Thoughts on Pinnacle Landings

I had the chance to fly some last weekend, and took the opportunity to do a few pinnacle landings. The pilot who I was with has just a little more helicopter experience than I do, and quite a bit of fixed wing time. He’s done more of what I’d characterize as “real-world” flying (ie, out of the flight training pattern), and his experience shows. We picked a reconned a pinnacle just south of the airport: a nice ridge with a steep drop-off on the west face, and a smooth slope moving off to the east. The wind was blowing briskly up the face at probably 12-18 knots.

Wind is one of the factors that dictates how you approach a pinnacle. When the wind is light, the airflow is laminar (flows smoothly over the earth, following its contours). As the wind picks up, two zones that are separated by a “demarcation line” form. Above the demarcation line airflow remains laminar and smooth–good for flying in. Below the demarcation line, turbulence and eddies are going to toss the helicopter around. The method you’ll read about in the FAA Rotorcraft Flying Manual uses a steep approach that terminates right at the windward edge of the landing zone (LZ). Flying a steep approach keeps the helicopter above the demarcation line and in the smooth air. The downside of the steep approach is that it gives you fewer options in the case of trouble and, especially if you don’t plan it well, can require larger power changes. Also, as the wind picks up, your approach has to become increasingly steeper to stay above the demarcation line.

The alternative to flying a steep approach is to use a shallow approach. I’ll add a disclaimer right here that you shouldn’t try anything I’m suggesting–find an instructor who knows what he’s doing and have him show you. A shallow approach offers a few benefits that I might elaborate on at some point, but one key advantage is that you fly the approach so you don’t have to fool with trying to stay above turbulent air behind the LZ. In this instance, we could fly the helicopter along the face of the ridgeline, taking advantage of updrafts there while keeping a convenient escape route down the face. So here’s how I [tried to] fly it. Both my high and low recons were elongated ovals, with the high recon passing just over and to the east of the knob that we were going to land on. On the low recon, I descended to just above the LZ, flying the helicopter parallel to the face of the ridgeline. The final approach phase was right along the cusp of the of the pinnacle face. The entire approach is lower, and it’s set up to be a shallow descent that terminates right at the LZ. One key feature of flying this approach is that you start with the wind perpendicular to your flight path. As you slow, you still need to align with the wind to stay in trim, so you are moving along the ridgeline laterally as you approach the LZ. Since you never move behind the LZ, the helicopter never enters the turbulent airflow there.

For the record, I haven’t flown much in the last 6 months, and the Schweizer 269A is still a strange helicopter to me (different sight picture, higher skid height, no governor). The results weren’t as nice as I’d planned it in my mind: mostly, I flew it too low and started the approach too soon, so that I ended up moving over the ground sideways and lower for a lot longer than I’d have liked. In theory though, flying the approach like this has it’s benefits–for example, we were above ETL throughout the approach, right up until the point where we came to a hover.

The other pilot took the helicopter and demonstrated how he would have flown it. Not only did he execute his plan much better than I did mine, but his approach had some advantages that I hadn’t considered. Basically it was a hybrid between the steep and shallow approach techniques. He flew the approach pattern the same as I did, but a bit higher. As he lined up on final, he started a shallow descent as if he was shooting past the LZ. Once he intercepted a steep approach sight picture though, he flew that profile to the LZ. The steep portion was about what you’d do at the termination of a quick stop…or maybe about how you’d fly into a confined. His result was exactly the same, but kept us up at a much more comfortable altitude until the very end of the approach. That extra altitude makes it easier to exercise the option of breaking off the approach and flying down and away from the pinnacle face. One of his (well-justified) complaints with my approach was the risk of catching a skid while moving laterally along the face of the pinnacle–even if I’d flown it at the altitude I wanted to, I was still lower for a longer portion of the approach…my approach looked a lot like what a shallow approach to a runway would look like. Some unlucky combination of a change in wind, the lateral flight path, and an unseen obstruction would have ended my approach very badly.

Off-airport landings are something I think a lot about since confined and pinnacle landings are the mission profile for many helicopter operations. No two are the same, and getting your head wrapped around off-airport landings is tough to do in 200 hrs. Even though I’ve read up on different methods, taken a mountain flying ground course, and spent a good bit of time during my training to try different techniques, I recognize that I still have tons to learn. I’m in no position to be saying what the optimal approach is, but I liked the shallow-to-steep method.

The 60:1 Rule

No I’m not talking about the number of students who go through helicopter flight school for every instructor that gets hired. Actually, there are several problems on the Commercial Helicopter Pilot Knowledge Test that require you to understand this rule. In short, the 60:1 rule refers to the relationship between distance from a VOR or ADF station and the ground distance of 1 radial. At 60 NM from a station, if you cross 1 radial you will have covered 1 NM of ground. There are some things you need to do, like maintaining a constant heading, knowing your true airspeed, and timing how long it takes for you to cross the radials, but that’s the premise of this problem.

When I went through my commercial ticket, this was a stumbling block for me, and it took me a while to figure it out. I’m not mathematically inclined–1 of the 3 C’s I got in college was in calculus II, and the only thing I remember from that class was that the instructor wore the exact same sweater to class every single day. Yep, true story. Anyway, a friend recently asked me to endorse him for his CPL(H) knowledge test. Before I offered him an endorsement, I asked him to do several knowledge tests and he also hit a wall with these questions. Smart guy too–went to grad school, has his A&P, Inspector Authorization, and rebuilds helicopters for fun. Fact is, the 60:1 rule questions aren’t hard–they are very easy. Why is it that they cause trouble?

Like anything else, you and I can only teach what we’ve been taught, and the 60:1 rule isn’t taught well in any of the helicopter textbooks or the Jeppesen Commercial/Instrument Handbook (which I think is a waste of 0.3 flight hours’ cash). Since you only need it to pass the Commercial and CFI written exams, why not just memorize the answers and move on?

Yeah, you could do that. But I’m guessing that the instructors and students who read this blog are setting a higher standard for themselves. I was disappointed when my instructors glossed over questions or didn’t know things that I knew. Like you, my mission is to raise the bar a little so the next generation of students is a little better trained than I was. So here’s my lesson plan for teaching the 60:1 rule, along with a short animated graphic to help out those of you who like to see concepts illustrated. The animation takes about 30 seconds to run, and I’ll admit that it’s not going to dazzle anybody, but it does more to explain the application of the 60:1 rule than the spiffy graphics in the Jeppesen book does. Now you can impress your students, other instructors, and your friends with your command of this archaic piece of trivia!

Putting TFA's Lessons to Practice

I thought this would just be a 1-off topic, but as I’ve thought about it, there’s a lot you should be considering when looking for an instructor. In the first part, I said that your instructor is going to be the most important variable in the quality of your helicopter training. In the second part, I pointed out how challenging it is to separate the good instructors from the bad, since most have big aspirations and little teaching experience. That post talks about the qualities and attributes that predict who will make a good CFI. The purpose of this post is to give you some pointers on how to apply the lessons from the first 2 posts to the real world.

First, find out if the school has a selective process for hiring their flight instructors. Ask the school’s owner what their selection criteria are. Take this example of 2 schools up in the Northwest: the first posts job ads, requests resumes, and has a review and interview process. I haven’t been through it–and it might all be bullshit–but at least it’s a formal process for validating what the chief pilot might already know about a prospective CFI (and maybe learning some things he didn’t know). At the other school, instructors are just hired. The owner doesn’t ask for resumes and there are no interviews. Who gets through is based more on the school’s immediate needs, when they graduated, and who the current CFIs recommend (and what are their criteria…?). There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with that system, but does the owner really know what they’re getting? Sooo….

Ask the owner what their flight instructors’ individual qualifications are. If you get a generic answer and nothing deeper (“Well, we look for professionalism, good skills in the helicopter, good attitude, and they have to be good teachers…”), but the owner can’t say, “Well, Bob did XYZ before flying helicopters, and during her CFI training, Sally stood out from the other candidates by…”, then you’re dealing with a flight school that isn’t hiring instructors based on the ability to be good instructors. Does the owner (or chief pilot) relate examples to you that illustrate the attributes that predict who will be a good flight instructor?

Get to know your instructor too, before you sign up. Ask her if she has any prior teaching experience, what she did before flying, what her greatest non-aviation accomplishments are. By the time you complete your training, you’ll probably get to know all these things through the course of friendly conversation, but it doesn’t help you then.

When you do your demo ride, see if the instructor is using the “I do, we do, you do” method, or if he just hands over the helicopter after briefly demonstrating a control’s effect. If that’s what he does (and most will, because a demo ride is really about getting you excited about flying a helicopter), ask him if he uses the “Telling-and-Doing” technique of flight instruction. Every CFI has to know about this method, and the good ones will have learned to put that info into practice (as opposed to just memorizing it for the check ride). You might be impressed if the instructor says he actually prefers the Demonstration and Performance method, but the Telling-and-Doing technique is an extension of the D&P method. They aren’t the same, and the most important distinction is that the “student tells, instructor does” transition. There’s a whole freaking chapter on this in the Aviation Instructor’s Handbook, aka The Fundamentals of Instruction or FAA-H-8083-9, so it’s gotta be pretty important! If you don’t believe me, drop me an email and I’ll send you a copy of the FOI with the key paragraph highlighted.

Most students won’t do any of this–they’re too excited about the dream of being a helicopter pilot, and aren’t going to start thinking about their career until some time down the road. Big mistake. Be rational about your demo ride. Almost everybody is too excited or too nervous to make a demo ride meaningful. Consider doing a no-pressure demo ride just for the hell of it, then doing a one-off, honest-to-god lesson that includes a complete ground and flight portion (and the 2 ought to relate to each other…but that’s another topic).

Finding a Good Flight Instructor

Second installment in a two-part stream of consciousness. Here’s the first part if you didn’t read it already, but if you want the short-attention span version, basically I was talking about some of the attributes good instructors have. This part is more relevant to the wannabe helicopter pilot: How can I tell if I’m getting a good instructor?

“I’m confused…isn’t this the same thing you were talking about in the first part?” Nope. Here’s why.

Helicopter flight instructors usually don’t teach for too long–CFI is usually considered a stepping stone to a “real job”. If you get a seasoned instructor in the helicopter industry, you’re probably only his 4th or 5th student. That’s not a lot of time to figure out how to be an effective instructor, even for the most motivated CFI. So when you’re on that demo ride with a bright and smiling 200-hr CFI, how can you sort out if he’s going to bumble through his next 1000 hrs of dual, leaving a wake of confused students, or whether he’s going to figure out how to teach you what you need to know to be a proficient pilot? This part, also based on research done by Teach for America, might be some help. And, maybe, flight schools can take TFA’s findings to heart when they are making hiring decisions.

Attitude is everything in the helicopter industry. Even if you haven’t even learned how to hover, you’ve probably already heard this pearl of wisdom. This part is true: a good attitude will open doors for you and get you through the tough times. But good instructors have more than a good attitude: they have a track-record for perseverance. Effective instructors have demonstrated that they can pursue and follow-through on long-term goals. Simply saying “all I ever wanted to be was a helicopter pilot” and keeping a positive attitude about attaining that goal through the hard times isn’t good enough. An instructor that has successfully completed college or built a business has demonstrated perseverance. An instructor that spent years getting his ratings might be a better choice than the good stick who was in the right place at the right time.

Reevaluation and continuous improvement is another predictor of a good instructor. Again, given the short tenure for helicopter flight instructors, it might be hard to evaluate whether your instructor can constantly reassess his effectiveness and improve his teaching method since even the most experienced ones won’t have been at it too long. One way you can judge this attribute is by asking about their past academic performance or work experience. In this case, the better instructor is the one who might have started off as average but improved over time–not the brainiac who always got straight As or the slacker who never moved from the sales floor to a management position. The instructors that had to work and improve in other endeavors are more likely to apply the same process of reevaluation and improvement as helicopter flight instructors.

Not all helicopter flight instructors have a college degree to point at, but don’t think that means you don’t have other ways of looking at their ability to reevaluate and improve. Try looking at leadership performance. This is more for flight schools than students, but have your instructors taken charge of a project, seen it through to the end, and had some tangible results to show for it all in the end? For example, when I’m reviewing resumes from low-time pilots, I always ask the older guys if they’ve had a business or management experience—that’s leadership performance. Employers want to know this because it tells them about the applicant’s capacity for self-improvement, and this is something every student and flight school should be looking for from their instructors.

Good instructors also apply the “I do, we do, you do” model. This is covered in the FOI, but you really need to put it in practice as an instructor because it works. Every instructor I’ve flown with has skipped the “we do” part (and students are complicit in this–they want to get on the controls rather than sitting and watching). This takes some creativity, and there’s no resource that provides any guidance for a motivated instructor trying to figure out the “we do” part for individual maneuvers. But here are a couple of examples I thought of:

  • Hovering: “Tell me when you see the helicopter starting to drift, and tell me what to do…left cyclic, right cyclic, forward, backward…”
  • Approaches: “Am I high or low, fast or slow? What’s the corrective action?”
  • “Quick” stops: “You tell me how to do the maneuver.” (“Level, lower, pedal, aft…flare, flare, flare…level, power”, for example.)
  • Autorotations: “Tell me how to correct any deviations from our glide configuration”, “Tell me when to initiate the flare and add power.”

This method keeps students from learning bad habits because they don’t understand the underlying concepts or steps. Primacy also plays into this–the first time a student does something makes an impression, and if that first time included incorrect inputs, they now have to unlearn them before they can learn the correct ones.

Good instructors also recognize that students aren’t very good at evaluating their understanding. This tears at the method of assessing students’ understanding by ending every lesson by asking “Do you have any questions?” According to TFA, students may think they understand, but if actually challenged to demonstrate their understanding, they can’t do it. An instructor who merely relies on student self-assessment to judge teaching efficacy isn’t collecting the info he needs to really evaluate whether his teaching methods are effective. (And recall questions like “What maintenance can a private pilot perform on his helicopter?” don’t test understanding–they only test memorization.) Even if students are saying they understand the lesson, or they’re getting recall questions correct, they probably aren’t making the deeper connections that will allow them to apply that information in the helicopter.

In the first part, I also said some of TFA’s findings also apply beyond the flight school environment and into your career as a helicopter pilot. Many of the qualities that make a good instructor are also the same things employers like to see on a resume. When I talked about how a college degree can give you an edge, it’s not about the knowledge you’ve gained, but it’s demonstrating your good attitude backed by a track record for perseverance. Recurrent training: additional education beyond the minimums might demonstrate that you are willing to make the effort to improve your skills above the minimum requirements. And the reason you list accomplishments under your job title on your resume is to show that you can take charge, follow a project through, and walk away at the end with some sort of tangible result.

One last thing TFA might be able to teach you. There are some things that we think make somebody a good helicopter flight instructor, but ultimately they don’t matter. Charisma. Ambition, whether they know where they want to be and have the drive to get there, or whether they have grand plans for where they want their students to be. Extroversion. In the end, a smile and a good attitude is useless without knowledge, perseverance, practice, and improvement. This is important, because when we go shopping–whether it’s for dinner, a new car, or a flight instructor–most of us are going to go with the person who sells himself rather than the person who can actually deliver on their promises.