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Training Safely

Posted 8 years 1 days ago ago by Randy Mains

I’ve been a flight instructor in the military, a senior instructor for Bell Helicopter in Iran teaching pilots how to be instructor pilots, head of training and a flight examiner for 13 years while working for the Royal Oman Police Air Wing in the Sultanate of Oman with British, American and Australian pilots and a type-rating instructor and type-rating examiner in the Bell 412EP and Bell 212 while working for Abu Dhabi Aviation.  While in Abu Dhabi, I trained and examined airline transport pilots hailing from more than 20 countries around the world.  In my 47-year and 13,000-hour flying career I have developed habits I use to keep us safe while training that I will pass along to you to, hopefully, keep you safe.  

First of all, before going to fly, realize that you are on dangerous ground when doing training, much more dangerous than operational flying.  Over twenty percent of all helicopter accidents in the States are due to training.  In the preflight briefing remind one another of that fact, that increased vigilance will be the watchword and nothing will be done unless thoroughly briefed.

The second thing I always remind myself is that an instructor should never fully relax.  The opposite of vigilance is complacency and complacency while training never has a happy ending.  Never be lulled into thinking, “I know this guy, I know how he flies he’s a good operator.  I can let my guard down a bit and relax.”  Not so!  Do that and I promise you your good friend and excellent operator will surprise you.

Something happens to a guy when he knows he is being evaluated.  Even on a training flight. I have seen 20,000 hour pilots who are my good friends, who always get the jitters during a ride no matter what I do to try to put them at ease.  I have seen many a ‘brain fart’ occur with pilots who you would never suspect would do anything foolish in the cockpit, like switching off the wrong fuel switch or putting the governor into manual without first rolling off the throttle.  I have seen very experienced pilots reach for the wrong fuel switch or the wrong switch entirely, like a fuel boost pump switch because they just aren’t thinking because they’re nervous.  That is why I stress in the preflight brief that they must confirm out loud before switching off any switch.

Another tip that may save the day is always having an ‘out’.  Don’t give a guy a forced landing if you don’t have somewhere in mind to put the machine down if the engine does quit.  

When I was going through flight school a famous story emerged of an instructor pilot who gave his student an engine failure in a Bell 47 over Possum Kingdom Lake to illustrate that the student had nowhere to go.  The instructor rolled off the throttle and said, “Now what are you going to do?”  

The student reached up, turned off both magnetos and said, “Now what are YOU going to do?”  I think that student ended up in the infantry.

There is nothing more deadly than two instructors or two flight examiners in the cockpit giving one another a check ride or doing training together.  The most feared words that can surface are, “Watch this,” or, “Have you ever seen it done THIS way?”

Realize that such a combination is potentially lethal.  Whenever I flew with another instructor I would always remind them during the brief, “You know this is a deadly combination, right?”  And they’d always agree.  So we made sure we didn’t allow any appendage-measuring to take place.  We never did a maneuver on impulse or without a through brief on what we were going to do.

Before going on any flight training sortie determine if you are mentally and physically fit.  I wasn’t mentally fit one day in Oman. I knew I wasn’t but went flying anyway and I paid the price.  I knew I shouldn’t have been anywhere near a cockpit that day.  My marriage was crumbling under the microscope of a very small expatriate community and my mind was more focused on what I could do to salvage our marriage than it was paying attention to flying.  

I was flying a Bell 205 was showing an Omani junior officer how he must have at least 60 knots in an autorotation before initiating a flare otherwise nothing will happen to arrest the descent rate.  He didn’t see it on my first demonstration so I did it at 40 knots, over exaggerated the flare pitching the nose way too high, causing the aircraft stinger to dig into the ground.  If I had been doing the maneuver over tarmac I would have gotten away with it but the soft dirt allowed the stinger to dig in causing the tail rotor to strike the ground causing one hellacious vibration.  I leveled the aircraft doing a running landing.  Luckily I had given myself an ‘out’ by aiming at a clear area of desert.  While skidding to a halt around 30 knots the vibration ceased.  That had to be when the 90-degree gearbox and the now out of balance tail rotor flopped on the opposite side of the tail rotor pylon.  Had I paid attention to my tender mental state before going to fly the accident wouldn’t have happened.

When doing autorotations I had a ‘gate’ during the descent where certain criteria had to be met or I wouldn’t continue.  For me that gate was approaching 500 feet.  At that altitude I would check to see if all looked good in airspeed, rotor RPM and whether or not I was sure I was going to make the area.  If any of those criteria was not met, I would abort the maneuver, roll on the throttle and go around and do it again.  Do not try to salvage any maneuver.  If it’s not looking good through the gate go around.

Five hundred feet was also the altitude where I would begin to roll the throttle or throttles up for a power recovery.  Both throttles had to be fully open passing through 300 feet and I would announce that it was fully open to the other pilot.

So remember during training:  

  1. Be hyper-vigilant.  Both of you should realize you have more chance of having an accident during training than operational flying.  
  2. An instructor should NEVER fully relax.  Even the most experienced pilot can surprise you.  Do not let your guard down.  You can keep your hands close to the controls in a relaxed manor but always be ready to offer assistance before the maneuver becomes a salvage operation.
  3. Be mindful that two instructors flying together can prove dangerous. Instructors should be alert to that fact.
  4. Always have an ‘out’.  Instructors do not place the pilot you’re flying with into a situation that you cannot recover from.  Take over the controls in a timely fashion before the situation becomes irretrievable.  It’s much easier to do a go around than it is to try to ‘save’ a maneuver.
  5. Before going to fly determine if you and the other pilot are mentally and physically fit. In training you must have 100 percent of your faculties available to focus on the task at hand to remain 100 percent safe.
  6. Flight training can be very safe if both parties know the inherent pitfalls that can occur to cause an accident. If both of you are aware of them and do not violate them you should have a safe and fruitful training sortie.
  7. Safe flying.

About Randy:
Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected]