Cherry Drying Season

Spring is cherry season, which means all kinds of helicopters come into our area for cherry drying contracts. This year, I was fortunate enough to know one of the pilots working what turned out to be a pretty rainy season. Luck wasn’t all working for me though–I had a 1-week business trip and had scheduled my BFR right in the wettest period. I ended up with just 0.8 hrs actually flying the contract with him, but got to see him work a couple of fields from the ground as well as from the air.


Yeah, he’s doing it in an R22. I watched a UH-1 do the same field a few years ago, and it seemed like he was 50-75 feet up. In contrast, the R22 was right down on top of the trees. Once the R22 is low enough, the force of the downwash is the same though–it looks like the trees are going to lay over flat when you’re right over the top of them.

On the flight that I did with him, we covered what seemed to me to be a nightmare scenario. Lots of farmers out here have small cherry orchards–one of the reasons why you need to find a cherry contract is because those contracts serve lots of small plots. It’s not uncommon to find a house in the middle of an orchard which brings all the other obstructions. Rows of trees to break the high winds border many orchards, and there are usually wind turbines spread throughout for frost control during the cold desert evenings in the spring. This field had all those obstructions, plus an unusual layout, power lines running at an angle through the middle, uneven terrain, and a few birdhouses just for fun. It’s unnerving enough to be hovering so high (even though we were only a few feet off the tops of the trees) and in gusty conditions. Being surrounded on all sides by obstructions–and having to maneuver close enough to them to dry the trees below them–added to the fun. Just keeping track of what to look out for was beyond my ability, and I was content to watch this 1000+ hour pilot do his work.

You Are Correct: I Don't Know Everything

Last week I received a comment on the Settling with Power lesson plan, but didn’t see it until recently (spam filters sometimes send valid comments to the trash).

This is far too erroneous. It is conflicting in places and the entry height is suicidal.
If you don’t understand the topic, please don’t spread your solutions on it to everyone else???

Feedback like this bothers me, not so much on a personal level, but on a big-picture, professional level. On a personal level, I’m a 200-hr pilot, and I don’t claim to know anything. Some might see this as a character flaw, but I’m also not ashamed to admit that, although I have learned a lot in the past 3 years, I still know relatively little about flying helicopters. Admitting what you don’t know is necessary to be open to learning. The whole point of this web site is to provide a forum for like-minded CFIs to expand their knowledge.

I also don’t take these lesson plans lightly. On average, a lesson plan takes me about 8 hours to develop, and involves a considerable amount of research. I start with some basic resources. Since I’m most familiar with the R22, most of my lessons start with the R22 Maneuver Guide, but I also go to the FAA Rotorcraft Flying Manual and the Helicopter Flight Instructors Handbook. From there, I draw on personal experience–especially where my actual training differed from what I later learned at the RHC Safety Course or what experienced CFIs have taught me (a good friend, Mike Franz, has a short course on how ab initio training diverges from real life, and he has been an invaluable source). I also go to the forums, where there are often discussions that draw in the experiences of active instructors and students. On occasion, I refer to instructional resources published by Transport Canada, the Australian Civil Aviation Authority, and Advisory Circulars (like AC 61-13b, the Basic Helicopter Handbook). It’s overwhelming, and there are many lessons that I stop midway through because I can’t consolidate all that information into a coherent lesson plan. It’s harder than just teaching what I was taught. And it’s also why fewer than half the lesson plans are populated with content.

The reason a comment like this bothers me–and should bother you–is on the professional level. This visitor basically tells me that I’m full of shit and putting others at hazard by disseminating erroneous information. I’m certainly not going to dismiss this feedback, and this response isn’t my way of snapping back. I’m also not going to defend that lesson or any of the lessons here because I think there are many shortcomings in the way ab initio training is conducted. BUT what’s in that lesson plan:

  • Is exactly what I was taught;
  • Is how I demonstrated VRS on my private pilot check ride (which was a clear pass);
  • Incorporates elements from what I was taught at the Robinson Factory Safety Course;
  • Draws on a talk given for CFIs at HAI;
  • Is what was covered with me during my recent BFR; and
  • Has been edited to incorporate some of the info from Transport Canada and CASA.

What does this tell me? It tells me that there’s a disconnect between what we’re being taught (and teaching) and the way things really work. An experienced pilot/instructor on VerticalReference said it very well:

We don’t need new methods to teach, we just need to utilize the methods we already have.

Here’s the problem: 200-hr instructors don’t know the methods. We have to make them up as we go along. By the time instructors have things figured out, they go on to “real jobs”, leaving a new crop of clueless 200-hr instructors to start the process over again. Students ultimately pay the price for this, and I’ll admit I’m an example of this: I received very little training on recognizing VRS and might not be able to recognize it from the feel of the aircraft alone in-flight. I have received very extensive training on how to avoid it, which is good. But what I learned at the Safety Course is that I was initiating a recovery way too early and not assertively enough. At the Safety Course, I did exactly what I was trained, but in that scenario, my recovery was too slow to recover from a more fully developed VRS condition.

So where does this leave me and other CFIs who were trained the same way (whether they admit it or not)? I can guarantee that I’m not going to go out with a student and do anything different that what I was trained. Ideally I’d teach at a school that invests in initial and recurrent training for their instructors but I can tell you that not every school does this (which is why I recommend that this is one question prospective students ask when selecting a school, and if the school doesn’t, find out if the instructor seeks out supplemental training on their own). I also would like to be at a school with an extensive, working syllabus (not just a meaningless list of maneuvers) that ensures consistency in training. What would I do now? I’d do the in-flight demonstration that I was taught with one important distinction: during pre- and post-flight ground lessons, I’m going to reinforce that I am illustrating a scenario that could lead to VRS, but that we will initiate a recovery before VRS actually develops by decreasing power and gaining forward airspeed.

Now the last thing that bothers me about a comment like this one is that I haven’t done my job to correctly convey the purpose of this site. I’m here saying that low-time CFIs and students need access to those methods that high-time instructors have figured out. That’s the only way training is going to get any better. Anybody who disagrees with something here, sees a flaw, or has a better or alternate way of doing something can easily add that by editing a lesson plan or making a comment. In this case, I’ll post this comment at the end of the plan, but it’s practically useless without some feedback from this user on how he teaches VRS recognition and recovery.

L NOTAMs Extinct

Those of you who have done your PPL within the past year have no idea what I’m talking about. The “L” or local NOTAM was one of 3 types of NOTAMs, and it covered operations on the airport surface. The classic was personnel and equipment working, but sometimes included special events, local hazards, inoperative equipment. The line between a D NOTAM and an L NOTAM was unclear. That’s been corrected, and the NOTAM system considerably simplified. L NOTAMs are gone, and that information is now covered by D NOTAMs. FDC NOTAMs stay the same.

There’s also a new type of NOTAM: the Pointer NOTAM. See, there also used to be this uncomfortable thing about NOTAMs where some were published. When you called flight services, you’d get all the L and D NOTAMs, but it was possible that there were published NOTAMs that FSS wouldn’t give you. Pointer NOTAMs take care of that: if a D NOTAM has been around long enough, there will be a Pointer NOTAM that will tell you where to look for it.

When I did my PPL, the L-D-FDC system was still in effect, and for some reason, I didn’t get the memo when it changed during my commercial training. I figured it out this past week when I was doing some FAAST/WINGS courses in preparation for an upcoming flight review. I highly recommend the Know your NOTAMs course…doesn’t take long, and really makes sense of the whole NOTAM system in a way that just didn’t seem possible with the L-D-FDC set-up. There’s a link to the FAAST site in the new NOTAMs lesson plan (which is a watered down version of what you’ll find on the FAAST site).