As of December 31, 2018, there were an estimated 32,831 active helicopter pilots in the U.S. The Robinson Helicopter Company has graduated almost that many pilots since the mid ’80s from its four-day Robinson Pilot Safety Course.
So after passing my commercial helicopter add-on check ride—and propelled by a robust suggestion from my alma mater, Hillsboro Aero Academy—I signed up.
Robinson offers 13 classes a year at the factory in Torrance, California, and several more internationally through its overseas dealer network. The course covers safety tips and best practices, with breakout sessions as appropriate for the R22, R44, and R66 machines, respectively.
According to Kurt Robinson, president and CEO of Robinson, the course was born to share critical lessons learned and knowledge accumulated over decades of fleet-wide experience. “We want you to know what we know,” he said.
With that introduction, we dive right into the lesson with an uncensored review of major fatal helicopter accidents, an introduction that features no-holds-barred accident videos, analysis of cause and circumstance for each accident—and each presented with lessons learned, warning signs codified and root causes compiled.
Are you an aviation enthusiast or pilot? Sign up for our newsletter, full of tips, reviews and more!
Conventional wisdom regarding accidents in a complex machine like a helicopter may suggest mechanical failure as the bulk cause of helicopter accidents, but the facts say otherwise. Ninety percent of all R22 and 100% of all R66 (so far) accidents are the direct result of pilot error.
The ubiquitous presence of GoPro and smartphone cameras delivers gritty material for review, material that presents—time after time—the stark and haunting consequences of poor judgment, sloppy airmanship, overconfidence or a timid and unprofessional reluctance to say “no go” when the inner voice whispers so. The material becomes up front and personal to each pilot in the class.
Emotional maturity is the most important safety element that a pilot can have. A deep-seated realization that your EGO is not your AMIGO is the cornerstone characteristic of a superior pilot—a true aviator—and the course content brings attendees back to this cardinal point over and over again.
Following the introductory session, practical lessons begin, first with an extensive tour of the production line, including a clear presentation of how and why things are designed and built the way they are, followed by deep-dive sessions into Helicopter Theory, Critical Flight Conditions, Performance, Limitations & Emergency Procedures. All of it is presented in the practical context of day-to-day flight operations and the attendant pressures brought to bear on the machine and the pilot.
I found Aircraft Systems, Preflight Inspections and the maintenance sessions extremely useful.
Personally, I have confidence in my preflight of an airplane. But as a newbie helicopter pilot, I was unsure of my ability to recognize a subtle clue that something was off during preflight.
This course put an end to that insecurity.
On hand for each session was a bare helicopter frame with working control linkages clearly visible and accessible and a display table with unserviceable components for touchy-feely inspection by each attendee—some damaged, some worn out of limits, some subtly cracked or corroded.
Each anomaly was pointed out as the part went around the room, the cause of the condition (negligent or poor maintenance/abusive operation, etc.) was clearly explained with details on how to avoid the development of similar damage.
In some cases, worn parts are not directly observable by the pilot during walk-around, so the instructor points out why, how and what to inspect indirectly by feel, smell and maintenance mirror.
Significant and statistically relevant aeronautical hazards are covered. These include operational hazards unique to helicopter operations, such as wires, turbulence, loss of tail rotor effectiveness and more. And they are reviewed in the context of actual documented accidents.
Performance calculations and real-world geographical and environmental traps are reviewed and discussed—tips and tricks to avoid these traps, ones many have never even thought or heard of, are shared with and added to each pilot’s experience base.
When all the tours and classroom work is done, each attendee flies with an instructor to polish their skill and deepen their integration with the machine.
During this special flight (under “adult” supervision), we gently touch the boundary of key operational limits—limits normally given a wide berth in the course of day-to-day flying.
And we stay there just deep and long enough to know what it feels like to poke your nose into the beginning of big trouble.
For this newly minted Robinson pilot, the course delivered experience, insights and informed confidence, without the risk, that I might not otherwise gain in 10 or even 15 years of real-world flight.
I will do this again.