Knowledge Test Fee Increase

The CATS/LaserGrade cartel is going to be upping their fees for the required knowledge tests come March (or April, nobody seems to know). The most remarkable thing is the magnitude of the increase…$50 per test. Over the course of your helicopter training, the knowledge tests are going to cost you the same as about 4 hours of dual instruction. Ouch!

What Makes a "Good Instructor"

Whenever a prospective student starts looking for schools, one thing that consistently comes up is that they want “good instructors.” But what actually makes a good instructor? Can there really be good instructors in an industry where most CFIs view their jobs as transient? Where schools show instructors the door when they hit 1000 hrs, if they haven’t already gotten a “real job” lined up? Are there only better and worse instructors? Could you spot a good instructor if you met one?

I was reading about Teach for America this week–this is a non-profit agency that recruits college grads to volunteer to teach elementary or high school students for 2 years. They’ve taken to studying their recruits, assessing their performance, and then trying to figure out what traits can be used to predict an effective teacher. Some of what Teach for America has figured out might help you when you’re looking at schools, and overall, there are some lessons that apply to your career. First and foremost, TFA has found that, while the school is important, it’s really the instructor that makes the difference in the student’s experience. The quality of instructors in a single school varies dramatically though. If you click with an instructor on a demo flight, make sure they’re going to be there for the duration of your training, and that they actually have room available in their schedule. High-time instructors are often getting ready to leave, especially if the spring hiring season is coming and they already have the hours they need for a turbine job. There are also a few schools that lay-off their high-time instructors to make room for low-time pilots so they can build time.

But TFA also found that knowledge is not everything! Simply having more hours doesn’t necessarily mean that an instructor will be successful. When TFA looked at what qualities their most successful instructors had, they found that they:

  • Set big goals for their students;
  • Acted purposefully so that every one of their actions related back to their overall goal;
  • Were always reevaluating their performance and improving their methods;
  • Planned and prepared, and changed those plans based on the results they were getting.

For flight instructors, how might these apply? Well, the first is pretty easily measured: instead of aiming for the 80% passing rate they need to renew their certificate, maybe >95% on the written exams and 100% pass rate on check rides would be a better threshold. Of course, simply setting that goal isn’t sufficient…they have to follow through with that second element. This one’s tough for the flight maneuvers since an instructor can’t just follow a lesson plan; some students will progress slower or faster than others. In addition, repeatedly hammering the same maneuver over and over again isn’t necessarily the best method for perfecting it. For both ground and practical maneuvers, there should be a logical progression built into the lesson plans. For example, instead of:

Lesson 4: Regulations (60 minutes)

  1. Part 41
  2. Part 61
  3. Part 91
  4. NTSB 830

A syllabus that builds knowledge would integrate each of the regulations into other lessons, so students could correlate the regulation with the actual procedures that they execute during their flights. So maybe Part 41 would be taught in this lesson:

Lesson X: Pre-flight Airworthiness and Maintenance Checks (60 minutes)

  1. Maintenance and engine logs
  2. Squawk sheets
  3. Pre-flight inspection
  4. etc…

I’m just throwing this out there. To really cover the regs, there wouldn’t be a Part 91 lesson, but instead one where instructors, say, discuss the airspace requirements for the airport they’re about to fly into (rather than drawing the diagram that lumps them all together and reciting the 3-5-1-2 mantra–even though I have that very diagram in my lesson plans).

Reevaluating and improving only makes sense–as pilots, we’re already doing this constantly in the cockpit. But it’s a hard one to judge when you’re testing out flight instructors. And if your flight instructor only has 5 or 6 students during his 1000-hr tenure, he doesn’t have much of a chance to make improvements. That makes the planning and preparation phase more important. During your CFI training, you should develop lesson plans and practice presenting them. This is good. As a student, you should be able to tell that your instructor has practiced teaching each lesson recently. It’s not so good if your instructor sits down in front of you, then lays out the syllabus and the Rotorcraft Flying Manual and starts asking questions.

With that, I’m officially making this a 2-part entry. Since I’m at HAI for the Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic, it might be a week or 2.

Radio Navigation

The basic model for flight schools is to get students to take their CFII right after their CFI. This makes sense for the school for a few reasons, but in the long run, it ends up costing students. The school’s reasoning is that a CFII is a more marketable job candidate than a CFI, and that CFIIs are more likely to get hired. When schools do hire from the outside, they also subscribe to this rationale. Personally, I’d rather spend my CFII training where I’d be teaching, and it wouldn’t hurt to have that actual flight time to familiarize a new instructor with the school’s SOPs and the environment, but that’s the way the industry works. As a prospective instructor, you’ll have to buy into this logic and finish your CFII before you start looking for work.

Here’s the downside that I see: R22 instrument trainers are in short supply and have a more restrictive CG envelope (from what I hear anyway–I’ve only seen 1, and it was a glass cockpit trainer). Because of this, many schools rely on the R44 for instrument and CFII training. No problem there. But, insurance companies aren’t thrilled about low-time CFIIs instructing in R44s, and at least some of them will stick a 500 hr TT restriction on their policies. There are, of course, exceptions and ways schools can get around this, but if your school uses an R44, find out.

Why does this matter? A CFII operating in this system will fly for several months before he’s at 500 hrs TT and cleared to teach in the R44. All that time, he won’t have given a moment’s thought to instrument flight or procedures, and the teaching methods he learned to pass his CFII check ride will be fuzzy memories. Depending on your school, he may not be IFR current, and his R44 time in the last 60 days may only be 1-2 hrs. Even if you land a CFII that’s close to his 1000 hrs and has been teaching IFR for a while, at best, he’s probably only taken 3-5 students through their instrument rating–not much practice, considering the amount of knowledge that has to be learned during the instrument rating. So, if your school was anything like the school I went to, any instructor you get will be struggling to remember how to fly IFR and to develop effective teaching methods. As his student, you’ll be paying for your instructor to get up to speed.

The best thing for students would be for schools to offer CFII training only once their instructors have the aeronautical experience they need to perform the duties of a CFII. This won’t happen, since there’s an economic incentive for schools to take every student as far along in their training as they can before the student runs out of money or leaves to teach somewhere else. As a student, you can reduce the cost and time you need for your instrument rating by learning as much as you can at home. Obviously you can do more ground training at home. I’d recommend ditching the Jeppesen Instrument/Commercial textbook altogether, and using the FAA Instrument Procedures Handbook as a back-up source. For books, I personally liked Instrument Flying by Richard Taylor. I picked up the 4th edition for less than it cost the seller to ship it to me. A book like this is pretty worthless for learning regs, and I think he still had a  section on the recently decommissioned LORAN network. But he provides a common sense, practical approach to learning instrument procedures based on the experience that your instructor just doesn’t have. I’m not saying you should run out and by that book, but look into some of the video programs and books that are out there. Go over to your local fixed wing flight school, talk to one of their 2000-hr part-time instructors, and ask him what his recommendations are (when I finally did this, the FW instructor slapped his forehead when I told him all I was using was the FAA books).

You can also sit on your couch and learn the skills you’d be paying almost $500/hr for in the cockpit. That was the spirit behind this lesson on how to use Tim’s VOR Simulator, but I know that others before me have done a better job explaining radio navigation, so I didn’t want to duplicate effort there. And here’s one of those others, doing a lecture on VOR Basics. This is a very clear and organized lesson from a well-spoken and well-prepared instructor–I didn’t hear an Ummm… or Uhhhh… in the whole lesson, which gives you an idea of how much forethought went into his presentation.


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.

The R22 Power Check: It Sure Sounds Like a Great Idea

Every year since I’ve been watching the Vertical Reference forums, there has been an “R22 Power Check” thread that pops up. When I saw it come up last month, I thought it’d make a great lesson plan. The thread always gets lots of views, users will put a lot of work into writing their responses, and on the surface, it’s a pretty important topic, right? Now that I’ve spent a couple of hours going over 10+ pages of posts from Vertical Reference, I’m not so sure.

The idea, as I understand it, is that you want a way of checking whether you will have enough power to make an off-airport landing. I’m going to mull over the threads on this for a while longer, but lemme put out this scenario that I got on a check ride:

Bubba & Sons Company has a station on a 6200-ft mountaintop that needs to be serviced, and they’re on the phone wanting to know if you can take Bubba Jr up there in an R22 to do the work. At the airport (2450 MSL), it’s typical weather for the desert in the summer: calm winds, 30 C and rising, and CAVU. You’ve flown with Bubba Jr, and he’s at 210 lbs, plus 20 lbs of gear. The nearest fuel is a 50-minute flight from the station, and the weight and balance shows you need to be at MGW to have the fuel to legally complete the flight. Do you take the flight?

There aren’t any tricks to this question. I looked at the HOGE, fuel requirements, and weather, and declined the flight. The HOGE suggests that the flight can be done, but that’s making several assumptions about the flight–that the temperature won’t be any warmer than 30 C when I get there and that my fuel burn will be at least 10 gph–and quite possibly my abilities. At 200 hours of experience, I told the examiner I wouldn’t do it since it was too close to the limits of the aircraft’s performance, but that’d I’d be happy to send him on it or to take a Raven II. He nodded and said that the customer would accept the R44, then went on to grill me on aerodynamics.

Right here, right now, I don’t see anything to support the need for this type of power check if you have reviewed your performance limitations before the flight. Realistically, you know what elevations you’ll be working in, and from that you should know what your HOGE limits will be. The approach I’ve taken during training is to determine the limit for performance, and then apply a buffer to cover things you cannot anticipate (like humidity, winds calm, a confined area, or higher-than-expected temperatures at the landing site). Reasonable estimates for all of these can be made comfortably while at your desk, and you can reevaluate winds, fuel, and temperature onsite. As long as those are below your limits, you can make the landing. (Since I’ve flown mostly at elevations that top out around 5500 ft, I’ve always had at least a 1000-ft margin to work with. I’m not sure whether this is too conservative to be practical though.)

So, to apply this method to the case above without going on for too much longer, I can assume winds are going to be calm on the mountain and that it’ll still be warm when I get there–maybe 28 C. I can also estimate my fuel burn at 8 gph and determine what my weight will be when I arrive. I can’t do anything about my passenger’s weight, my fuel load (my limitation on reserve fuel is higher than the required 20 minutes), or the landing zone to tilt the odds in my favor. Knowing this, I can look at the charts and tell I’m not going to be comfortable with this scenario. But, I can do the flight first thing tomorrow a.m. when it’s 15 C cooler. By the charts, I get a HOGE that’s 750 feet higher than what I need. Or, if I get to the landing zone with anything less that 1340 lbs, I’ll have additional power to draw on. The odds are now stacked in my favor. If I get there and there’s a 10 knot wind or the temperature is 12 C…Bonus!

The other way of looking at it…and this is something that I’ve used on just about every flight…is to set a limit and stick to it. We’re going to go work on pinnacle landings today? Okay, temperature, weight after 30-minute fuel burn…we can sustain a HOGE below 6500 MSL. Don’t ask me to go into 7000-ft terrain to practice pinnacles. In fact, maybe I don’t want to be practicing pinnacles above 6250 MSL. I’m also going to control for lower-than-expected performance from the aircraft by checking my hover power before departure. Is it higher than what I would expect from this aircraft on this day? And as I’m approaching the landing zone, does the OAT gauge show a temperature near or below what I used to calculate my performance back at base? Where is my MAP throughout the approach? Am I nearing my MAP limit as I’m getting close to losing ETL? I should be clear that I’m not suggesting that a chart in a book is the be-all and end-all to figuring out if you have the performance to land. But that that chart, developed by a pilot more capable than most of us and under controlled circumstances, is one part of the ADM equation (dammit, there’s another post to do…).

Back to the threads. Forget for a second that I didn’t see a consensus method described for conducting the power check, and that there is no procedure for a power check given in the R22/R44 POH or Maneuver Guide, or any FAA publication. But in the threads, numbers get thrown around, such as, “If you have a power reserve of X inches in cruise/in the downwind/at minimum power speed/etc, you can make a vertical landing” or “If you have less than Y inches of power, you can only make a run-on landing.” These numbers come from a variety of sources, some possibly more credible than others, but again, they aren’t coming from RHC or the FAA. On top of that, when they start getting into differentiating between a normal landing, a run-on landing, and a no-hover landing, those would be indications that we’re operating very close to the edge of the envelope. At that point, the question isn’t “Can I do this?” but instead “Should I do this?” Or maybe it’s “I bet I can do this!” that necessitates the power check?

If I’m wrong, I hope somebody with more real-world and teaching experience will set me straight here. But isn’t this analogous to dealing with weather limitations? We know what we can legally fly in, but we should also know what we are trained to fly in, and we should set a further buffer so that if conditions get worse, we have an out. But the whole power check concept seems to be just like the “Let’s go take a look” mentality toward weather. Instead of knowing that the procedure is well within the limitations of our aircraft and our training, it’s like saying “Maybe we shouldn’t do this, but maybe we can.”

Two last things I’ll throw out here. First, there’s the “HOGE power check”, which is something along the lines of getting near your LZ, slowing into a HOGE, and figuring out if you can maintain it. I guess, if you really want to be sure and the LZ you are moving into doesn’t offer any good escape routes for a go-around, maybe this is fine. It does entail some risk, and you may not get a good answer from it if you do the power check under the safest conditions (eg, 1000′ AGL, where it will be cooler and windier). The second is a mountain flying technique that I’ll cover another time, where you make several very slow passes at the same elevation as your LZ. This is for dealing with poor escape routes, downdrafts, weather conditions you couldn’t anticipate prior to departure, and nasty landing zones; it’s also part of a 3-5 pass low reconnaissance. I’ve read about these techniques, but wasn’t taught them. They do seem applicable to real-world applications scenarios that entail a higher degree of risk than you would encounter as a low-time pilot. My thought is that they entail more risk than is appropriate for flight training, but I don’ t know.

Right now this is all just armchair musings–I would like to figure it out though. It’s either a training deficiency–all 3 of the VR threads were initiated by CFIs–or maybe it shouldn’t be part of what students are being taught. As mentioned in several of the posts on VR, most instructors and students can recite the procedure, but they can’t explain the rationale behind it or cite a source for it (other than their instructor). Think about that.

Go or No-go? Advice from JH HEMS pilots

Since the South Carolina HEMS crash, there’s been a pretty good thread on JH started by asking HEMS pilots how many times they’ve picked up to “take a look.” One pilot points out that minimums are when you stop flying, not when you think about going. The first part of this is developing minimums and sticking to them. There are 2 personal minimums worksheets distributed by the FAA and ASF. Unfortunately, they’re designed for plank drivers, waste a lot of space on developing IFR minimums, and don’t offer much guidance on how one should actually go about deciding what his minimums should be. This would be helpful advice. I’ve never flown at night in anything less than CAVU (clear and visibility unlimited), so what should I set my night minimums to? Not having guidance on how to go from conditions you know you can fly in to conditions you haven’t flown in before is how I think most new pilots get into the look-and-see trap.

Another pilot suggests that if it takes more than 5 minutes to make a go/no-go decision, then the decision is not to go. There have been several times that I’ve agonized over whether or not to do a flight, when the answer should have been simple. On my commercial dual cross-country, there was an Airmet Tango overlying my destination. This was a small mountain airport that I’d never been to before (and the instructor, somebody I had never flown with before, had only been there a few times). Should have been an easy decision, but what made it difficult to call was 1) an airport in the same valley was reporting calm winds and seemingly great conditions and 2) another student who was making the same flight as her solo commercial cross-country, was headed out to pre-flight. The second factor was the pressure of the 12-month interview, knowing that the owner wouldn’t be too keen on seeing the helicopter I reserved sitting in the hangar when another student had made the flight just fine. (Ultimately the CP stopped that student from making the flight, but that one’s an instructor now.) The first factor I laugh at now–the reason for the Tango was the turbulent shear zone somewhere that I’d have been flying in to get to those calm surface winds. It should have taken me 0.05 seconds to make that decision.

Students and instructors also need to look at all their flights through cockpit resource management lenses. This is difficult since we establish a cordial relationship with our instructor on the demo flight–the student’s excited and the instructor wants to recruit the student. How’s that going to go if the instructors words are “Clear to taxi, sterile cockpit until we exit the pattern.” Just another one of those conflicts between the sale of flight instruction and the delivery of safe instruction. One thing you can introduce at any time during your training (or instructing relationship) is the concept that the entire crew of the aircraft is part of the decision-making process, whether it’s your 2-pilot R22 or you have a pilot and 2 flight nurses on a EC145. You, as a student, have the obligation to speak up if you are not comfortable with any part of a lesson. You, as the instructor, have the obligation to listen to your crew. In situations where a crew member voiced a concern about the flight, often times others had also had the same concern and were relieved to get it out into the open. If the conditions are bad enough, the pilot may be too focused on keeping the aircraft up to divert his attention to another course of action. Also, as the pilot, realize that while your crew might say “Gee, weather ahead looks like it’s only getting worse” they’re thinking “I was pretty fucking scared 10 minutes ago.”

The last really useful bit of advice off that thread was to use ATC. Safe to say that helicopter pilots talk less to ATC–we don’t fly as far, as high, or on IFR plans as often. One of the drills for plank drivers is, when you are in trouble, Aviate-Navigate-Communicate and the 3 (or 4 or 5) C’s: Confess (you screwed up), Climb, Control the aircraft, and Call ATC. I remember a discussion with my instructor where we questioned this…is climbing going to do us any good? Maybe. Sometimes. At least there are fewer things to hit higher up. One of the JH posters related a story about how he once went IIMC (inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions). He successfully transitioned to instruments, climbed, got directions from ATC, and made it back to the airport safely…only to have his CP threaten to fire him if he ever did that again. That’s the same mentality that had me considering a flight into an Airmet Tango, and it’s unnecessary incentive for anybody who doesn’t want to be crash residue.

Here are links to the personal minimums checklists: PAVE checklist and FAA Personal Minimums.

It May Take a Villiage

In their summer edition of Rotor Magazine, their Director of Safety suggested that every commercial pilot should have to have a CFI, and that they should be required to keep it current by training at least a 1 student per year. His rationale was that the industry accepts letting the newest of the new train students because “we have always done it this way.” I agree with the author’s view that most instructors lack the valuable element of experience, that instruction isn’t considered a real job, and that training from an experienced pilot could make a tremendous difference for a low-timer. But does anybody else see the flaw in this? Is flight training really done by 200-hour pilots only because it’s the way things have always been done?