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Helicopter Cross-Country: Getting There is Only Half the Fun

Posted 9 years 126 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

The FAA requires all initial pilot certificate applicants (except ATP) to demonstrate cross-country proficiency during a practical test. The Practical Test Standard (PTS) Area of Operation identifying the proficiency to be demonstrated is titled “Navigation.” Tasks included within this section of the PTS are pilotage and dead reckoning, radio navigation and radar services, diversion, and lost procedures. This portion of the exam is intended to verify that the student has sufficient knowledge to fly a helicopter safely outside of his or her local flying area.

The FAA requires a straight-line distance of at least 50nm be conducted when in training for a helicopter pilot certificate. However, logging of cross-country flight time in a helicopter only requires a distance of 25nm. In either case, helicopters are short-winded machines when compared to fixed-wing aircraft. Additionally, a helicopter’s speed, altitude, and distance capability are often much less than the capabilities of an equivalent fixed-wing aircraft. This begs the question: Why do we train helicopter cross-country flights and fixed-wing flights the same?

It is a common misconception that cross-country flights must be conducted to established airports and/or heliports to receive credit by the FAA. The FAR Part 1 definition of an airport and/or heliport is “an area of land or water that is used or intended to be used for the landing and takeoff of aircraft (helicopter), and includes its buildings and facilities, if any.” As helicopters often operate in rural environments, cross-country flights should include navigating to waypoints that include lakes, power stations, and other locations unique to helicopter type operations.

When conducting FAA examinations, I include a diversion to a location, such as a bend in a canal or prominent land feature. To navigate to the diversion point, we first identify the point on the sectional chart. The applicant must then demonstrate proficiency navigating to the diversion point using all navigation tools available to them. This may include determining the LAT/LONG coordinates for the GPS, tuning in a VOR and identifying the location using VOR (crossing) radial technique, and/or simple pilotage and dead reckoning to find the diversion point. In this scenario, the pilot applicant will navigate to the type of location that a helicopter would routinely operate.

Helicopter cross-country flight training should include navigating to locations other than traditional airports. Additionally, the ability to land at these locations is paramount in developing the student’s ability to make effective operational decisions. A comprehensive syllabi for a helicopter pilot should include heavy emphasis on off-airport operations. One or two landings off-airport during training leaves the student with more questions than answers. The only way our industry can improve the operational decision making of our newly minted helicopter pilots is to include in their training program situations and environmental considerations they will be exposed to later.

Decision making errors continue to be a leading causal factor in helicopter accidents. It is the flight instructor that will make—or break—the student’s ability to survive and thrive when operating in the post-flight training environment. We’re counting on you!

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.