Helicopter training: first solo to skills test

As you’ll already know if you read my last post, I completed my helicopter training last month. Although I’ve been talking about my helicopter lessons a bit in my monthly update posts, I thought it was about time I dedicated a post to talking about it in a bit more detail following part one, which covered the first 20 hours of my training from zero hours to first solo. I’ve now got more than 60 hours logged, with my licence currently being processed by the CAA, so here’s what I’ve been doing since I first went solo.

Solo hours building

You need a total of ten solo hours for the PPL(H), so after my first solo I did some longer solo flights to start building up those hours. The helicopter feels very different with just me on board, especially as I’m quite light (I need several reams of computer paper under the seat for ballast!), so this was all about getting used to flying by myself. Initially I did solo circuits, flying round and round the airfield to practice approaches. After that, I progressed to being allowed out of the circuit on my own, flying hour-long navigation routes – east towards Daventry or west to Worcester.


Advanced general handling

There was lots more dual training to complete as well as solos. As you start to become more adept at controlling the helicopter, you get to work on more advanced general handling skills. I learned how to fly sideways and backwards, and how to turn the helicopter in different ways – not just a basic on-the-spot turn but turning around the nose, the tail, around an imaginary circle and turning in the shape of a box. One of the most difficult things to learn was landing on sloping ground, which takes a lot of finesse. Here’s a video (taken by my mum when she came down to watch me fly) of me making a normal landing on a flat landing pad, which is tricky enough!

You also learn how to do limited power take-offs and landings, vertical take-offs (so cool) and approaches with the governor off, which means you have to make small manual throttle adjustments. My favourite thing that I learned during my training was how to do ‘quick stops’, which are tremendous fun and so completely unlike anything you’d do in a plane: you accelerate to 50 knots, then come to an abrupt stop mid-air before going down into a normal hover (it’s so that you know how to stop quickly if something gets in your way). You can see me flying one in another great video from my mum.

Emergency procedures

Along with this I did lots more training on emergency procedures. I’d done basic autorotations – the basic procedure for getting the helicopter down in the event of an engine failure – but then it was time to learn some more advanced stuff, like different kinds of autorotation to get you that little bit further to a more suitable field or into one right below you, engine failures from a lower altitude, and turning while in autorotation (you need to be able to turn into wind, but turning places more forces on the helicopter and therefore makes the rotor RPM a little more challenging to control).

Having done that, you put all the autorotation training into practice to learn ‘practice forced landings’: the whole emergency drill including entering autorotation, turning into wind, selecting a suitable landing site, saying what you’d turn off in the cockpit, making a pretend Mayday call, and telling the passengers to brace. It’s all rather intense and there’s a lot to fit into a very short space of time! You also have to practice things like engine-off landings (the engine isn’t really off but the throttle is closed) and engine failures in the hover, and of course know what procedures to follow if any warning lights come on. You have to be prepared for every eventuality, no matter how remote.


Off-airfield landings

The most exciting thing about helicopters – and indeed pretty much the whole point of them as opposed to aeroplanes – is that you’re not restricted to landing on airfields. Country house hotels, pubs, restaurants, people’s gardens… you have a lot more options in a helicopter. BUT off-airfield landings are quite challenging and there’s more to them than I was expecting, and they’re what many of the elements of the training are leading up to. I’ve always watched those programmes about air ambulances and seen them land in all sorts of places, but only now do I appreciate the skills of those pilots! There’s so much to take in, as you have to do a high and low recce of the site before you land, remembering the 7 Ss and 4 Ws: Size, Shape, Slope, Surroundings, Surface, Sun, Shadow, Way In, Way Out, Wind and Wires. You also have to calculate how much power you have available, because if it’s a very confined area you’ll need to take off vertically, but if you’re heavy and it’s a hot day, you might not be able to do that and you could end up stuck on the ground – embarrassing. So it might look awesome rocking up at a country pub or hotel in a helicopter, but just think of all the thought the pilot has had to put into it! This was my first off-airfield landing, at Charingworth Manor in the Cotswolds.


Instrument flying

Probably my least favourite element of the training was instrument flying, which trains you to be able to cope if you inadvertently end up in cloud/deteriorating weather. These fetching glasses – known as “foggles” – simulate this by preventing you from seeing the horizon, so you have to keep the helicopter flying at the right speed, heading and altitude using only the instruments. I’ve done this in the plane, so it wasn’t completely new to me, but it’s not much fun as you have to do a lot of turns, climbing, descending etc without being able to see out of the cockpit, which is slightly nausea-inducing!


Qualifying cross country

Having done various bits of dual navigation training, along with my hour-long solo navigation flights, it was time for the biggest test since my first solo: my qualifying cross country flight. This is a 100 nautical mile solo flight landing away at two other airfields, and I went first to Wolverhampton Halfpenny Green:


And then to Shobdon (where I also went on my fixed wing qualifying cross country three years ago).


Luckily the whole thing went without incident, and it was actually quite enjoyable despite being such a major undertaking, and there was a big sense of achievement landing back at Wellesbourne.


The PPL(H) skills test

Having done lots of reading and a bit of revision, the moment everything had been leading up to: my skills test. This is the final big test to get your licence, so the equivalent of a driving test. On the day, you get an hour to prepare – checking the weather, airspace restrictions, planning your navigation routes etc – then you brief the examiner and answer a few questions for about half an hour. Then it’s out to the hangar to check the aircraft over, which involves identifying and checking every visible component of the helicopter to ensure it’s safe and there no potential problems with it. Who’d have thought I’d ever know what to look for if you told me to point out the sprag clutch, yoke flanges or flex couplings!!

After that, it’s into the helicopter for the epic nearly-two-hour flight test. The first half is navigation, which takes about an hour: a dead reckoning leg (getting from A to B just using a stop watch and a compass heading you’ve calculated earlier to take into account the wind speed and direction), then finding a farm using an OS map, then finding somewhere by referring to features on the 1:250,000 aviation chart, then a couple of diversions for which you luckily get to use the GPS (let’s face it, that’s what you’ll be using after you pass the test). This bit was actually quite fun (I have, after all, already passed a navigation test for fixed wing – though flying with an OS map was new to me) and I spent most of the time chatting with the examiner.

After that there was a bit of instrument flying, and then general handling, which was quite intense as it’s just one thing after another, testing you on all sorts of things like off-airfield landings, autorotations, emergency procedures, governor-off approaches, quick stops, sloping ground landings etc etc. In flight there were also questions such as “what would you do if such and such a warning light came on?” By the end of it I was completely shattered! I landed and shut down the helicopter and Richard the examiner asked how I thought I’d done. I said nervously “I think it went ok…?!” and he said that I had “very nicely passed”! And he didn’t have any other feedback on my flying so I’m taking that to be a good sign! Hurrah!

Although you technically only need 45 hours (35 dual, 10 solo) for a PPL(H), it takes most people a lot longer than that because helicopters are so difficult to fly; apparently the national average is 74 hours. I had 60 hours when I took my skills test, so at least I’ve beaten the average! Here’s the official ‘just passed my test’ photo with Richard the examiner!


What’s next?

Never one to rest on my laurels, my helicopter training continues with a type rating course to graduate onto a bigger helicopter, the R44 – the four-seat version of the one I’ve been training on so far. They’re very similar in appearance and layout, but the R44 is faster, more powerful, more stable and nicer to fly – not to mention much cooler-looking!! Here’s me flying one last summer.


I’ll report back on the type rating course if there’s enough of interest to say about it! A big thank you to Heli Air for getting me through the demanding PPL(H) course – I really have loved every minute and do check them out if you’re thinking of learning.

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