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Meet A Rotorcraft Pro - Wes Van Dell, Chief Flight Instructor of UND

Posted 1 years 125 days ago ago by Admin

RPMN: What is your current position?
I am chief flight instructor at the University of North Dakota (UND) and a designated pilot examiner for the FAA. UND Aerospace has been training pilots since 1968 and currently has over one thousand active flight students in fixed-wing, helicopter, and UAS degree programs. As chief flight instructor, I have many responsibilities including the day-to-day operations of the helicopter department, hiring and standardizing instructors, conducting evaluations, and teaching academic classes. We flew a record 126,000 flight hours last year making our home airport of Grand Forks routinely one of the busiest in the country. We’ve operated a number of helicopters over the decades from MD500s to Bell 206s and have transitioned exclusively to the Robinson R44 Cadet this past year.   
RPMN: Tell me about your first flight or experience with helicopters.
Helicopters and vertical flight have always held my interest. My first memorable experience in a helicopter was during a family vacation to Alaska where we flew in an AS350 to land on a glacier and hike around on a geology tour. The versatility of the helicopter made it possible to do something that wouldn’t be possible in any other vehicle and certainly piqued my interest in what a helicopter pilot career would be like. I think I was more interested in the helicopter than the rest of the tour!
RPMN: How did you get your start in helicopters?
My helicopter career began at the University of North Dakota as a student almost 20 years ago. UND Aerospace has an unparalleled reputation in the aviation industry, but at that time it was also the only university in the country with a helicopter degree program. Since I was also seeking an aviation degree, that really made a career in helicopters possible for me. My first time flying a helicopter was at UND in a Schweizer 300C on my birthday in 2003 and I haven’t looked back since.
RPMN: When and how did you choose to fly helicopters? Or did they choose you?
Aviation has been a lifelong passion of mine so I was always going to end up flying, but it wasn’t until researching colleges that I chose helicopters specifically as a career. While touring colleges after high school, it didn’t even dawn on me that flying helicopters was a possibility until visiting UND. The versatility of helicopters and variety of missions really pulled me towards them versus a fixed-wing career in the airlines.
RPMN: Where did you get your start flying professionally?
My first job was actually as a contract pilot drying cherries and conducting photo flights in Southern California. I started doing that after graduating from UND while working on my CFI certificate and getting Robinson experience in Long Beach at the same time. During that process, I really discovered my passion for teaching and was offered a full-time job instructing back at the University of North Dakota shortly after earning my CFI.
RPMN: If you were not in the helicopter industry, what else would you see yourself doing?
If I’m not behind the controls, I’m usually behind a camera. My wife and I have been doing professional photography and videography for around 7 years now and really enjoy being creative outside of our ‘normal’ careers.
RPMN: What do you enjoy doing on your days off?
Traveling and photography are definitely my greatest passions outside of flying. We try to make the most of our time off and get out to see the rest of the world. If I can combine travel with photography and aviation, then I’ve really hit the ultimate vacation!
RPMN: What is your greatest career accomplishment to date?
The progression of a career flight instructor is somewhat different than most. Becoming chief flight instructor at the largest collegiate flight training program in the country at such a young age certainly was an accomplishment. That, combined with becoming a DPE last year has felt like the pinnacle of what’s been an exciting and challenging career so far. The biggest feeling of accomplishment however is seeing a student develop into a professional, become an instructor, and then move on into the industry. There’s no better feeling in my position than seeing that progression from zero time to career pilot. There’s still a long way to go in my career, and I look forward to helping many more pilots achieve their dreams.
RPMN: Have you ever had an “Oh, crap” moment in helicopters? Can you summarize what happened?
As a career flight instructor there have certainly been many of those! Before that though, on my very first commercial assignment drying cherries in the California desert at night, I got myself into an LTE situation by executing a right pedal turn too rapidly at the end of a tree row and suddenly running out of left pedal. Luckily I had cleared the edge of the cherry trees and was able to lower the collective to sacrifice a little altitude.  The simple reduction in torque allowed me to regain tail rotor control almost immediately but it definitely taught me a lesson I won’t soon forget! Although initially nerve wracking, it’s become a teaching moment that I try to pass on to students as often as I can.
RPMN: If you could give only one piece of advice to a new helicopter pilot, what would it be?
Be humble. Whether it’s learning to hover or interviewing for your first job, it’s a progression, and it may not go the way you want the first time. Take every opportunity to learn from your mistakes and apply them to your next opportunity.
RPMN: In your view, what is the greatest challenge for the helicopter industry at this time?
Recruiting the next generation of pilots. Helicopter flight training isn’t getting any cheaper and the next generation of military pilots may not be well suited to flying light, automation-less aircraft. While fixed-wing careers continue to be more attainable and attractive, we all have a challenge on our hands to engage and recruit the number of pilots the helicopter industry will need in the coming decades.