Aerial Photo (Navigating Adjacent Airspace) Scenario

This post came out of a question I had about navigating contiguous Class D airspace for a photo flight that I was asked to do earlier this week. I’ll add the “answer” to the communications question to the comments. I’d also be interested in the utility of this as a scenario: how useful would it be for pilot training? I try to do something like this for the students I have. Many of them have said outright that they’re “hands-on” learners, and haven’t really been able to understand or apply regulations or other topics just by reading or getting a lecture on them.

I do land appraisal evaluations, and one of your pilots has flown me around to evaluate properties before. It worked really well, so I’m willing to drive the extra distance to KPWT  to fly with you rather than working with somebody closer. Now I have a list of properties that I need to survey and photograph tomorrow. Since I’ll be taking the pictures, I need to have the door off and would like to be able to get as low as possible for pictures of the waterfront side of the properties. The other pilot was able to stop the helicopter so I could get the shots I needed. Here are the lat/long coordinates for the properties: [47.151275,-122.562098], [47.151902,-122.564464], [47.161102,-122.570134], [47.163393,-122.567173], [47.172277,-122.567822]. After you’ve had a look, call me back so I can get on your schedule.

  • As a commercial pilot stationed at KPWT, can you take this flight? If you do, what limitations might you place on the flight based on you experience (<1000 hours TT) and capabilities?
  • You have access to an R22 Beta (875 lb BEW, 103.71 long arm). Your weight is 172 lbs and the passenger is 200 lbs with 3 lbs of camera equipment. The aircraft has an auxillary fuel tank, non-moving map GPS (database expired in 2001), transponder, and single radio. Can you do the flight in this aircraft, and is it the right aircraft for the customer and mission?
  • The relevant TAF for tomorrow is 20006KT P6SM SKC, and the civilian forecast is for clear skies, low of 65 F, high of 85 F, with light southerly winds throughout the day, becoming cloudy overnight with rain showers, low 55 F to 75 F, with westerly winds 5-15 knots throughout the following day.
  • You haven’t flown in this area before. What airspaces will you have to navigate, and what communications, equipment, and regulations apply? What altitudes and airspeeds will you use enroute?
  • What are some of the external pressures that you need to keep in mind as you’re working with this customer? How will you manage them? If he shows up business casual (short sleeve shirt, khakis, and dress shoes), with a small point-and-shoot camera on his hip and a high-end SLR, and a stack of satellite photos of the properties so we can identify them from the air, does this raise any additional concerns or pressures for you?

helicopter aerial photography




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.

One Ugly Cell

Today was shaping up to be a great day to fly…high overcast and calm winds. Not exactly the type of day you’d think of going out flying. So I was pretty pleased to get an out of the blue demo flight show up. Had him all SFAR’d and through my ground routine, let him work through the pre-flight since he seemed interested. And then as I look up from the start-up checklist I see one ugly cell. Over the next 5 minutes I watch it close in on us, and I decided not to do the flight. Felt bad after dragging that guy through everything to bag it the minute before turning the ignition. Think I made the right choice?

KPWT 262155Z AUTO 20012KT 10SM FEW039 FEW047 BKN055 10/03 A3014 RMK AO1
KPWT 262135Z AUTO 21009G15KT 10SM SCT037 BKN046 BKN055 12/02 A3015 RMK AO1
KPWT 262115Z AUTO 22008KT 180V240 10SM BKN037 BKN048 BKN055 11/03 A3014 RMK AO1
KPWT 262055Z AUTO 17006G14KT 10SM BKN037 12/03 A3015 RMK AO1 57003
KPWT 262035Z AUTO 20003KT 10SM BKN034 BKN043 11/03 A3015 RMK AO1
KPWT 262015Z AUTO 24004KT 10SM FEW025 BKN036 BKN041 11/03 A3016 RMK AO1
KPWT 261955Z AUTO 18004KT 10SM FEW026 BKN035 09/03 A3016 RMK A

Anybody Recognize that Glowing Fireball in the Sky?

KPWT sits up on a hill and in a slight valley, so even a sunny morning downtown can turn into a scud-loving mess by the time I get to the airport. Today though looks like a summer day in Seattle.


kpwt sunny day

KPWT 231535Z AUTO 03006KT 10SM CLR 06/02 A2987 RMK AO1

We’ll see how the winds develop. As the sun heats up the surrounding terrain, the winds (theoretically) could start whipping through here, making it too gusty and turbulent to fly by mid-afternoon.

A Change in Plan, 0.1%, and Something to Add to the Resume

One week on the job and over a week at Heli-Expo, and the first thing I know when I come back is that the senior instructor here is leaving in a week for a job in the GOM. I knew that was coming…part of the reason I was hired was to “take over” this location as the 2 high-time CFIs here move on. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon, and I’d hoped to have more time to figure out how to run the shop before being on my own. To add to it, the instructor that’s leaving was a treasure trove of instructional knowledge, and I’d hoped to sponge off him while doing my CFII. Guess that’s not going to happen either.

peninsula helicopters northwest

On the plus side, I finally got a nice long break in the weather last Thursday. Even with the ceilings sitting around 5000 MSL and some scud here and there, wow. This is an incredible area to be flying around in. Sadly, I left the mount for my Contour HD in a packed box at home, so no pictures. We scoped out the local landmarks, the practice area (basically the whole western part of our little peninsula), and the abundant areas available for practicing off-airport landings. The dominant la

nd feature in our area is Gold Mountain. Even though it’s not evident from the satellite, it’s the area we mostly skirt to the north and east. Along with the wind, low ceilings (5000 is low when you’re used to clear below 12,000), and mountainous terrain, I’m having to adjust to not having the usual VFR references. Either way, 1 hour flight time is 0.1% of the way.

After my flight, it was back to a bit of reality. Maybe one day I’ll get to say it, but for now “Just the pilot” isn’t a phrase I’ll be using much. With the departure of the senior CFI–the guy who established this location, set up the office, and built the business–the responsibility for setting up our renovated office space and keeping this location in business is most likely going to fall on me. To that end, I can add installing vinyl siding to my skill set. Fun. But I’ve said it before: in this market, the CFI who can wear many hats and adapt to the needs of the school is the one that gets hired.

peninsula helicopters northwest
You can't fully appreciate the symmetry of the lettering on the door from this shot. I still get paranoid that I misspelled something....

First Week on the Job

It was months in the works, but I finally landed a job as a CFI with Peninsula Helicopters Northwest (more on how that happened later). Once it happened, it happened quick, and last week I picked up and moved to Bremerton (KPWT). This is the slow season in the Northwest…it’s cold, wet, and cloudy. Although it’s been pretty frustrating not getting to fly, both for lack of students and weather, it’s been a gentle introduction to getting my head back into flying. This has been especially true with respect to the weather: the Olympic Peninsula is lower and wetter than where I trained in the Inland Northwest (dry and high). One of the challenges that I expect with working out of KPWT is dealing with the weather…most of my flying has been done on hot, but otherwise clear days with 10,000 ft ceilings. Weather here, at least in the springtime, changes fast and dramatically. On Tuesday, it seemed like a great day for flying at one end of the field, but not so much at the other end. By the end of the week, a low pressure system swept in, blanketing the the airport with <1/4 mile visibility and dropping snow on the field.

For those of you interested in beginning training, Helicopters Northwest has been at it for 25+ years, and has an in-house financing program. Check it out here.

First ADM Lesson: 1*

Way back, I took an Emergency Medical Technician course. On the first day they put up the star of life and Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). Right there I though WTF, I’m taking this to save lives and “do no harm” is the industry motto??? But this simple message lays the foundation for many EMS concepts that accomplishes the greater goal. The obvious medical application comes from the days when ambulance drivers would just scoop up patients, throw them in a station wagon, and race off to the hospital (often making spinal injuries worse or getting into an accident along the way). The not so obvious one is that making more patients by rushing into an unsafe scene, or blowing through a red light and wrecking an ambulance, doesn’t serve the patient well. That simple motto comes back again and again throughout EMS training and in practice, and it becomes cemented in your head.

ADM should be the same way, and I’m a proponent of introducing it early in helicopter pilot training. Set the precedent in every prospective pilot’s head that safety is their first consideration. I also recognize the practical limitation to doing this. A private pilot student is overwhelmed with “important information”, and isn’t mentally prepared to accept a  full-blown ADM lesson when they 1) are still just excited about being in a helicopter and 2) might not be in the mindset of undertaking professional training. Instead, what happens is that ADM/safety get pushed off until some undefined later point in time.

Take the SFAR. We all should have gotten the SFAR training before our very first demo ride. At that time, how many of us understood anything about energy management, low-G maneuvers, or mast bumping? I remember standing there in front of the helicopter, the instructor said “We have this training that we have to do for Robinsons.” He then took a deep breath and gave a well-rehearsed summary of the required training. Looking back, I remember it being thorough and accurate; at the time though, only bits of it even registered (wait, what was that about separation of the main rotor??!). But he ended with “Don’t worry about it, I’ll be monitoring all these things to make sure we don’t get into any trouble.” In terms of the principles of primacy and readiness, the lesson here is that the safe operation of the helicopter was not my responsibility. That’s not what was intended, but it’s what was received because the SFAR training isn’t really at a level that is appropriate for somebody who doesn’t know the first thing about flying a helicopter. This is the precedent that the typical demo flight establishes.

In this month’s safety article by J Heffernan in Rotor, he essentially validates this problem.

Even ab initio programs do not produce pilots right out of their cribs; just the fact that you have to wait until their feet can work the pedals really puts a delay in the learning process, and training delays are where bad habits can be learned…Before you can teach, you have to unteach.

One way of taking this statement is that Mr Heffernan is saying, if you want safety to be a core value in your organization, you have to undo the bad habits acquired (in part) during initial training…the fact that you have to wait until their feet can work the pedals… To me, he’s talking about this grace period student pilots get where safety, ADM, situational awareness, and all that is somebody else’s responsibility. Thus, the powerful effect of primacy has to be overcome somewhere down the line. I disagree that it has to be that way, in part because Mr Heffernan provides a solution which could easily be applied to flight training.

This is where 1* comes in. I’m not going to tell you what it means now because I want you to be bothered and a bit annoyed that I didn’t tell you right off what 1* has to do with safety. Then you can read the lesson plan or Mr Heffernan’s article and his personal story (it’s in the Spring 2010 issue, which isn’t online yet).

The simple symbol/mnemonic 1* is appropriate for a brand new student’s level of experience, and like “First, do no harm” it’s something you as an instructor can build on throughout a student’s training. Start off on that demo ride by giving them the required SFAR73 Awareness Training, then make a point of writing “1*” on that endorsement and telling them This is all you need to remember for now. If they ask what it means, tell them it’ll become clear later–you’ve done your part in associating 1* with their first flight, and unconsciously set them up for thinking safety before flying without overwhelming or scaring them. Later, as you progress through the ADM lessons, you just need to associate that mnemonic/symbol with the pre-flight preparations that will enhance their safety consciousness, risk management, and situational awareness. From 1*, you can associate lesson plans on weather (Is 1* worth making a flight with forecast low ceilings at night?). Want to make sure your student is doing a good pre-flight? Get your school to slap a 1* sticker on the door leading out to the hangar.

The payback–hopefully–is that down the road, this little mnemonic will pop up whenever there’s a critical safety decision confronting your student, and it’ll trigger all those other ADM lessons.

Conducting a Flight Review

As a new CFI, a flight review is something you could get called on to do out of nowhere. This is a challenge for the new CFI who’s not working at a flight school: you’ve never been through a flight review yourself, you have nobody to ask for advice, and you are very likely giving the review to somebody with hundreds of more hours experience than you. The instructors I’ve talked to have learned a lot when doing flight reviews, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t bring anything to the table. You actually have an advantage–your book knowledge is current, and that’s one of the most important parts of the flight review. As a new addition to the resources area, I put together a guide for helicopter CFIs conducting a flight review, and assembled a few resources for you to use. Check it out here.