Lessons and Rewards from Demo Flights

The senior CFI here has been generous enough to pitch every demo flight that comes in the door to me. I’d say that three-quarters of the demos are one-time lessons–either somebody who just wants to say they’ve flown a helicopter, or an airplane pilot who wants to see what a helicopter’s all about. I know I’ll never see these guys again, so I keep the ground short and practical, try not to scare them too much with the Awareness Training, and answer all their questions.

The ground focuses on the controls, what they do, and I’ll ask a few questions (“If I asked you to turn the helicopter left, what would you do?”) to see if they’re getting the concepts. It also gives me a chance to correct the mentality of “pushing the cyclic forward” or using the cyclic to climb. This is good for them and for me. Keiko, the CFI who took me on my first demo flight, did it this way, and it really helped me; most of the other demo flights I did, the CFI explained the controls in the cockpit. Lesson one, and I already knew this: the cockpit is a terrible classroom. Doing it this way, I’d end up spending over 1.5 hours for a demo flight. I figured that I needed to streamline the ground lesson some, so I tried one lesson where I briefed the student on the controls and SFAR right there in the helicopter. I thought this would be fine, but it wasn’t. Poor girl had a good bit of trouble, and I ended up having her mostly work on the collective. Since then, I’ve gone back to doing at least a half-hour ground in the office, and most of those guys do really well on the cyclic. Yeah, I don’t get paid for the time I go over, but it’s worth it so the student doesn’t end up frustrated.

Lesson 2: adapt. I’ve had 3 airplane pilots come in for demo flights. The first was a 60-year old cancer patient who had flying a helicopter on her bucket list. The other 2 were older pilots who just wanted to get back in the air for the fun of it. Now, the cancer patient was a tough one: she would under control the cyclic sometimes (“why’s it climbing…am I doing that?”), but would then over control (think cyclic pushovers). She couldn’t keep the helicopter going straight, so I demonstrated a few turns and let her have it. After that, her control inputs became smoother and she ended up having full control of the cyclic on the way back to the airport and into the pattern.

The other notable airplane pilot had me worried during the ground lesson. I couldn’t get him out of the airplane mentality (“To descend? Well, I’d roll off the throttle.”), and he wasn’t getting the controls, even when we did some armchair flying. I started him off with the collective, and had to have him take his hand off the cyclic because he’d move it when I told him to raise or lower the collective. After a few minutes, I just gave up on telling him which control, and started telling him “lift with your left” or “forward with your right hand.” Once we were past trying to learn “cyclic” and “collective”, he got it. The perceptions he had developed as an airplane pilot kicked in, and he was nailing his airspeed control and making great turns. When I told him we had to head back to the airport, he practically handed me his checkbook to keep flying.

The other great thing about these flights is that you end up dealing with really happy people. That makes a huge difference in the job satisfaction department. Yeah, controlling somebody’s nerves and excitement can be a challenge, but at the old job I was mostly dealing with people who didn’t want to be wherever they were. That’s a no win situation from the get-go; no matter how good a job you do, the best you can expect is for your clients to not be unhappy. One of my first demo flights I ended up canceling on account of some unanticipated convective activity–this is after I’d gotten the guy all through the ground, pre-flight, and buckled in. For the next 2 weeks, we tried to work in the flight around his schedule, the weather, and my schedule. When it finally happened, he walked in with a fresh halibut fillet for me. We ended up flying out over his house and doing a few orbits.

Helicopter Demo Flights

Lesson 3: don’t push your limitations to please somebody. One flight I did was for a guy’s birthday. His wife was planning to surprise him by dropping by the airport on the way back from his b-day breakfast. The weather that day was cruddy–low ceilings, and a little drizzle. I tried to talk them into cancelling, but the wife was insistent on at least stopping by to see if the flight could maybe-possibly happen. A couple of hours before the flight, the ceilings were 1200-1500 and holding steady, with light rain throughout the area. Not having flown much in this area, I didn’t feel like I had the experience to know what flying in a 1500-foot ceiling would be like, and wasn’t going to risk it. I decided I’d have to turn them away when they got to the airport. As it would happen, the other instructor had a student that wanted to just do some pattern work that morning, and they decided to go fly. Their report of the actual conditions–good visibility, and consistent ceilings–put me at ease, and I changed my mind, with the caveat that we wouldn’t leave the pattern and I’d cut the flight short if the ceilings came down any further. Turned out, that was perfectly fine, and he was happy enough to do a few approaches, some hovering, and a quick stop. He even dropped by last week to give me a CD with pictures his family took during the flight.

In-flight Decision-Making Scenario

Do a quick flight plan for ferry flight that takes you west from Dill0n (KDLN), past Lemhi Co (KSMN), to La Grande (KLGD). You can use the AOPA flight planner or SkyVector.com, or the chart below and an AFD should suffice. Assume you’re in an R22 with full fuel (~3.5 hours), and just ignore the practicalities of making a flight in an R22 over this terrain. With the forecast winds and fuel, you figure you can make this leg of the ferry flight and arrive at KLGD with at least a 30-minute reserve.

The GPS shows you’ve been fighting a strong headwind during this whole flight. About 70 NM from KLGD, you review your plan and notice that your main fuel is below 1/2 full and the auxiliary has about 1/8th tank remaining. You’ve been managing about 75 KIA. What are your options?