Flying a helicopter isn’t an easy task. Receiving a private pilot certificate takes two to four months of full-time training, and a commercial certificate can take an additional two to six months. Students undergoing a complete flight training program for their commercial pilot’s license (CPL), private pilot certificate (PPL), or certified flight instructor (CFI I or CFI II) can expect it to take eight to twelve months.
It’s a worthwhile endeavor for those that love flying and seeing things from thousands of feet in the air or are seeking exciting job opportunities.
While the length of training is a testament to the knowledge needed to fly a helicopter, there are some basics every pilot should know. Here are five essentials for operating a helicopter.
Make Preflight Inspection a Priority
Before even considering a take-off, a preflight inspection of the aircraft has to happen. Skipping or procrastinating this step could mean the difference between another great flight or a precarious situation.
Every helicopter should have a preflight checklist, and it must be used. Some of the actions required as part of your preflight will be:
- Review maintenance records
- Look over performance charts
- Check instruments and radios
- Make sure flight controls are free and correct
- Ensure the auxiliary fuel pump is off
- Check the lights
- Check engine idle
- Set the altimeter and directional gyro
These are just some of the preflight items to check. Every preflight check needs to be comprehensive, regardless of whether it is your first flight of the day or your fourth.
Consider and Plan the Mission
What is the reason for this flight? Is there a specific destination? Knowing why you’re flying will help your decision-making.
You’ll be considering the flight route, altitude, and weather conditions. Make sure you get a weather briefing before making a flight decision, and always be prepared to land or return if weather conditions deteriorate.
Don’t React, Respond
When you’re in the air, numerous elements can impact your flight, and there will no doubt be circumstances that require tough decisions. Decision-making requires alertness and constant monitoring of changes in the environment. The effects of changes need effective analysis to reach a decision that keeps you, passengers, and the aircraft safe.
“Great pilots respond to changes, but they do not react. If a situation is reacted to without first thinking about it can result in an outcome that can be worse than doing nothing at all,” says Barry Oberholzer, aviation specialist and president of Black Widow Helicopters. “A systemic approach to thinking through challenges must happen before deciding what to do.”
With growing experience, pilots understand situations and environmental changes, and an appropriate response becomes second nature and can happen instantly.
Look Out the Window
It sounds so simple, but it is so crucial. Lack of collision avoidance is one of the top killers in all general aviation. Statistics show that most collisions happen in good weather and below 3000 feet. The landing zone presents the most significant challenge to pilots, and good collision avoidance happens with awareness before landing.
A top priority needs to be pedal turns to assess the view downwind, base, and final. Beginning pilots typically spend far too much time staring at the instrument panel while an expert pilot scans around the aircraft 85-90% of the time.
Know and Fly Proper Traffic Patterns
A standard pattern entry during a landing zone approach coupled with care to avoid the directional flow of fixed-wing aircraft makes for a safe landing. This pattern requires knowing the particulars about all airports, especially those you are not familiar with.
Airports establish rules for traffic pattern altitude and left or right traffic to maintain order, and good pilots refer to their directories to know the layout of the land.
Remember to stay close to the airport while flying your pattern for the reasons; A) If your engine quits, you can most likely autorotate into the right place. B) You keep yourself visible to others entering the airport as your aircraft is where they expect it.
Don’t forget to keep all your lights on and maintain visual awareness of the environment around the aircraft.
These are just a few critical knowledge points when operating a helicopter. Others you will learn will be:
- Always think about your last flight and play the “what if” game. Contemplate what you would have done in an emergency.
- Embrace constant awareness and dedication to maintaining your equipment. Make sure annual inspections take place and you are involved.
- Always know wind conditions before a landing.
- Keep your flying smooth.
- Always know where you are and be situationally aware.
- Never fly too close to the ground.
- Seek out opportunities to grow your experience level.
Being a helicopter can be a fantastic career or hobby. There is nothing like feeling you can negate the laws of gravity and take in amazing views from above. It’s not easy to receive your pilot’s certificate, but it’s absolutely worth it. For your safety and the safety of your passengers, always be vigilant in using best practices and enjoy the flight.