’s one reason his company emphasizes wind/terrain analysis and power management in its rotorcraft training curriculum. Mountain One employs seven instructors with varying degrees of experience, and Ferguson himself has logged 3,500 hours. The company is a primary regional dealer for Enstrom Helicopter and operates two piston-powered Enstrom 280FXs, a Schweizer 300 and a turbine-powered Enstrom 480. The 280FX has a turbocharged engine, which Ferguson says offers “close to turbine performance for high-altitude training but at the hourly price a student pays for a piston-powered aircraft.”

For mountain training, Mountain One has access to operational zones on private land at 10,000 to 12,000 feet around Boulder and Telluride. Students can also utilize a FLYIT simulator for instrument rating, and Ferguson uses online lessons and group training sessions through tools like Skype.

Part 141 Flight School

Founded in 2001, Broomfield-based Rotors of the Rockies has achieved FAA Part 141 certification within the last 18 months and added related training courses to its private certificate and instrument curricula. Owned by Mike and Regina Fyola, ROR operates multiple aircraft and reports a total of 21,000 flight hours logged among its instructors. The company has offered a mountain training course for the past nine years, based on Mike’s 21 years of military helicopter experience, including six years with the Colorado Army National Guard out of the High Altitude Training site in Eagle. ROR has also presented a fire operations class in cooperation with the Boulder County Wildland Fire Department and developed long line and night vision goggle (NVG) courses in process of certification with the FAA.

Fyola points out that “autorotations at altitude here in the Rockies can be more challenging than at sea level and require a more acute awareness of environmental factors. Students have to be better instructed in wind awareness, but that also means they’re better able to handle what is thrown at them when they get into commercial operations.” ROR has invested in a Merlin FTD, which Fyola says is especially useful in helping students master instrument protocols and providing a cost-effective means for gaining confidence in particular flight skills “without draining a student’s bank account.” He also promotes group ground school classes that he believes “create a learning community” as a valuable student resource.

Specializing

Will Sanders, manager and chief pilot of Colorado Vertical, admits today’s economy has resulted in downsized operations for his company, which closed facilities in Grand Junction, Montrose and Rangely. Now based out of the Jet Center at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport (COS), the company offers private and commercial pilot training in its two R-44 Raven IIs.

The four flight instructors have a combined 60 years of high altitude/mountain terrain experience. With more than 2,400 flight hours, Sanders has developed a detailed mountain flying course to capitalize on this experience. The ratio of ground school to flight school is 30/20 hours, and the cost of the training is about $12,000. “This training is geared for advanced pilots who want to add to their career experience,” he explains. “We have access to five or six landing zones above 11,000 feet.”

Colorado Vertical gives students the opportunity to use a FLYIT simulator for instrument training, and also advocates scenario-based training (SBT) in a group setting as a means of “cultivating a safety mindset.” In Sanders’ opinion, there’s a definite payoff for students who learn to gauge the unique weather, wind, and power management factors involved in Rocky Mountain flying. “If you can learn to fly in Colorado, you can fly anywhere.” This includes the Gulf of Mexico, and Colorado Vertical offers preparatory training for helicopter ops on offshore oil platforms.

Aviation Futures

The newest flight school in the Denver area is Colorado Heli Ops (CHO), founded a year ago by owner/operators Dennis Pierce and Bentley Kendrick. Pierce has a private certificate and Bentley is a former United Airlines career pilot. The business partners formed CHO with the hopes of addressing a number of factors affecting flight training as a whole, including student dissatisfaction with curricula and instruction, the cost of helicopter training and the drastic reduction in options for student loans, plus fewer jobs for students to go to once achieving commercial certification.

Citing flight school closures nationwide that left students discouraged and in debt, Pierce explains, “we created a flight school focused on making our students’ dreams come true as private or commercial pilots.”

“Our fee structure is completely transparent, and our training program is based on the most effective models used by the military and the airlines,” he continues. “We have also created the Aviation Futures program to work directly with operators on a cost-shared basis that can link our students with them as future employers by tailoring training to their operational needs.”

To deliver on these tenants, CHO employs six CFIs, with 8,500 combined flight hours, and students train in a Robinson R44 and Schweizer 300C. Pierce is a strong believer in FTDs. CHO owns two Frasca simulators, and its CFIs have trained on them and encourage new students to use them as well.

Active in regional Helicopter Operators meetings and an attendee of last year’s Rotor & Wing Safety and Training Summit, CHO also sponsors special seminars open to pilots from all over the country. From May 8–9 CFIs from Colorado, Hawaii and Oregon, along with airline transport pilots and other commercial pilots, attended “Clarification and Enhancement of Aeronautical Knowledge” at CHO. The course was developed and presented by consultant Michael Franz. His succinct purpose: decrease the accident rate caused by missing or misunderstood aeronautical knowledge that results in pilot errors. Franz, a Naples, Florida-based, CFI-rated pilot with 43 years of experience and 7,500-plus hours in his professional log, is an FAA Safety Team member.

In the seminar, attendees reviewed basics, such as the three performance factors governing every flight, guidelines for a pilot’s preflight self assessment, and effective use of ground resources. Aeronautical knowledge related to procedures such as tail/rotor failure, stuck pedal conditions and IIMC avoidance were also discussed. Next, small teams used scenario-based training to apply this information to specific missions based on Franz’s own flying experience. Finally, the group as a whole assessed the completeness of each team’s presentation in combining aeronautical knowledge, decision-making and safety consequences.

One attendee said that the seminar brought home key training points she’d heard before but hadn’t retained or reviewed. Franz’s concise presentation made their importance and connection to flight safety crystal clear.

Target-Rich

Taking to the skies by helicopter in and around Colorado’s Rocky Mountains provides a feast for the eyes. Everywhere you look, there’s a new target for awe amidst majestic peaks and verdant valleys. This impressive terrain also creates flight conditions for which pilots must be prepared. Lucky for them, there’s no shortage of training options available in this richly scenic state.

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