More Complex Maneuvers
After completing my solo cross-country, the focus shifted to the business of helicopter-only utility flight maneuvers. It was back to intensive dual flight instruction and off-airport operations ground school.
The Pacific Northwest is a treasure trove of geological diversity, offering every imaginable off-airport landing scenario, from year-round snow-capped rocky mountains to high desert prairies and canyons to sandy beaches to valley farmland to urban helipads and mountain meadows surrounded by 60-foot evergreen forests.
All of this was my classroom; all within 10 to 20 minutes of HAA’s training bases at Hillsboro (KHIO) and Troutdale (KTTD), and we hit them all.
With hovering under control, we got about the business of training in setting down on sloping surfaces along with deeper dives into control finesse, approach techniques, situational awareness, effective reconnaissance and precision flying.
Then we got into maximum performance takeoffs, which are a straight-up vertical ascent followed by a carefully metered accelerating forward movement into effective transitional lift. It was literally an “up, up and away!” ride.
But behind the thrill ride of a max-performance takeoff from a remote hilltop are serious performance calculations and reconnaissance skills exercised before the off-airport landing is ever made, actions and skill sets that guarantee once you get in, you can get out.
More than a few pilots have spent the night on a remote hilltop, a place that was easy to get into but impossible to leave, waiting for the cool density of the early-morning air to get out.
Pilots flying slow, low helicopters in medevac, logging, construction, search and rescue, or recreationally in the outback have to think way ahead, be instinctually aware of and wrestle with radically different landing and atmospheric conditions, all without the aid of AWOS, windsocks, PIREPS , NOTAMS or ATC, and without the safety of level, clear, hard surfaces.
To land on a mountaintop or logging road or open meadow or in the middle of nowhere in the high desert or on top of a high-rise building or on a football field are all thrilling and very satisfying maneuvers, but they are acts that require a good dose of preparation, knowledge and skill—skill in knowing how to see risks that may be hidden in plain sight.
All this tribal knowledge informed and directed each lesson plan.
We landed on mountain tops, pinnacles, logging roads, sandy beaches, gentle and not-so-gentle slopes, on cold rainy days and hot sunny days and calm days and windy days. This was much more fun than work.
And then, suddenly, or so it seemed to me, my instructor told me I was ready for the Stage Two company check ride; a flight with the director of training, which is the equivalent of the flight school’s stage check before taking the FAA practical commercial helicopter pilot check ride. If I passed, I’d be cleared to fly with the FAA pilot examiner to add the helicopter rating to my commercial pilot license.
It was at this point that I encountered the most critical element of flight safety for any pilot—something not from without, like an engine failure, but rather from within: fear of failure. And it affected my flying even in the face of positive, skilled and supportive check airman. We opted to fly again, and I was cleared for the FAA check ride.
For me, learning the helicopter topped off my flying career and fine-tuned my airmanship with that ethereal, indefinable element of flying that can turn pilots into aviators, that turns manned flight into an art form as surely as aerobatics does the same to fixed wing pilots.
Oh, I passed the FAA check and became a licensed commercial helicopter pilot on February 13, 2019, at 4:30 p.m. And for that, to Hillsboro Aero Academy, I am eternally grateful. As we began the advanced training, Brett was promoted to assistant chief flight instructor helicopter. Thankfully, he made room for me in his schedule and kept me on—adding to his already-packed schedule. Then his wife gave birth to their first child, further adding to his time crunch, yet he kept me on. This illustrates the spirit and caliber of the people I had the pleasure to meet at HAA.
And I can say that, at long last, as a commercial helicopter pilot. I guess some dreams do come true.