Tim's VOR Simulator

It’s pretty much the Pong of flight simulators, but this little tool can seriously save you on ground school and flight training. I’ve seen friends struggle with VOR navigation, especially when studying for the PPL and CPL written exams, since most of the helicopters we fly aren’t equipped with an VOR or HSI. Worse, an ADF in a helicopter is as common as an AM radio in a new car, and I’ve never seen an RMI outside of a textbook. Yet these are worth more than a few points on every written you’ll take.

Even in instrument trainers, these traditional navigation systems–even if they’re in there–often get passed over for the ubiquitous GPS. It’s just as well. Everything you need to know about navigating by VOR/HSI/ADF/RMI can be done efficiently and cheaply at your computer. You can forgo thousands of dollars trying to do the mental work that interpreting these instruments requires while continuing to fly an aircraft in the real-world (with turbulence, imperfect/absent lesson plans, ATC and radio chatter, etc.). You just have to have the right tools.

When you start your instrument training, you’ll be tempted by Microsoft Flight Simulator. For the cost of 15 minutes in the school’s R44 instrument trainer or a half hour in their Frasca, you can get MSFS X and a joystick. Then it won’t run smoothly on your computer, and you won’t be able to fly the Jet Ranger (but you’ll spend a few hours trying). Then you start thinking about a better machine and rudder pedals, get bored and frustrated, then take a few turns in the Extra 300. 3 hours later you’ve accomplished nothing. Save yourself. MSFS has it’s place for practicing instrument skills, but not in the Jet Ranger, and not from pick-up to set-down, but that’ll be the topic of another post.

Tim’s VOR Simulator, in contrast, is free, runs pretty well, is easy to find online, and you just have to know a few keyboard commands to fly it. It has all the functionality you need to practice simple problems (where am I relative to the VOR?), and can help you isolate the skills you’ll need to fly complex holds and approaches. Best of all, it’s free to anybody with a computer and internet connection, saving expensive cockpit time for consolidating the motor skills that can’t be replicated well even in the best simulators. Tim’s VOR Simulator allows you to set your speed and heading/turn rate with simple keyboard commands. Master that and the program’s quirks, and you can sit at your desk, at school, or in a coffee shop and focus on the mental part of instrument flying (and instrument flying is all mental). Make a mistake, and you can stop the simulation immediately and start over. Altitude isn’t a variable (which further improves the value of this tool for isolating specific skills), but wind can be introduced to teach wind angle corrections.

When you can fly this procedure with Tim's VOR Simulator, young Grasshopper, then you will be ready to fly by instruments.

Most people don’t know about this option though. My instructors didn’t (and they weren’t interested when I showed them). And every few months somebody will get on the forums asking about the best simulator for learning instrument procedures. So I’ve added a Tim’s VOR Simulator Lesson. It’s not a VOR navigation lesson, but just a lesson on how to use Tim’s VOR simulator to learn radio navigation. It’s also not an instrument lesson. This lesson is intended for student pilots working through their ground school and studying for their FAA written tests. The problems are remedial, but if you don’t understand radio navigation, you’ll struggle with them. I’ve also put some simple videos on YouTube that demonstrates these problems (sorry, no audio for them…I’ve had  a sore throat for the last couple of days).

Once you know how to work the simulator, you’ll see how you can easily use it to learn instrument skills (when you’re ready). But in the beginning, its simple interface can actually be a pain in the ass if you aren’t committed to trying it out. This lesson plan demonstrates some simple exercises you can do with the simulator that will open this tool up to you. Once you get past how to set up problems, the biggest barrier to continuing to use it is boredom. But that’s actually what you’re trying to accomplish. When navigating by VOR is as mundane as following a highway, or you can fly some wacky procedure while drinking a beer at 01:30 while seeing what the JustHelicopter trolls are up to in another window, then you won’t be making expensive mistakes in the air.

Really, ADF/RMI navigation, approaches, and holds are so much easier when you can see the instruments react in real-time and test your understanding. While drinking beer. I’ll do more of those video lessons or design some more structured problems, but it’d help if I got some feedback about what types of problems students are having trouble with.


That’s how I remember the reporting requirements specified under NTSB 830.5:

F Flight controls
A Accident
C Crew member illness or injury
T Turbine components
I In-flight fire
C Collision
D Damage to property

It’s not perfect, since you also have to remember Overdue Aircraft, and it ignores the rules for large multi-engine aircraft (which at this stage in my career just isn’t much of a big deal). Recently, the NTSB added a few new reporting requirements that go into effect March 8, some of which are definitely relevant for rotorcraft operations:

  • Failure of any internal turbine engine component that results in the escape of debris other than out the exhaust path;
  • Any event in which an aircraft operated by an air carrier lands or departs on a taxiway, incorrect runway, or other area not designed as a runway, or experiences a runway incursion that requires the operator or the crew of another aircraft or vehicle to take immediate corrective action to avoid a collision.
  • Release of all or a portion of a propeller blade from an aircraft, excluding release caused solely by ground contact;
  • A complete loss of information, excluding flickering, from more than 50 percent of an aircraft’s cockpit displays, known as Electronic Flight Instrument System displays, Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System displays, Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitor displays, or other such displays;
  • Airborne Collision Avoidance System (ACAS) resolution advisories issued either (1) when an aircraft is being operated on an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan and compliance with the advisory is necessary to avert a substantial risk of collision between two or more aircraft, or (2) to an aircraft operating in class A airspace;
  • Damage to helicopter tail or main rotor blades, including ground damage, that requires major repair or replacement of the blade(s);
  • So now we have flight control failure, aircraft accident, crew member illness or injury, turbine components other than blades and vanes, in-flight fire, mid-air collision, property damage >$25,000, and overdue aircraft plus turbine debris, propeller breaks, glass cockpit failure, collision avoidance in IFR or class A, helicopter rotor blades, and air carrier runway incursions. How about this one: FACTOR DIM GRunT P

    F Flight control failure
    A Accident
    C Crew illness or injury
    T TCAS alert in IFR or Class A
    O Overdue aircraft
    R Rotor blade damaged
    D Damage to property
    I In flight fire
    M Mid-air collision
    G Glass cockpit
    Run Runway incursion by air carrier
    T Turbine components or debris
    (P) Propeller

    Anybody got a better idea? Oh, and I’m adding my PPL/CPL/IRH Mnemonics and Memory Aids under the ground school lesson. If you want it as a PDF file, become a contributor to the site, and drop me an email.

Estimating Altitude

Just a quick post for today. A rule of thumb for estimating your altitude is:

At 1500′ you can see the legs of horses

At 1000′ you can see the legs of cows

At 500′ you can see the legs of sheep

Anybody have any others? These aren’t very helpful if you’re a city slicker. Hell, sheep aren’t even that common in the U.S. But one of the skills that’s good to practice is estimating distances and altitudes without using your instruments–both good when something fails, and it keeps your eyes outside more when you’re VFR.

Can a Headhunter Help Me Find a Job?

On the most basic level, a headhunter, or job recruiter, is somebody that works with companies and/or individuals to fill vacant positions. The reality is a bit more complicated than that, at least in most industries. There are different types of recruiters–most work on a freelance basis, but sometimes a company will hire a recruiter to fill a specific position or for a short period while they are trying to fill multiple positions, or a large company will have one on staff. This affects what you might get from a recruiter. The freelancers are paid based on the starting salary of the applicant, whereas the others may be paid a flat fee or regular salary, and this affects who they’ll work with and what they’ll do for you.

My experience has been that the freelancers will talk to everybody and keep every resume. They may call you back out of the blue (ie, when business is slow). But what they really want is to fill a vice president position every week, since this will make them very rich. In fact, the lure of large salaries led to a flood of these recruiters in some industries back when the economy was booming. In science, my wife and I would get calls every week from “executive recruiters” looking to build their resume bank or quickly place us, but many times you could tell the recruiter had no clue about the industry or hiring practices, or they would lose interest if you asked them to do any real work for you. Not every freelancer is a noob looking to make a quick buck though, and finding a good one can get you a job you’d never have found on your own. However, they will usually only work with mid- to upper-level candidates who have unique skills or training. If you’re a CFI, forget it.  But if a company is looking for a bilingual JAA/FAA CFI with an advanced degree and 2500 hours to train cattle musterers for a multinational ranching conglomerate, and you have those qualifications, you might be getting a phone call. More than likely, freelancers are going to work with pilots who have unique training/skills (significant Skycrane, IFR, or military time, for example), or for pilots who are getting out of the cockpit and into management positions. If that’s you, then yes, a headhunter is going to be very helpful. You can also develop long-term relationships with these recruiters (again, if they think you’re somebody that will pay off for them down the road). When you’re looking for a job, you should call or email them early in the process. And expect them to check in with you occasionally to see if you’re still happy where you are.

The contract recruiter is uncommon. A company that’s new or rapidly expanding will hire them, and they’ll usually find you through a posted resume or mutual contact. They know exactly what they’re looking for, and know that they need to fill the position(s) and will move on when their contract ends. Expect these recruiters to work intensely with you if you have the qualifications, but once they figure out that you aren’t what they’re looking for, they’ll forget you pretty quickly.

I’ve seen some HEMS companies hire an HR person that also serves as an on-staff recruiter. In this case, there’s the balance between high demand and a shortage of qualified pilots to fill HEMS jobs that justifies hiring somebody into this role. This is a good person to network with, since they can help guide you into the position if you don’t yet meet their minimum qualifications. For a national company, they may also work with you a bit to find a position and location that works for both of you.

Those are the types of recruiters that are out there, but can they help you find a job? If you are mid-career, have some specialized training or unique skill, or are looking at management-level positions, you should include contacting recruiters as part of your ongoing job search strategy. Let’s look at that statement more closely. First, recruiters, plural. Having several recruiters on your side expands your network and increases the chances that one will hit on an open position that will fit your needs. Also, many recruiters will tell you they’re working 24-7 for you, but take that with all the credibility you’d give anything a car salesman tells you. Second, part of. Recruiters are one tool. If you’re actively looking or unemployed, having even the greatest recruiter doesn’t exempt you from continuing your networking and job searching. Remember that recruiters have their own motivations, and feeding your family or paying your loans isn’t one of them. Third part, ongoing. Even if you are happy and content, touching base occasionally with your recruiter, or returning their calls, isn’t a bad idea. You don’t know what else is out there that might improve your pay or lot in life. Management, business model, or operational changes with your current employer can also happen quickly, sending you from fat and happy at work, to fat and unemployed on the couch. Passively seeing what other jobs are available is a defensive strategy. Whatever headhunting a recruiter does should be anonymous, but you should always remind them of this when you are currently employed.

One other situation a recruiter can help you with is a career fork. Say you’re currently a pilot, but are unemployed or need to get out of your current job. You are interested in a management position, if you could find the right one, but you’d be just as happy to keep flying. Dealing directly with a company in this situation can be difficult, since applying for both positions makes you look confused and/or desperate. A good recruiter will be able to run interference for you here, since they’ll screen jobs and optimally pitch your qualifications for a position to employers, then they’ll leave it to you to decide which opportunities to pursue.

Can a recruiter help you if you are looking for entry level positions? No. A 200 to 300-hour CFII or 1000-hour pilot is easy to find, and these are employer’s markets. Companies won’t pay for recruiters, and without that incentive, no recruiter is likely to do anything for you beyond dispensing a bit of career advice. It’s unfortunate, because an entry-level pilot is probably most in need of help finding a job, but that’s the economic reality. You can make the contact, and keep in touch with the recruiter over the years, but it probably isn’t worthwhile for either of you. Getting your first job is going to be your sole responsibility.

Guidance Counseling for Student Pilots

This bit of advice is often kicked around on the forums:

There is nothing that requires you to do all your training at one school or in one type of helicopter. Having at least 50 hours in each of the two most popular trainers H300 & R22) will be beneficial to you when you go looking for your first flying job.

In theory, this is a great idea, and if this was any other industry, this breadth of experience would be viewed as a bonus by any employer. However, in helicopters, the companies (ie, flight schools) that are providing training are also gateway employers: you have to go through them to make it to a more normal career environment (one where experience and qualifications dominate hiring decisions).

Any single flight school can’t hire all of the CFIs it trains. It just isn’t mathematically possible. This is a bit of a problem for the industry, and it affects who a flight school will hire. As an external candidate–a CFI trained at another school–you have significant disadvantages compared to a student coming from within. Probably the greatest disadvantage is that the school doesn’t know you as well, and you aren’t familiar with the school’s procedures or the local training environment. You are also taking a job away from one of the students that was loyal to the school, and unemployed flight instructors can’t help a school’s image. Overcoming these barriers with previous experience–whether it’s experience in several different aircraft or transferable skills that you acquired outside of aviation–is very difficult.

Another reason having time in both Robinson and Schweizer/Hughes models doesn’t matter is that they are very different aircraft. An instructor that has 200 hours in an R22 is still learning to fly it, and I don’t see how reducing his experience in that aircraft by 25% is going to make him a better instructor or pilot. With so little experience, it’s better to build one skill rather than acquiring a portfolio of skills that you are unable to do with proficiency or consistency. With 50 hours of R22 time, you’re also sitting at the SFAR-73 minimums for instructing, and the Schweizer school’s that I’ve talked to believe the required minimums specified in 61.195(f)–5 hours PIC in the specific make and model–are insufficient.

Finally, there are very few schools who fly both Robinsons and Schweizers. You might be a good candidate for one of those schools, if they didn’t have a large pool of internally-trained candidates. But you wouldn’t be a good candidate for a school flying R22s if you were coming in with 150 hours of Schweizer time, or vice versa.

Maybe this broader experience will help you when you finish your CFI and start applying for turbine jobs. Not so. One operator I talked to basically said that R22, R44, 269/300, Hiller, Brantley, Enstrom, or whatever other piston time you have is just that: other piston time. For an applicant with significant turbine time, listing your time in all those piston aircraft isn’t even necessary.

So I’m going to call Bullshit! on the advice that you should get time in both Robinson and Schweizer airframes, and that it’s okay to switch schools mid-training. I’d advise that a student stick with a single school and single manufacturer. Doing anything else won’t improve your chances of getting hired on as a CFI, and may actually hurt them.

Dynamic Rollover

In theory, we all know what to do to prevent dynamic rollover. This has been a frequent cause of training accidents, so the FAA has made it a focus area. And those of us who’ve been to the Robinson course remember the rooftop landing video where the pilot could have saved himself by simply lowering the collective after a hard landing. In the Dynamic Rollover lesson plan, I’ve included 2 videos: the first is of a Rotorway pilot who sets down hard and catches a skid on some uneven concrete. It happens fast, but right before the dynamic rollover happens, you get a good look at just how much of an angle the helicopter can take before reaching the point of no return. In the second video, you see that this isn’t just a problem for low-time pilots. This video shows the Red Bull AH-1 Cobra picking up from a turf field. It looks like the heel of the skid digs into the turf and becomes the pivot point, both for bank and roll. They’re pretty close to losing this helicopter, but the skid pulls free. Clearly some high-time pilots flying that ship, but they also failed to react the way we’ve been told to in training.

Part of the issue–and this probably applies to all emergencies–is that we’ve taken off hundreds of times without a problem. Back about 12 years ago, I took this trip to Scotland. I’d been touring up north, as far as Loch Ness, and was heading back to my room on the Kintyre Peninsula. I pushed my rental car’s fuel to it’s limit–partly because I was doing the trip on a budget, partly because there just weren’t that many gas stations. So it’s Sunday night, but still light and I didn’t notice how late it was getting. I knew I needed gas, but every gas station in every little town I passed through was already closed. The last town was 15 or so miles from where I was staying, and I made a calculated risk: I could spend the night in the parking lot or I’d have a shot at sleeping in my bed. Based on what I knew about the fuel remaining when the light had come on, I figured I had a shot at making it, so off I went. I grew up in Central Texas, but this place redefined rural. Right at about the halfway point, there was this little hill, and halfway up, the car just died. This shouldn’t have been unexpected, but my initial reaction was that something else was wrong. I was convinced that I had the fuel to make it, and I’d never run a car dry, so I had no idea of exactly what to expect. I instinctively just pushed the clutch in and turned the key, and there was a few seconds there where I just didn’t register what was happening. I believed that this stretch of the drive would be the same as every other time I’d set out in the car, and when it didn’t turn out that way, I needed time to process why. I ended up sleeping in the car, surrounded by flocks of sheep, and hitching a ride into town the next morning with some shepherds.

I think the same happens to us as pilots. We come to expect that the pick-up or landing is going to go the same as it’s gone the last hundred times that we’ve done it. When it starts to go bad, you just keep doing what you’re doing, until you’re rolled over or you process what’s happening. I also learned this during my training. In the summertime, the tarmac heats up enough that the skids sink down into it. In fact, you can see impressions from the skid plates all over the ramp. Once, one of the skids stuck enough that we felt just a slight roll, and an instant later the skid broke free. We popped right up into the air and wobbled there for a second. That time I knew what happened, but it went so quick that neither my instructor nor I had the chance to react. Since then, part of my preflight has been taking notice of what surface the skids are sitting on, and whether they might stick on the pick-up. Before starting up, I also started verbalizing this to my instructor (although a better practice would be to verbalize it right before picking up, since your short-term memory isn’t likely to hold this bit of info that long).

If you do decide to check out the lesson, take a second to at least rate it. Always useful information for me and for others who come after you.