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Friday, September 1, 2006

Helicopter Training: Student View

Pinning on the Wings

By Simon Roper

Having overcome severe injuries from a non-flying accident, Simon Roper nears the end of his pursuit of a commercial pilot’s license (helicopter)–CPL(H). The previous installment of his story appears in April on page T9.—The Editor.

Pilot


In 2004, I moved to Australia to fulfilL a life-long ambition to fly helicopters. As I was going for a commercial license, the good news was that—despite extra complexities—eventually I was likely to get paid for doing it.

Better still was the thought that as my skills ultimately grew, as chronicled in this magazine, I might become one of the pilots saving lives in the wake of natural disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. A worthy career and the ultimate payback for the costs incurred to both my social life and bank balance for the privilege of maintaining a commercial license.

To recap, in recent months I have amassed the necessary skills both in the classroom and in the air to competently fly a Bell 47. As its name suggests, it’s a machine first conceived in the 1940s. To some it might appear that I have learned to fly an antique in modern aviation times, but I view experience with this aircraft as a distinct advantage. Even though a 47 is iconic, it’s a basic, no-frills machine lacking flight aids like governors (devices that automatically match power with pitch, thus allowing the pilot to leave throttle control to something else).

Critics of this school of teaching say training on these machines is an archaic ritual. But my question to them is what happens if the governor fails? This wouldn’t be a problem for graduates from schools with the same ethos as mine, Queensland’s Becker Helicopters. So despite the extra workload associated with learning in machines like Bell 47s, as opposed to more modern helicopters like Robinson R22s, I’m grateful for the range of skills I’ve acquired as a result. From now on, any modern helicopter I fly should, in essence, be much easier to control, although I anticipate a full complement of navigation and flight aids will no doubt present ongoing challenges.

Anyway, back to the plot. Just over 26 months ago I arrived from London to begin the course. That time period was punctuated by a 14-month absence from flight school following a motorcycle accident that left the lower half of my body in kit form mid-2004. But I’ve made a full recovery, completed the syllabus of 105 hr in the air and grasped the seven topics that make up flight theory. By June of this year, both my instructors and I felt I had the physical and mental fitness required to become a commercial pilot. It was time to put it to the test.

So, after several board briefs on aerodynamics, plus random verbal testing on the whole syllabus, I was strapped in to VH-ORC, a Bell 47 dubbed Oscar by Becker’s students. Alongside me sat the flight school’s proprietor and chief flight instructor, Mike Becker.

The carcass of VH-ORC apparently has two tours of Vietnam under its belt, and both Mike and Oscar are responsible for helping hundreds of pilots get their wings. Either way, sitting on the apron outside Becker’s hangar at the Sunshine Coast Airport, I realized that neither of them would be very forgiving of any mistakes I might make over the next two hours.

For most of the morning, I had been concentrating firmly on suppressing a few butterflies that had somehow occupied my stomach. I knew that Mike, in addition to monitoring my piloting skills, would be taking careful note of the decisions I made in the cockpit. It was likely he would pressure me to do perform inappropriate aeronautical maneuvers or entice me to breach air law. I’d need to take charge of these situations and make the correct judgment calls, just as any captain does for the safety of his passengers and crew. A vital component of being a professional pilot is to know when you can’t do something a paying passenger may request. As well as flying competently, I had to show that I had the ability to captain a machine and ultimately call all the shots. I tried to remain calm, and focused on the task ahead.

As I went through necessary safety and run-up checks on the ground, I glanced over at Mike. His eyes squinted slightly under the glare of the Queensland sunshine as he underwent his legendary personality transition just prior to a test. Gone was the persona of my friendly, knowledgeable and light-hearted mentor. Occupying the four-point safety harness next to me now was a Civil Aviation Safety Authority Senior Flight Test Officer wearing an expressionless face. I realized he would be showing no emotion during the flight and thus provide no clue as to my progress over the nautical miles that lay ahead of us.

Later, with the onboard clock reading 1.9 hr, I was touching down again having completed the test. I began shutting down the helicopter, confirming we were stable, slowing the engine and applying safety frictions to the controls. I looked over at Mike expectantly. His face remained sober for what seemed like an eternity before eventually cracking a very wide smile.

“Congratulations, Simon, it’s been a long time coming, but you’ve done it,” he said. “You got round the paddock just fine, so shut her down and come in for a debrief.”

I was ecstatic. I’d finally got my wings! Happily, I started babbling an emotional thanks to Mike for his training efforts, but in my excitement I forgot we were still communicating via our headsets as the Lycoming engine whirred behind us. I hadn’t depressed the communication system’s trigger switch, so he missed most of it, but I think he still got the message because my face said it all.

I won’t go into detail about what happened in the test, other than to report it’s a system that generates safe pilots, who, in Mike’s words, "obtain a license to keep learning." I was tested on my airmanship, navigational abilities and all forms of emergencies that were thrown at me without warning, just as they would present in the real world.

Every time, my training kicked in and, although a slight case of nerves meant I felt it wasn’t my best flying, I was mostly happy with my performance. More importantly, Mike had been too.

I’d like to take the opportunity Rotor & Wing has given me to thank all the team at Becker's for helping me through this life-changing experience. Not to mention the support afforded to me by my fiancé, Anneela, my family, friends and the general feeling of camaraderie generated by my fellow students.

So as I sign off on my CPL(H) training report, I’d lastly like to encourage any would-be pilots to go into this growing sector of aviation. As you have no doubt read, orders for new aircraft are on the up as economies flourish and an increasing range of utilities are found for rotorcraft. So far, it seems to be a friendly arena offering a career that will reward hard work and dedication.

As for my immediate future, I’ve decided on a Robinson R44 endorsement, currently the world’s largest-selling helicopter. Whilst hunting for work, I’ve also opted to further my skill base with advanced flight theory and instruments studies, so it’s back to school again!

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