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Critical Reactions : Are Your Students Ready?

Posted 6 years 216 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

As helicopter pilots, we learn the art of autorotation early in our training program. We practice autorotations until we are able to repetitively conduct the maneuver within the standards of the FAA Practical Test Standards (PTS). The instructor often teaches the student to enter the autorotation at a predetermined point in the traffic pattern and to terminate the maneuver at a predetermined point on the surface of a runway or taxiway. If the student doesn't ‘hit the spot,’ the instructor will often have the student adjust the entry point in hopes this will improve the accuracy of the maneuver. Conducting the autorotation in this manner emphasizes entry position as a controllable variable. Yet, in reality the ‘when and where’ the power failure occurs is the primary unknown.

Although this manner of maneuvering the helicopter during autorotation may work during a planned autorotative descent, a sudden loss of power with less than desirable options to land may require a different technique for survival. The FAA recognized this and developed separate standards for each method of flying the autorotation. The different standards for demonstrating proficiency during autorotation are defined within both the Performance Maneuvers and the Emergency Procedures sections of the PTS. The difference is the intent of the autorotation. That intent is clearly defined by reading the title of the maneuver in each section.

Within the Performance Maneuvers section of the PTS, the maneuver is clearly identified as either a “Straight In Autorotation” or an “180○ Autorotation.” The standard states the pilot will “initiate the maneuver at the proper point.” The purpose of this task within the PTS is to measure the student’s ability to maneuver the helicopter between two predetermined points while maintaining predetermined airspeed and rotor RPM. There is flexibility at the point of termination based upon the level of certification of the applicant. Although this maneuver demonstrates the applicant’s ability to conduct an autorotation, the critical skill of power loss recognition is not included.

This is where the Emergency Procedures portion of the PTS is critical. The autorotation identified within this section of the PTS is known as Power Failure at Altitude. At some point during the practical test, the examiner will initiate a simulated power loss. It is during this phase of the exam the applicant will need to recognize the failure, properly enter autorotation, select a suitable landing area, and maneuver the aircraft while maintaining the specified air speeds and the rotor RPM limits of the aircraft. Many instructors are not teaching such a power failure, and in many cases examiners are not checking it.

To maintain a safe training environment, industry recommendations regarding the training of Power Failure at Altitude includes a clear verbal annunciation of “engine failure” prior to initiating the maneuver. Additionally, the closing of the throttle is to be completed gradually…not a chopping of the throttle. These recommendations are written in blood and have very clear connections to maneuvers gone bad. That being said, we must make sure that our training of such a critical maneuver remains effective while not compromising safety. In the training environment, a delay in lowering of the collective at the first sign of power loss may only lead to an unsatisfactory outcome during a practical test.

However, the same mistake made the next day could become a fatal flaw. 

About Randy: Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award.  Randy is currently  Director of Training at Epic Helicopters in Ft. Worth, Texas.