Ask an Engineer:

My second Ask An Engineer column:

Why are the Fenestron (tail rotor) blades unevenly spaced?

The spacing between rotor blades (main or tail) is constant on most helicopters. The fundamental reason for this is that each blade affects the air immediately behind it in its plane of rotation. As a rotor blade moves through the air, it disturbs that air, mainly forcing it downward. The following blade, on moving through this disturbed air, produces less lift than it otherwise would (due to a reduction of what’s called the induced angle of attack, which I’ll discuss more in a future column). Since lift is a force (that pushes upward on the blades), production of lift stresses the blades, and more lift corresponds to higher stresses. The stress each blade feels, therefore, is related to the distance between it and the blade in front of it; the further apart two blades are, the greater lift a following blade produces, and the higher its stress. Any rotor blade that produces lift also produces turbulence in the air behind it, which increases stresses on the blade following it, but this stress increases the closer the blades are. Unfortunately, these effects don’t cancel each other out, which means that the stresses each blade feels vary depending partly on how close it is to the blade in front of it. It therefore makes the most sense to space blades evenly, so the stresses are evenly distributed, as uneven stresses increase wear, increasing maintenance costs.

The SA 340 Gazelle, a light utility helicopter, was the first designed with a Fenestron, and its blades are evenly spaced. (The manufacturer, by the way, was a French company called Sud Aviation, which became part of Aérospatiale, which become part of Eurocopter, which became part of Airbus, which is why so many Airbus helicopters–including our EC135–use Fenestrons instead of conventional tail rotors, and why very few others do.) The noise signature of the Gazelle, though, had a significant high-pitched wail to it, which only worsened when the Fenestron was attempted on later (larger) helicopters.

To learn why, it’s important to understand exactly what sound is. Sound is just waves of pressurized air; high pressure, followed a short time later by low pressure, followed by high, etc. If these waves follow each other in a regular pattern, we hear a constant tone. If the waves are closer together, that’s a higher-pitched tone. If the difference in pressure is high, we perceive that as a louder noise.

In the Gazelle, as each blade moved through the air, it disturbed the air as noted before. One byproduct of the production of lift is that the air above a blade has lower pressure than the air below it (that’s another way to think of lift: higher pressure below a blade, with lower pressure above, pushes the blade upward, as if there were an upward force on the blade itself). Since the air affected by one blade is quickly felt by the blade behind it, this pressure difference, to some extent, is transmitted from a leading blade to a following blade. This oncoming air is split, some going above the blade (where its pressure is reduced), and some going below, where its pressure is increased. In either case, though, air going through the rotor system experiences at least one cycle of pressure rise and drop. Note though, that when the spacing between the blades is the same, the ranges of times between the pressure cycles are approximately the same for each blade. This means that the range of sound frequencies generated by each blade is approximately the same, which in the case of the Gazelle just happened to average out to be uncomfortably high-pitched. And its Fenestron (like all later ones), though small, packed a punch, producing hundreds of pounds of force. This meant that the differences in pressure between the peak and trough of each wave were high, ensuring the wail would be loud.

The solution to this problem was exceedingly clever; the engineers just changed the spacing between the blades, such that some were closer together, and others further apart. That meant that each leading/following blade combination produced a different range of frequencies, such that no single one could dominate to create a wail. And since the blades themselves were small, and since there were so many of them (10 in our EC135, though others have between 8 and 18), the stresses that each created and felt were relatively small, so the difference in stresses between closely-spaced blades and those further apart was small, with the result that the stress-induced maintenance issues detailed earlier were almost nonexistent. This tradeoff of slightly higher maintenance and manufacturing costs for a much quieter noise signature was so favorable that every subsequent Fenestron design incorporated it.

Interestingly enough, uneven blade spacing isn’t only a feature of Fenestrons; the Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, though it has a conventional (unshrouded) tail rotor, unevenly spaces its four blades: two are 45° apart, and two 135°. In its case, designers were willing to pay the increased costs in maintenance and weight of an uneven design in order to lower the helicopter’s total noise signature, as an attack helicopter needs to be as quiet as possible.

Uneven Fenestron blade spacing is an excellent example of pure engineering genius; it solved a vexing problem without significantly increasing weight, or manufacturing or maintenance costs. Helicopters are extremely complex pieces of machinery, and it’s only due to instances of brilliant engineering such as this that they’re able to do all the amazing tasks we ask of them.

Ask an Engineer: helicopter/airplane pilot seat location

At my current base, I offered to write a monthly “Ask an Engineer” column, where base clinicians write in with questions on helicopter design and engineering, and I answer them. This is my first column:

Why do helicopter pilots sit on the right, while airplane pilots sit on the left?

The short answer is because that’s what pilots are already used to, and any new aircraft are designed to fit current pilot preferences. That begs the question, though: how did each tradition get started, and more importantly, why are they different between helicopters and airplanes? There’s no generally accepted single answer in either case, but a combination of the following is most likely:

Modern airplane design conventions first appeared in the 1920’s and 30’s. During that time, most airplanes were powered by large nose-mounted single engines and propellers. Most engines at the time rotated such that their torque made it difficult to turn the airplane to the right on the ground, which meant that pilots preferred to make ground taxi turns to the left. Also, most airplanes during this time had tailwheels, and sat (and taxied) nose-high. Pilots therefore preferred (so airplane manufacturers designed) airplanes in which pilots sat on the left, so they could see best in the direction they were most likely to turn on the ground.

There were aerial navigation reasons for pilots to prefer sitting on the left side, as well. Navigation at that time was mostly done by flying between visual ground checkpoints (bonfires, in the early days!), and it was convention for pilots to fly on the right side of those checkpoints, so as to stay clear of pilots using the same ones going the opposite direction. Most airport traffic patterns utilized left turns, as well. Flying on the left side, then, give the airplane pilot the best field of view to look for other air traffic near checkpoints and airports.

Helicopters became commercially viable later, in the 1940’s, and that’s when their design conventions began to solidify. The first mass-produced helicopter was the Sikorksy R4. It had two seats, and was originally designed to be flown from the left seat, perhaps to match already-established airplane design conventions. The test pilots for the aircraft were its first instructors, and mostly flew it from the left seat, and therefore their trainees mostly all learned to fly it from the right. The test/instructor pilots trained many more pilots than they themselves numbered, so the preference among early helicopter pilots (around which, again, the manufacturers designed) was to sit on the right.

Another potential reason for the start of the tradition was the location of the helicopter’s controls. In order to save weight and reduce complexity, early two-pilot helicopters like the R4 had only one collective control, in between the pilots. Most pilots are right handed, and preferred the control that required more finesse (so the cyclic control) to be manipulated by their dominant hand, which meant that they preferred to sit on the right.

The previous are the most likely reasons why pilots sit where they do now, but there are some interesting modern exceptions to this convention. The most common of these is the Airbus H130 (previously Eurocopter EC130), in which the pilot sits on the left. The reason for this is that, though it’s widely used in helicopter EMS these days, the H130 was originally designed as a tour helicopter. Eurocopter extensively solicited tour operator input during the design process, and one of the things the operators told them was that in helicopters then used for tours (predominantly the AS350 AStar and B206 JetRanger/LongRanger), some front-seat passengers, attempting to enter the aircraft, would grab anything that looked like it might be useful in pulling themselves into the helicopter, including the collective! Grabbing onto it while getting inside raised the collective, causing some inadvertent (near-) takeoffs, and the operators wanted to eliminate this risk. Eurocopter felt the best solution to this problem was to move the pilot seat to the left side of the aircraft, where the collective would be near the pilot door, as opposed to between the pilot and front seat passenger. This design change worked well for tour operators, and pilots transitioning between left- and right-seat helicopters have not found it difficult to do so, so we may see even more left-seat piloted helicopters in the future.

New Year’s Eve 2014: Times Square

I spent this last New Year’s Eve in Times Square. I hadn’t done so before, and wanted to do it at least once just for the experience and spectacle of it all. Notes from the event, as well as pics and video, follow. (Click on an image thumbnail to view a slideshow of all of them; click on a video title to begin watching any of them.)

-They say to get there early, so I did: I arrived in NYC, a few blocks from Times Square, at about 2:30 p.m., and was at my spot by 3:30. Times Square itself is bordered on its north end by 47th Street; I was about 25 feet from that street. I had a pretty good spot, then; I could see (at least part of) the stage, and where the ball would drop. Perhaps, though, if I had shown up twelve hours early, instead of the 9.5 I did, I would have been able to have been in Times Square itself. :) In any case, aside from three 10-15 minute breaks kneeling at my spot (there wasn’t room to sit down), I stood for 8.75 hours, and was on my feet for 11 hours. It was demanding, but worth it.

-The NYE Times Square guides did say to bring something to do while waiting for midnight, so I brought three books; I finished one, and started a second.

-There are no public bathrooms in the area, and if you have to leave to use one elsewhere, or to get something to eat, you probably won’t be able to return to your place. Proper planning is therefore vital; you don’t want to eat so little you faint from hunger or thirst, but also don’t want to eat or drink so much that that you have to leave to use the bathroom. I had an additional issue; my two-can-a-day Cherry Coke Zero habit meant that I had to had some caffeine, or potentially suffer a withdrawal headache during the celebration. I went with, then, for the entire day, three hummus sandwiches, and 24 oz of caffeinated Crystal Light. I apparently planned well; I didn’t have to leave my spot.

-No backpacks are allowed into Times Square during New Year’s Eve, so one has to carry/wear everything they need. The guides also said to dress warmly, in layers if possible, since weather can of course be variable, and there’s no place to get away from rain/snow/cold without losing one’s spot. With the clothing layers, food, drink, and books, the sum total of what I carried/wore was: coat, long-sleeve shirt, short-sleeve shirt, long johns, gym pants, jeans, two pairs wool socks, boots, keys, wallet, phone, glasses bag, paper, pencil, change, glasses, sunglasses (in another bag), earphones, watch, water bottle, two sandwiches (in a bag), three books, earplugs (those were very handy; I had them in the entire time I was in my spot), gloves, and earband. I may have looked like a pack mule, but I was prepared. :)

-Many of the billboards were dynamic, but those that were were only on a 1-2 minute loop. There are some commercials I may never get out of my head. :)

-The performance stage actually faces away from Times Square; there’s only room for about twenty people (all of whom, I assume, were Very Very Important People) between the stage’s apron and the closest building. I wasn’t sure why this was; I assume it was for security’s sake, or because an overenergetic reveler had thrown something at a performer in the past. In any case, from my vantage, the only thing I could see, and then only very occasionally, was the back of a performer’s head. It’s a testament to video editing prowess that I probably would never have noticed this unless I had been there live.

-Only the performances (and some promotions for the event’s sponsors) were broadcast to the audience; we didn’t hear Ryan Seacrest, for instance, at all. Combined with the stage setup, I was struck by how much the event resembled a large-stadium sports game; the experience was planned to appeal much more to those watching at home, rather than those who were there in person.

My takeaway? 8.5 hours is long time to be crammed into a loud, cold, crowded spot, so I probably won’t be doing New Year’s Eve in Times Square for at least a while. I’m happy I did go this time, though; the spectacle was worth it to have experienced at least once.

 

Remarks

This was another piece I wrote around 2003 for consideration to be published in an aviation magazine. My literary genius again went unheralded ( :) ), but it noted the start of a habit I’ve continued with every flight since then. And I’m glad I have; in sometimes just a couple of words per entry, these remarks have logged a life in aviation.

Remarks

I’ve been writing in my logbook more often lately. It hasn’t been because I’ve been flying more; I’ve been adding more to each flight.

I’m a helicopter pilot for a 14 CFR Part 135 (air taxi) operation. Mostly what my company does is provide offshore support: we ferry workers and supplies from coastal bases in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi to oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Until recently, my logbook entries have been boringly professional: though it doesn’t seem to happen as much in the helicopter (as opposed to the airline/airplane) side of the industry, there’s always the chance that a prospective employer will want to see my logbook. For that reason I had kept my entries as succinct as possible: date, aircraft type and registration, departure and destination, and the various flight times. The Remarks section was mostly left blank, or given the most basic of attention (“Powerline Patrol”, “Photo Flight”, “R44 Checkout”).

But like most pilots, I’ve found myself looking back through my logbook. Though I can remember highlights from flights I’ve made multiple times (“Traffic Watch”) or single flights that were more memorable than usual (“Private Pilot Checkride Passed”), there are literally pages of flights I don’t remember much at all about.

So I’ve been writing in my logbook. Specifically, after each flight (or after a day’s flying when I’m flying offshore and there’s less time) I write down the most interesting thing that happened in the flight/day in the “Remarks” section. Sometimes the most interesting thing is relatively minor, or sometimes it takes a while to come up with something to write. But twenty words or so will let me remember these flights for a lifetime. Looking back, there’s some fascinating stuff:

8/27: Beautiful clouds-3 (big) waterspouts, one forming (water swirl). This day’s entry came from a single cloud, easily the biggest single cloud I’ve ever seen. It started out impressive, became worrisome, and was finally just cool. First, some Gulf-of-Mexico-specific background:

Since we fly over water, there’s no land to slow down the wind, and the (usually warmer) water is a great place for clouds and weather to form. The weather in the Gulf, then, tends to form faster, and it can pack a more powerful punch. (“If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.” is our standard weather aphorism here.)

Although we definitely give any cloud with lightning or heavy rain a large berth, most other weather we’ll often fly in: even though cloud bases usually start in the 1-3000 ft range, as Part 135 VFR helicopters we only have to have 500 foot ceilings and 3 statute miles visibility to fly offshore. (We usually fly under, as opposed to beside or above clouds, where turbulence is less.) Thunderstorms (in summer) or fog (in winter) can easily ground us, but we still fit in lots of flying time.

Another major difference: clouds over land tend to be part of larger highs, lows, and fronts, and so usually appear only in groups. In the Gulf, though, weather is often much more localized: sometimes there can be really good weather around a few square miles of absolutely rotten thunderheads.

On this particular day, I and my passengers were heading west over the Gulf one morning, and saw a tremendous cumulus cloud. The cloud itself was easily tens of square miles and thousands of feet high, and there really wasn’t much else in the way of clouds around it, which made it seem even larger. This supercloud was over our desired track, and as we got closer, we noticed that we couldn’t see anything but gray underneath it. This isn’t uncommon for huge clouds (even if they’re not making rain or worse), but we definitely couldn’t see past it to open ocean, meaning it was probably as long as it was wide.

It didn’t seem dangerous, and it would have taken quite a bit of time to divert around it, so I flew underneath it. We were in it for a few miles, and as we got closer to its center, the weather went from impressive to worrisome.

Most pilots have heard of virga: they’re the sheets of precipitation (common especially in the Southwest, but also in the Gulf) that extend from the bottoms of clouds, and are thick enough that they can be seen with the naked eye from afar. We usually fly around virga in the Gulf, since the visibility can go too low and the turbulence too high to fly inside them, as well as the fact that the heavy rains of which they’re made can conceivably put out our turbine engines. There were virga (as well as some lightning) directly ahead of us, so I turned right to avoid them, but not before I witnessed the most spectacular first-hand weather show I had ever seen.

A bit about wind on water: a body of water with a steady wind blowing across it will form waves on the water, their direction of motion the same as that of the wind, and the line of the wave crests perpendicular with the wind direction. When the wind gets higher (about 15-20 kts), the wind will blow the tops of the waves over, making intermittent whitecaps along the wave peaks. When the wind gets to 30-40 kts, white streaks will form along the water, parallel to the wind direction.

Another bit about waterspouts: waterspouts are tornadoes over water: if the circular air funnel touches down over land, it’s a tornado, and if over water, it’s a waterspout. Waterspouts are generally weaker than tornadoes (though still nothing to get close to in an aircraft), and like tornadoes can only be seen if they suck up something visible (in the case of tornadoes, dirt, mobile homes, little dog Totos, etc., and for waterspouts, water).

Out of our left windows were two very large, very visible waterspouts. They were dark gray from all the water in them, approximately 800 feet tall, and easily 50 feet wide; ominous fingers of air and water stretching to the ground. They hung there, seemingly motionless, though it didn’t take any imagination to realize that they were in fact rotating and transitioning quite speedily. As soon as I saw them, I turned even more to get out of their way, and that’s when we saw something more fascinating: a waterspout about to form.

In a mature storm, there’s often no specific direction the winds will take, at least as evidenced by their effect on the waves. Near the two waterspouts, though, rotating air above had actually blown the water, with clearly visibly whitecaps and streaks, into a rotating circle hundreds of feet wide. I checked with my passengers, and they confirmed my hunch: I was actually watching a waterspout being born. Had we stayed, the rotating column of air would have contracted and increased in speed, and we would have seen it force water up through its funnel and become visible.

That was the worst of the storm, and we safely exited the other side, but I wouldn’t have traded it for a flight with clear skies that day: From a safe distance, and with a TV nowhere in sight, I got to see not only the biggest single cloud I’ve ever seen, but also the most concentrated weather (as well as what it looked like as it was forming) I’ll probably ever see. That definitely was a logbook keeper.

10/6: Flew through the side of a circular rainbow: I and a passenger were on the way back from offshore, and conditions were perfect for seeing a rainbow: we were flying northeast, the sun was low in the west-southwest (and so behind us), and there was a lot of water in the air, as it was raining intermittently.

About rainbows: rainbows result from the same effect one sees in a prism: when a light is shined into a properly shaped transparent object, the object refracts the light, splitting it up into its component colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. In a rainbow, then, the sun (the light source) shines onto the refracting objects (suspended water droplets in the air), and is reflected back through the droplets to the viewer. A rainbow’s shape comes from the angle the viewer makes with the sun and the raindrops: for a given orientation of sun and viewer, only the water droplets arranged in an arc as seen from the viewer’s orientation will refract visible light. Rainbows can also change in width: larger water droplets will produce rainbows with colors closer together. And although often invisible, rainbows have secondary bows and alternating bands: outside the normally seen portion of the rainbow (the primary bow), a secondary bow, with the same colors (though dimmer) can sometimes be seen. Inside the bow, one can sometimes also see alternating bands of red and green.

Rainbows can also appear to move: the angle between the sun, the water droplets (the refraction point), and the viewer must satisfy a certain relationship to be visible. As the viewer moves forward toward the rainbow, the refraction point (the apparent position of the rainbow) must move forward as well, so a rainbow will appear to move away from the viewer as it is approached. As the viewer continues to move toward the rainbow, the refraction point will eventually move into a parcel of air that has too few water droplets to refract light, and the rainbow will disappear.

As my passenger and I approached an area where it had just rained, a rainbow appeared at our one-o-clock position. As we got closer, it intensified both in brightness and contrast, and we decided to fly through the closest (left) side of it.

We turned toward it, and as we closed the distance the rainbow receded, but not as quickly as we moved toward it. As we approached the refraction point, the rainbow intensified even more, and it lifted off the ground: instead of a semicircle, we saw a complete rainbow circle. (This is only possible to see from the air, as there aren’t any suspended water droplets on the ground to reflect and refract light.) About this time, the secondary bow also appeared; even though its diameter was too wide to make a complete circle, It was easily the brightest and sharpest I’d ever seen. Eventually, we reached the edge of the saturated air, and the rainbow gradually disappeared, but for thirty seconds or so, we flew in a rainbow, surrounded by color and light and the soft patter of rain against the windscreen.

I don’t fly through kaleidoscopes of brilliant circular color every day, so that definitely make the “Remarks” section.

The amazing part about “Remark”ing is that I’ve only been doing it for about four months: these two entries came from flights within six weeks of each other. I could have easily filled many more paragraphs with clouds and sunsets and aircraft and friends met along the way. It’s so easy for pilots to get into a rut: we all look at the same water (or land) and sky and platforms (or towns) every day. For me, though, all it took was a few seconds at the end of each flight, and flying was suddenly a lot less boring, and a lot more like one of the reasons I first jumped into a cockpit six years ago: I can get better memories flying than I can get doing just about anything else.

Becoming a Helicopter Pilot

I first wrote this in 2003, when I was having grand delusions of becoming a famed pilot/aviation magazine columnist. I even submitted this to a couple of pilot mags, but they wisely refrained from stopping their presses to publish it. :) Almost everything in it still holds true, however, so I’m posting it now. Enjoy!

Becoming a helicopter pilot

Most of the fair readers happening by these words are pilots, whether licensed or getting there. Some of you may be fortunate enough to fly for a living, and some may fly for an air taxi or air carrier service. But not many of you, I’ll wager, get paid to hover before you take off, or land on 24-foot long airstrips, or fly for weeks on end without even seeing a runway; in short, fly helicopters. It’s fascinating flying; here’s how to get there, and what it’s like once you do.

First of all, it’s a great time to become a helicopter pilot: for over twenty years, the vast majority of (especially upper-level) helicopter flying jobs have been filled by pilots who learned to fly during the Vietnam War. Most of these pilots are now in their fifties, however, and beginning to retire. In five to ten years, a major shortage of pilots is predicted, but effects of the aging pilot population are being felt even now: flight time minimums for pilot jobs have lowered significantly over the past ten years, and are expected to continue to do so. It’s therefore taking far less time for new pilots to move up the career ladder.

But let’s begin at the start: helicopter pilots start out much the same as their fixed-wing brethren: they get ratings. Like airplane pilots, helicopter drivers either join the military, or go to a civilian flight school. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The military used to be the favored way of becoming a helicopter pilot; the training was considered excellent, pilots didn’t have to pay for their training, and after six years (the minimum military commitment for pilots), they entered the civilian flying world with at least a thousand hours of turbine-engine time, much of it night and on instruments. (More about valued helicopter types and totals of flight times later.)

Military budgets have fallen precipitously in recent years, and due to its increasingly high-tech (and expensive) fleet, the military is also having a more difficult time paying for helicopter hourly operating costs. In short, the military seems to be taking fewer applicants, and unless they stay in the military for many years, the ones that enter the job market after military pilot training often have fewer than one thousand hours of flight time, which is the bare minimum for most higher-echelon flying jobs. In addition, many are finding it difficult to transition from high-end multi-engine military turbine helicopters with two pilots, two engines, autopilots, and flight computers to entry-level single-engine, single-pilot, VFR-only civilian birds.

For this and other reasons, many new pilots are taking the civilian route. For some, civilian flight training was always the only choice, and this is mostly due to the more stringent medical requirements the military has for its flight school candidates. The condition that disqualifies most prospective candidates is poor uncorrected eyesight: although, even for a first-class medical, the FAA requires only vision correctable to 20/20, the military requires that applicants have (depending on which branch of the military one speaks to) no worse than 20/40 to 20/100 uncorrected vision, correctable to 20/20.

One of the main disadvantages of a civilian helicopter flight education in the past has been the cost. Until the 1980’s helicopter flight training cost as much as three to four times per hour as a comparable airplane, with most of that due to helicopters’ higher maintenance cost. With the introduction of the Robinson R22 in 1979, however, the helicopter flight training industry was given a reliable, low-maintenance helicopter, which significantly reduced rotary-wing cost per hour. A Cessna 172 with instructor today rents for about $100 per hour, while an R22 with instructor is approximately $200 per hour, down from approximately $300-400 per hour (in 2003 dollars) from the early 1980’s.

Changes in helicopter flight training regulation have also altered its cost. In the past, most potential rotary-wing pilots were advised to get their fixed-wing private license first. Since only 150 hours were required for the helicopter commercial pilots license, and only fifty of those were required to be in helicopters, it made a lot of financial sense to do as much of it in airplanes as possible. In the last ten to twenty years, however, non-flight instructing helicopter jobs for new commercial pilots have become increasingly scarce (mostly due to insurance requirements), and new helicopter pilots almost have to become flight instructors as their first job.

The FAA still requires only fifty hours helicopter, and 150 hours total, to become a commercial pilot, as well as a helicopter flight instructor. It requires substantially more to instruct in the Robinson R22, however, which is by far the most common training helicopter, and by far the most common helicopter new instructors will teach in. The minimum for R22 instructors is 200 hours total helicopter time (no fixed-wing time required), and 50 hours in the R22. As expensive as this might sound, it’s a definite improvement, as helicopters in general, and the R22 in particular, are very sensitive machines and require some getting used to, especially for those transitioning from fixed-wing flying.

The 200 hundred hour helicopter time requirement has increased the total flight training cost, however. Helicopter instrument flying also has added to the cost: in the past, helicopters have not been frequently used in the IFR system: they usually fly less than 2000 feet above the ground, below most instrument flight routes, and are allowed per FAA regulations to fly at much lower weather conditions than airplanes and still be VFR. That’s still the case today, but the IFR system is slowly becoming more helicopter-friendly, with point-to-point GPS routes, and approaches to the off-airport sites that helicopters fly to. In short, the instrument-helicopter rating is becoming a required rating for rotary-wing pilots, and many pilots who graduated from civilian flight schools without instrument ratings are finding that they have to go back and get them (at a higher total flight training cost) in order to obtain the jobs they want.

In summary, then, most prospective pilots who train in the civilian world first get their private helicopter rating (approximately 60 hours helicopter flight time, minimum 40). They then add on the instrument- and commercial-helicopter rating (minimum, and seldom exceeded, 150 hours). After that is the certificated flight instructor and flight instructor-instrument ratings (another 20-30 hours). They then (usually) pay to rent an aircraft for the extra hours they need to get to 200 hours. With books, ground school, flight costs (approximately $160 per hour solo, $200 per hour with instructor, and $240 per hour dual in an instrument training helicopter), this comes out to $40-60,000. This may seem like a hefty price, but it’s actually about the same as that required to obtain the comparable airplane ratings.

At 200 hours, it’s time to go to work. Although, every once in a while, a boat-picture taking, traffic-watching, or tuna fish-spotting helicopter flying job becomes available, the vast majority of new civilian-trained (as well as some recently-discharged military-trained) helo drivers start out as certificated flight instructors (CFIs). Flight instruction in the rotary-wing world is much like that of the fixed-wing: instructors who wish to eventually work as another type of pilot will work approximately 1-2 years, making $20-40,000 per year, with usually no benefits, and one day off per week. Flight times for CFIs are usually 50-100 hours per month, depending on location (as in airplanes, pilots who work for schools in areas with good year-round weather usually fly more). Instructors give primary, commercial, and instrument training, teach ground school, and endorse students to solo and take written and flight tests.

In the fixed-wing world, most flight instructors start becoming employable to other portions of the industry at 1000-2000 hours total flight time, with the more time in multi-engine airplanes, the better. On the helicopter side, the total flight time is about the same: the bare minimum for most non-instructing helicopter flying jobs is 1000 hours helicopter time as pilot in command. The “gravy” time is different, however: most new helicopter pilots strive for turbine time instead of multi-engine time. Although there are many multi-engine helicopters out there, they don’t demand the same increase in professionalism that multi-engine vs. single-engine airplanes require. But piston-engine-powered helicopters vs. turbine-powered ones do, and turbine time is looked on by helicopter pilots and operators much the same way multi-engine time is by those who fly and operate airplanes. Many helicopter pilots choose to remain instructors, and as in airplanes, that’s a perfectly respectable career. Unlike many other segments of the industry, flight instruction never gets dull: a pilot might work with a student on hovering in the morning, teach aerodynamics ground school until noon, sign off a solo after lunch, work on instrument procedures in the afternoon, and finish up with a dual night cross country. Due to the pilot vacuum created by retiring Vietnam pilots, an instructor can expect to move up relatively quickly in the ranks: veteran CFIs often work as chief instructors, company check pilots, FAA designated pilot examiners, or flight school owners, and can expect to make at least $40,000 per year, often with benefits added.

Many pilots, after working for years in other parts of the industry, often go back to instructing part- or full-time. Instructing keeps pilots sharp, and no other job gives the satisfaction of helping someone completely new to helicopters become a polished, professional rotary-wing driver.

Once pilots reach 1000 hours, and are interested in other types of helicopter flying, they have quite a few options to choose from. In the airplane world, the highest pay (and highest esteemed) job is with an airline. There are almost no helicopter airlines, however. Local regulations (engendered by perceived noise and safety issues) usually preclude scheduled air transportation between any other points than airports. Once a runway is required, airplanes’ lower cost per seat-mile make them less expensive, and therefore preferred, for scheduled air transportation. There are a lot of civilian operations helicopters excel at, however, and for pilots, they can usually be boiled down into nine groups: news gathering, tours, utility work, logging and firefighting, offshore support, EMS, public flying, and corporate flying.

Electronic news gathering (ENG) is a job for which medium time (1000 hour) pilots are often qualified. The ability to circle slowly and hover over a breaking news story is ideal for news organizations, and many have their own specially-outfitted helicopters (with cameras, transmitters, and recorders on board) and pilots on call to capture live stories. ENG pilots get lots of variety, covering many different stories. They often become very familiar with their flight routes, usually flying in the same (most likely large metropolitan) area.

Unfortunately, since news can happen at any time, most pilots are on 24-hour call, which gives relatively little down time. A variety of helicopters are used in ENG, from four-seat piston-engine helicopters to seven-seat turbines. Pilots can expect to start at $30-40,000 per year, often with benefits included. Flight times are based on how much the associated news organization budgets for aviation, and can range from an hour or two every few days to hours every day.

Scenic tours are another popular job for helicopter pilots. The best view of many natural wonders can often only be had by helicopter, and the air tour industry has evolved to fill that need. In the U.S., there are currently four main sites: the Grand Canyon, Hawaii, Niagara Falls, and Alaska. (There is a move to add helicopter tours to amusement parks, although, to the author’s knowledge, there is only one that currently has a helicopter specifically designated to it.) Air tour flying is usually seasonal, with summer being the heavy flying season; in winter, often no flying is done at all.

In many segments of the industry, pilots fly passengers who are very familiar with helicopters and the unique perspective they provide, but that’s not the case in the air-tour industry. The vast majority of passengers are first-time, and many never even been in a helicopter before. Most passengers, therefore, whatever their thoughts upon climbing into the helicopter, are nothing short of enthralled once they climb out; very few other types of flying provide that kind of job satisfaction.

Since air-tour flying often has lower flight time minimums (as low as 1000 helicopter hours), and is usually seasonal (and hence temporary), many medium-time pilots use it to build total and turbine time. (The vast majority of helicopter air tours are done in turbines.) Flight time and pay vary widely depending on location, but a good average for the on season is probably four hours a day, and $2000 per month. Benefits are sometimes included.

Utility flying is that done in support of gas pipeline and electric companies. Utility pilots fly power- or pipelines to check for breaks or leaks, and ferry workers from substations and plants to parts of lines that need maintenance.

Since much utility flying is done low and slow (to adequately check line integrity), this type of flying is often considered riskier than other types of helicopter jobs. It does, however, provide an excellent opportunity to excel in precision flying, and power- and pipeline pilots are skillful indeed. Starting pay is $30-40,000, usually with benefits included. Work schedules can vary, from weekends off, to seven days of work followed by seven days off.

Logging pilots transport cut trees from timbering areas to log collection points, while firefighting pilots transport water or flame retardant from fire bases to fires. Logs (or flame retardant buckets) can weigh many hundreds of pounds, so logging or firefighting is usually done in very large turbine helicopters. Logging ships usually grab a log (or logs) with a claw attached to a line suspended under the helicopter, while firefighting ships suck up water or flame retardant, usually also using a bucket or hose attached to the helo. Due to the complexity of the aircraft flown, and the precision required in these operations, logging and firefighting are usually done with two pilots. Routes are usually very short, with the distance between the timbering and collection point (or base and fire) often less than a mile. For some pilots, this seems like repetitive work, but both types of pilots are well-compensated; topping out at around $100,000 per year (often with benefits included), these pilots are among the most well-paid in the industry. They also have one of the most fascinating schedules of any helicopter job: many pilots will fly for six months, nearly nonstop, followed by six months completely off.

Becoming a logging or firefighting pilot is hard to do, however. Most companies require pilots to already have hundreds of hours of experience in flying external loads (logs or buckets) as well as in the specific helicopter type the company uses, which is extremely expensive to obtain privately. Some companies hire copilots who receive their required flight times while on the job, but even copilot positions can have substantial minimums. As Vietnam pilots continue to retire, logging and firefighting should become easier to break into.

Offshore support companies provide transportation between coastal bases and offshore oil and natural gas platforms. In the U.S., this usually means the Gulf of Mexico, although there is some work done on the West Coast, including Alaska. A variety of aircraft are flown, from five seat, VFR, single-pilot Bell 206’s to twin-turbine, IFR, dual-pilot Sikorskys so big they’re FAA-required to have a flight attendant on board. Most flying is done over water, and although only float-equipped helicopters are used, this is a disincentive to some. Depending on the operator, starting pay is $30-40,000 per year, and can top out at over $80,000, with flight times varying from an average of one to eight hours a day. Benefits are usually included. Most positions are seven and seven or 14 and 14; pilots work a week (or two), followed by one to two weeks completely off. Offshore flying therefore often allows a pilot to live in one place, and work elsewhere; an opportunity not available with most other types of helicopter flying.

Many offshore companies have relatively low flight requirements; as low as 1000 hours helicopter time, and a helo instrument rating. For many pilots, this is their next job after flight instructing. In addition, many pilots, due to the 7/7 or 14/14 work schedule, relatively high pay, opportunity to fly different helicopters, and freedom to live elsewhere than the work location, find themselves staying in the offshore industry.

EMS (Emergency Medical Service) pilots are basically aerial ambulance drivers. Along with a nurse, paramedic, or doctor (or combinations of the three), they fly from accident scenes or outlying hospitals to major hospitals, transporting patients for whom the delay caused by ground transport could be fatal. Because of the very real difference EMS helicopters make in patients’ lives, aeromedical flying can provide incredible job satisfaction. The pay doesn’t hurt either: $30-40,000 to start, topping out at $60-80,000, with benefits.

EMS flying does have its disadvantages, however. The desire to save a life, as well as the fact that many EMS operators only get paid if they fly, can put pressure on pilots to accept flights in poorer weather than they would prefer. Flight times are also relatively low, at about 200-300 hours per year. And although most EMS pilots have a 7/7 schedule, pilots must live close to their bases.

Public flying is that done in support of the government: either military or police. Military flying, of course, can only be done by military pilots. Candidates must pass a stringent military flight physical, as well as various assessment tests, to be considered for flight school, and many potential pilots wash out before finishing. A minimum commitment of six years is required, and pay varies widely depending on rank. Many different types of flying jobs are possible, including scouting, attack, “black” operations, and logistics support. Flight times are relatively low; as little as 100 hours per year, but pilots fly turbine helicopters exclusively, and benefits are excellent.

Flying a police helicopter includes responding to scene calls, chasing suspects, and aerial patrol. Flight hours, work schedule, pay and benefits vary widely, depending on the type of police organization (state, county, or city), as well as the size of the area: in general, police flight departments of larger cities have higher pay, better benefits, and often a more flexible work schedule. Pilots must usually live in the same area they fly in, and are often on 24-hour call. Though being a police pilot has a lot of job satisfaction, it’s not easy to become one; almost all prospective pilots are culled from the ranks of current police officers (often with no prior flight experience). The police department then trains the prospective pilot at its own expense, and as one might imagine, competition for a new pilot slot is intense.

Corporate pilots are attached to the flight department of a major corporation, and fly for it exclusively, ferrying VIPs and cargo. Many corporate pilots are dual-rated in helicopters and airplanes, as most flight departments that have helicopters have airplanes as well. Corporate pilots usually have a nicely varied workload, with a mix of short- and long-haul and fixed- and rotary-wing flying. Most corporate pilots are well paid (some topping out at over $100,000 per year), and receive excellent benefits. Many pilots are on 24-hour call, however. Obtaining a corporate job is difficult, as well: since pilots will be flying VIPs, many many flight hours are required, especially hours in more difficult-to-obtain multi-engine turbine helicopters, as well as at night, and in IFR. Excellent people skills, as well as a high degree of professionalism, are also a must.

That about sums it up. In short; helicopters are a great way to earn a living. The industry is opening more every year to new pilots, flight training is not the egregious expense it once was, and there are lots of jobs available, in lots of different fields. So, get out there, jump in a helicopter, grab some ratings, and find the job you love!

The Saga

I’m currently in website update mode, which entails finally posting some of my past writing. I wrote this in 2003, but I’m posting it now because it holds up well; this was one of the most exultant few months of my life.

The Saga Begins

The saga begins in June. As most everyone here knows, for the last few months, I’ve been living in West Virginia, and working as a helicopter pilot for Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. (PHI) in Louisiana, flying people and cargo from Gulf Coast bases to offshore oil platforms, on a 7-day on/7-day off schedule. Also as almost everyone knows, my eventual goal is to fly EMS helicopters in my hometown of Morgantown, WV.

In order to make the switch, I needed at least two things. The first was flight time: 2000 total hours, 250 hours in turbine-powered helicopters, and 250 night hours. At that time, I had basically all of those except for the night hours, and it was unlikely that I’d get them, as most Gulf helicopters (of the type I fly) only operate during the daytime. As you might imagine, it’s very easy to lose which way is up at night when you’re surrounded by dark ocean under a dark sky (especially if it’s cloudy, which it often is in the Gulf), so for that reason, night flying is discouraged.

The other thing I needed was EMS experience. This wasn’t a listed requirement, but it was a requirement nonetheless. The Morgantown EMS contract is not owned by PHI; it’s owned by a company called Air Methods, and since they’re not as large, they don’t have the (substantial) assets needed to take an otherwise-qualified non-EMS pilot and turn them into one. PHI did (and does), however.

From the people I had been talking to (and eventually to me), then, it made sense to do EMS at PHI first. In addition to gaining the required (hours and job) experience, I would have the added bonus of a safety net; if PHI trained me, and then for some reason I found out EMS and I weren’t a good match (didn’t fit well with medical crews, not comfortable enough yet flying at night, etc.), I could always go back to the Gulf of Mexico. If I quit PHI to work at Air Methods, only to have to transfer back to PHI when things didn’t work out, I would be losing quite a bit of pay and seniority. The one problem with PHI EMS is that they required pilots who transferred to EMS to live within 50 miles of the base (wherever it was), and to stay there for two years. Since there weren’t any bases close to WV, that didn’t sound like much fun, but it seemed quite worth it, as once I was finished I would be an unstoppable EMS pilot candidate; every base (including Morgantown) would want me.

My strategy, then, was to continue flying in the Gulf until a PHI EMS job opened up. My problem was that, when I hired on, PHI was going through EMS changes; they were getting rid of most of their non-profitable EMS bases (which was most of them), and not adding any more. When I started with PHI, and until recently, there were probably a total of 10 EMS job openings, and all of them went to pilots with far more seniority than I.

This summer, though, PHI began expanding one of its (profitable) EMS operations; Phoenix, Arizona. They were opening a brand new base out there, and they needed four new pilots. Since most PHI pilots have been with the company many years, and don’t particularly want to move across the country for a new job, it was thought that new guys (at almost two years, I was still “new”) might have a chance at it. The job posting came out in June, I put in for it, and must have greatly annoyed Scheduling by calling every few days to see if anyone else higher on the seniority list had applied for it. (“Did I get it?” “We don’t know yet; call back later.” “Did I get it?” “We don’t know yet.” “Did I get it?” “Stop calling us!“)

For most PHI job postings, if you’re the highest on the seniority list, and fulfill the job requirements, you get the job. Since EMS requires the pilot to work closely with a medical crew, and since it requires more judgment than Gulf flying, the applicants highest on the seniority list are interviewed by medical staff, and if they pass the interview, they get the job.

When the job posting closed, I found out that I hadn’t advanced to the interview stage, but not for the reason I thought: they didn’t take me because I didn’t have enough mountain flying time. This was odd, because mountain experience wasn’t a requirement; it was only listed in the job posting as something nice to have. (I basically filled all of the “required” requirements, and thought I was at least guaranteed an interview because of that.) Furthering my confusion was the fact that I had been to Phoenix, and although there were mountains around it, the city, and much of the surrounding area, was flat-as-you-can-imagine desert.

D’oh!

My d’oh intensified when I started making calls. My PHI flight time log (from which they made their decision) said I had almost no mountain time, because that’s what I had put in the mountain time blank at PHI orientation, and I had flown exclusively in the flat Gulf Coast since then.

Previously, though, I had flown quite a bit in West Virginia, as well as in Phoenix itself (I spent two weeks there two years ago getting my instrument helicopter rating), so I thought that I might be able to at least put some of that time down as mountain time, since there’s no official definition of “mountain” flight time.

I called up the company Keeper of All Knowledge (also known as the PHI Training Department), and explained my predicament. To my surprise, the instructor who answered said that, for the purposes of PHI, all flight time done in “mountainous regions” (as defined by the FAA) of the U.S. counted as mountain time. Flipping quickly to the relevant page, I discovered that all of West Virginia (about 140 of my flight hours) and the part of California that included Los Angeles (about 130 hours, and where I had also flown) counted as mountainous areas. Within five minutes, then, I had gone from 0 hours mountain time to 268.

Yes, I thought. At least this won’t happen again; even the job posting said that it would be great if applicants had only 150 mountain hours. I quickly filled out the appropriate form, and my flight time became instantaneously spiffier-looking. While I was in paperwork mode, I put in for an aircraft transition to a slightly faster, more powerful, and bigger aircraft than the one I was flying (a Bell 407, from a Bell 206). If I couldn’t have the EMS, I’d at least learn a sexy new aircraft (the Bell 407 is undoubtedly that), and some EMS positions actually use the 407, so I might even get a leg up on the competition.

And then I waited. It couldn’t take long, I thought. There’s been one juicy EMS job posting; there has to be another one soon. I was wrong, and right, at the same time.

It turns out that one of the four pilot positions in that first opening was filled by a pilot already in Phoenix (but at another Phoenix base; there were six bases in the area), and one Phoenix pilot left, so PHI had urgent need of two more pilots, but they weren’t able to put out an official job posting for it. I caught wind of it (good thing I was keeping my ear close to the ground), and put in for it.

Okay, I thought. I have the required flight times, I even have many of the not-officially-required flight times, and I definitely have mountain time. I’ll have to get an interview.

And that’s what happened. After a call from the EMS pilot manager in Phoenix (“Haven’t I seen your resume before?” “Didn’t you have 0 mountain time two weeks ago?” “You talked to who in Training?”), a phone interview was scheduled between me, a member of nursing management, the pilot manager, the PHI Director of Scheduling, and a physician manager, on June 13. Friday. At 4 pm.

This could be my big break, but I had never had an EMS interview, and I didn’t know what to expect. I did know that I was going to do my best to not get caught unawares. I couldn’t change my personality or my experience, but I could change how much aviation knowledge I knew, so I started preparing: regulations, policies and procedures, and talking to other pilots.

The day of the interview came, and after the greetings and answers to questions they needed to make sure of (“You do know you have to move to Phoenix?” “You do know you have to stay for at least two years?”), the technical part of the interview began. It was completely different from what I expected.

First of all, they asked no questions on regulations, procedures, or aircraft systems; so most of my studying was useless. What they really wanted to probe was my judgment, and to that extent, they asked me three questions.

The first was, “You’ve landed at an accident scene, and shut the aircraft down. The med crew has returned with the patient, everyone is ready to go, the patient is not doing well, and while you’re starting the aircraft, you’re distracted by something in the back, and when you look back at your instruments, you realize that you’ve exceeded a limit on the start. Do you take off, or not?”

I wasn’t prepared for this type of question, so I stalled for time while I tried to come up with a good answer. “Secondary indications of the instruments back up the possibility that I’ve exceeded a limit?” “Yup.” “It’ll take a long time for patient ground transportation to get to the scene?” “Yup.”

Please, oh please, I thought, as I finally gave my answer. I couldn’t take off, I said, because in addition to it being a violation of the regulations to do so (it is), it wouldn’t be right to put four people (me, the med crew, and the patient) in jeopardy to arguably help one. Which was exactly right; just because EMS flying is done to try to help people doesn’t mean that it can obey fewer of the rules than other kinds of flying.

My blood pressure was just coming down from the first question when he launched into the second, and this one kicked my butt. “You’re flying along at night over the desert. The sky is covered by clouds, and you’ve just realized that there are no ground lights in your area. Do you continue flying, or turn back?” Hoo, boy. That situation itself didn’t seem to be violating any rules or standard procedures, so I couldn’t fall back on that like I had on the first question. It seemed entirely a question of judgment: was this a good idea or not? I again stalled, but longer this time. “Was there any illumination on the clouds from the lights behind me?” “No ground lights at all?” No dice; there wasn’t any ground or sky reference. Now really sweating, I again hazarded my best guess. Although I was reasonably sure about my last answer, I wasn’t nearly as much so regarding this one.

I said that I (probably, which changed to a definitely when pressed) would turn back, since at that point I was flying by reference to instruments and indicators not designed for flying in featureless conditions, and if they were to fail, I’d be toast. And I was right again, but not for the reasons that I thought.

It turns out that there was a regulation that covered this, and I should have known it, but didn’t. Helicopters in air taxi operations (of which EMS is one) aren’t allowed to fly at all at night when there’s no ground reference. Easy question, but I made it really hard.

Speaking of really hard, given the increasing difficulty of the first two, I was sure I’d get a “What’s the average velocity of an unladen sparrow?” type question next, but it was surprisingly easy. “You’re flying in marginal weather. You are comfortable with it, and it’s within the regulations, but one of your med crew is concerned. You explain that it’s within the regs, and you feel you’re safe, but she’s still uncomfortable. Do you turn back, or keep going?”

I didn’t have to stall at all here. Two years of flying in the Gulf taught me that the customer is always right; if they’re not comfortable, you turn around. Which was also right.

And that was the end of the interview; I had passed. It was by no means with flying colors: I had no real prior EMS experience, and it definitely showed in my circuitous question answering, but I had passed. And although the pressure was at least off for now, I still didn’t know if I had a slot: they had other people to interview, and would get back to me on Monday, June 16.

This presented an interesting conundrum. It turned out that I already had plans on Monday, and they didn’t include my hairdresser: while waiting for an EMS position to open up, I had actually gotten a 407 transition slot, and the course was to start Monday morning. No problem, they said: just show up for the ground school on Monday, and if you get a Phoenix slot, you’ll stop the transition, and if you don’t you can complete it and be 407 qualified.

That sounded good to them, but not to me. An aircraft transition is not cheap; if they were sending me to school on Monday, there was a good chance they wanted me to finish it, which precluded EMS. But there was always a chance, so I studied the 407 stuff they had given me, hung around, and generally tried to put it out of my mind.

Monday morning came, and they hadn’t decided yet, so I went to class, and tried to learn about 407 engine, structures, and systems. I was clearly in night-before-Christmas anticipation mode, though.

At 2 pm the call came, from the Phoenix pilot manager himself. “Well, Jonathan” he said, “We’ve interviewed everyone. Are you still interested in the position?” “I am.” (yes, yes, oh yes, I am) “And you do realize that you’ll need to move out here, and that you’ll need to stay for at least two years?” “I do.” (anything, I’ll do anything) “Then congratulations. You’ve got the job.”

Score!

This is what I wrote in my logbook. “Interview 6/13/03: got right answers, but not quickly: bad sign, sent to 407 grd school on 6/16 (worse sign), w/ ans that afternoon. 6/16/03, @2PM, EMS success!” And success it was.

I quickly told Phoenix’s answer to everyone to which I had told the saga so far, and they were unequivocally happy. It was obvious from what I had said before just how much I wanted it, but I imagine that they were just partially glad I could now shut up about it. (“If he tells me once more how close he is to exploding outright from the anticipation, I’m gonna help him out.”)

They weren’t ready for me in Training yet, so for the next few days, I did what I did before. I read (they had given me an EMS med crewmember training manual) and waited for a flight. (This had all happened while I was on duty in Louisiana, and it was still possible I could be called to do some Gulf flying.) This lasted for the rest of the hitch, which ended on Thursday, June 20. Aside from the strange glowing aura of giddiness that must have followed me around for the rest of the week, not much else happened. I did, on Tuesday, get my 2000th hour of flight time, which was not only a requirement for EMS, but also just sounds cool.

My next hitch began on Friday, June 28, and they sent me to Lafayette, LA, which is where PHI does its training. I had passed the interview, but I had quite a bit to learn, and more than one test to pass, before I could be EMS blessed.

There were three main sets of information I needed to get a handle on; EMS operations, Phoenix operations, and the aircraft, the Aerospatiale (now Eurocopter) AS350 AStar. The first I’d learn partially in Lafayette, and partially in Phoenix, and was mostly ground school. The second I’d definitely learn in Phoenix. The third they were still working on; though the other person hired was also a relatively recently-hired Gulf pilot with no prior EMS time, he did have experience in the AStar. I did not; aside from half an hour of basically holding the controls while the pilot did the flying, I’d never even been inside of one, but Training was sure they would be able to fit it all in somehow.

On Friday, we tackled EMS operations, the main difference of which is that instead of cargo or (normally healthy) passengers, you carry sick or injured people. And so we learned the importance of infection control (they might be communicable as well as injured), how to clean out an aircraft after a flight (some patients can get rather blood-and-guts messy), the importance of working as a team with your med crew (they don’t know how to fly, and you don’t know how to be a nurse or paramedic, but if don’t work as a team, you won’t last long as a pilot), how to land and take off from an accident scene without running into fire trucks or wires or blowing around, to the point of brownout, the ubiquitous desert dust, and how to fly at night. And then we took a test on it all, and passed it, and I was sent to the hotel to do some more studying.

On Saturday the 29th, I started AStar school. For those of you not familiar with it, the Astar is a single-engine, single-pilot, 3-main-rotor-bladed helicopter with seven seats: one for the pilot in the right front, and two seats in the left front, with four more behind for the passengers. It’s a comparatively quiet helicopter with excellent visibility, so is used extensively for air tours; if you go for a helicopter tour in the Grand Canyon or Hawaii, an AStar is most likely what you’ll fly in.

The first day was ground school; just as for the 407, I learned about engines, structures, systems, limitations, and emergency procedures; basically the stuff one needs to know to operate it safely. After passing another written test, I was sent to go learn how to fly the thing.

This was the part they were still working on. All of the AStars PHI had in the Gulf (where I still was) were what were known as the B2 model. Most of the ones in Phoenix were B3’s: mostly the same airframe, but with a slightly more powerful engine controlled by computers, as opposed to the electromechanical controls on the B2. (The B3 also had/has a cool LCD screen for the engine parameters, instead of the analog gauges of the B2.) What Training was hoping to do was to get me checked out in the AStar before I went to Phoenix; even though I’d be learning on a different model, they’re still very close, and the official checkout applied to both models. (By this time, it had been determined that my co-hire and I would only be in Phoenix for training from July 21st through the 29th, and a completed checkout would give all of us one less thing to worry about.)

So we started flying, on the 30th. The AStar is a pilot’s aircraft; it’s fast, powerful, takes crosswinds well, and as aircraft go, it’s quite a looker. It is not, however, easy to land or take off; it hangs right rear skid low in flight, and transitioning to and from that attitude to the skids-level attitude it has on the ground can make even a 5000 hour AStar pilot look bad. To make things more interesting, due to it having more than 2 main rotor blades, it’s susceptible to a condition called ground resonance, which is where a helicopter landed particularly bouncily can literally shake itself apart. My instructor and I flew on Sunday and Tuesday (we didn’t fly on Monday the 31st due to weather), and though we covered cruise flight, takeoffs, landings, and emergency procedures in our 3.3 hours in the aircraft, I mostly just worked on trying to get the dumb thing off the ground and back on again.

After Tuesday, the plan fell through to an extent. PHI only had two AStar-qualified instructors; one was on vacation, and the other (the one with which I had flown with so far) wasn’t able to work past Tuesday. It was therefore decided that I would put the rest of my training on hold until Phoenix. Since I still had eight more days on duty, I went back to the 206 and again studied and waited for flights. My last flight in the Gulf was on July 7, and I did the usual; I took a technician from Houma, LA to two offshore platforms and came back. But that was (and very well may be) my last flight in the Gulf of Mexico.

I had until July 20th to get my affairs in Morgantown in order, and though I made some headway, my heart wasn’t in it; I was really waiting until I knew I was proficient in the aircraft, the operation, and the city (so until after July 29th) to get everything ready for the move. So I did what every person who should be packing, making calls, and studying should do; I went on a road trip with my brother. We headed Ohio way, took in a Metallica and Friends concert in Columbus, the Air Force Museum in Dayton, and a wonderfully roller coastery day in Cedar Point. It was an unequivocal blast, and I got to hang around my brother, which I don’t get to do nearly often enough. (Thanks, Ben.)

On July 20th, I jumped on a plane to Phoenix, and checked into the hotel where my co-hire and I would be staying. The next morning, we arrived at the office of the pilot manager of Air Evac Services, Inc. (for that’s the name of PHI’s Phoenix EMS subsidiary). He gave us the training manual, and we turned to section 24, and there was the Pilot Training and Base Orientation Checklist. I had learned a lot in the last two weeks, but this checklist had 35 items, all of which we were responsible for, and none of them were a snap: PLSS Operation. Review Hospital Heliport Parking, Air to Air 123.02, blind calls. Aircraft Switch-out procedure. GPS book, keys removed. Scene Operations. And so on.

On top of all of these things that really had to be done to fly safely, we had to finish learning the aircraft (I still had a checkout to complete, and my co-hire had to learn the B3, as he had only flown the B2 previously). In our spare time, we both had to find apartments, since once training was done on the 29th, we’d fly back to our respective homes, pack up, and move everything to Phoenix.

On the 22nd, the two of us, with our instructor, started flying. The EMS version of the AStar is a bit different from the regular version; it has movable searchlights for night flying, a removable stretcher instead of the left front seats, the second from the left rear seat removed, and lots of medical equipment. It mostly flies the same, though, so that’s what we concentrated on. We flew solid for the next three days: emergency procedures, day operations, night operations, Phoenix operations, accident scene operations, and hospital operations. It’s a testament to the skill of our instructor that on the 25th, we were both signed off as AStar EMS pilots.

Our work was far from over, though; we had learned the aircraft, but we hadn’t had much time to do anything else. The two pilots who had come out before us luckily had done most of the apartment research for us, so it didn’t take that much time to find the ones we wanted. This left us most of the time to work on the checklist:

Patients use oxygen, so how do we change the O2 canisters? Or remove a seat? Or check the airworthiness of the aircraft? No problem; here’s the mechanic to show you how; item 1 on the checklist. What if we have to change medical interiors for a neonate transport? Here’s the procedure, here’s the paperwork, that’s item 11. How does the Communications Center really work? You’ll be observing it for four hours; item 24. What if the patient has a nasty, communicable bug? Like hepatitis B? Or meningitis? Or tuberculosis? Report to Occupational Health for your hep B vaccinations (first one now, second in a month, and third five months later) and tuberculosis skin test (renewed every year). Report to the Air Evac main office for your tuberculosis and meningitis mask fit; items 27 and 28.

And finally; we’ve learned the aircraft, learned the area, and learned the procedures. How do we put all this together? Ride-alongs. Three accident scene calls required. Report to your base. Item 25.

We didn’t have time to complete the checklist; there was still a ride-along or two to complete, some paperwork needed to be finished up, and some procedures still needed to be learned, but on the July 30th we left Phoenix, and when we came back, it would be with our stuff, and we would be reporting for duty, soon to be bona-fide EMS pilots.

I and my car had to be in Phoenix, with my stuff packed and on the way, by August 11th, my first day of work. (Thankfully, PHI not only paid for almost all of these cross-country plane tickets, but also my moving expenses, and even sent a moving truck to move my stuff.) This was the plan: I’d arrive back in WV on July 30th, and would have two days to pack. On August 2nd, I’d jump on a plane to New Orleans (where I kept my car, to commute to and from the airport to the Gulf Coast bases). Hopefully, this would give me enough time to drive me and the car from New Orleans to Phoenix by the 6th, because on the 7th, I was to fly back to WV to tape a wedding. My last ticket was to leave Pittsburgh on the 10th, arriving that night in Phoenix.

And, amazingly enough, it all worked out. My folks, brother, and I (thanks Mom, Charlie, and Ben) got all my stuff in boxes and/or ready for the movers. The moving truck arrived on the 1st, and picked up everything. (They even plastic-wrapped my couch so as not to scuff it; how can you beat that?) I landed in New Orleans on August 2nd, drove to Seguin, TX (505 miles) by that night, slept in my car in a truck stop, drove 850 (!) miles on the 3rd, stayed with a friend in Tucson (thanks again, Chris and Renee), and arrived in Phoenix on the 4th.

I completed some more Checklist items until the 6th, and then jumped on the plane to Pittsburgh to tape the wedding, taped it, reestablished contact with some great friends, then blasted off back to Phoenix.

On Monday, August 11, I reported to work at my base, Air Evac 3 (also the name of my helicopter), at the Glendale, Arizona airport. I still had four more days of training to do, though; completing the last few items on the Checklist, learning about the Glendale area, and getting the final accident scene call ride-alongs I needed. So. Viewing of Safe Lifting Video. 5 hours local area orientation. Cancelled and Refused Flight Log.

By Thursday evening, it was finished. The items had been checked, the manuals had been read, the accident scene flights had been observed, and I had even flown a flight or two with the regular pilot riding along in the back. After two months, 7.7 AStar flight hours, and heaps of reading later, it was time to turn me loose.

On August 11, I got up, got dressed, and drove to the airport. I checked the weather and the airspace, looked over the helicopter, briefed my med crew, and waited for my first call. And when that first solo flight came, it was exactly like most EMS flights everywhere, but it was also exactly the kind of flight I thought about when I looked up as a kid and thought: that’s what I want to do with my life.

It came late that morning. I affirmed the call, went out to the aircraft, unplugged the ground power cord and the air conditioner, looked over the aircraft one last time, got in, and started it up. The med crew came out and jumped in. I called the (air traffic control) tower, made sure the aircraft was running properly, and took off. We flew to the accident scene (one car had T-boned another at a busy intersection, and a girl in the T-boned side needed to be flown), circled the landing area to check for wires and obstructions, found a good place to land, and did so. The med crew jumped out, made sure the patient was stabilized, brought her to the helicopter, got her inside, and made sure that she and they were ready for takeoff. I made sure the aircraft was ready, and we took off, 30 feet straight up into the sky. I nosed it over, and we flew to the local major trauma center. I landed at the hospital helipad, and shut down the aircraft. The security guard came out, and the med crew and I helped unload the patient. After making sure the aircraft was in good shape, I went downstairs to the ER, and watched the doctors and nurses and med crew diagnose (she had a bad multiple break in her upper leg bone) the girl, and prepare her for surgery. When my med crew was satisfied that the paperwork was done, and that the patient had been properly handed off, we went back up to the helicopter, started it up, and flew back to our base. I landed, shut down the aircraft, hooked up the air conditioner and ground power supply, looked it over, and went back inside to wait for the next call.

And that’s how I became an EMS helicopter pilot.

I’ve been a solo EMS pilot for seven work days now, and I’ve done eight flights in that time. I haven’t been able to do much so far except unpack and work, but I’m moved in now, the weather will get cooler soon, and I’ll settle into my new job. I will have been here for at least the next two years (about 1 year and 11 months, now), but I don’t think it’ll be anything like drudgery. There’ll be new friends to make, and mountains to hike, and flights to make.

And one guy who’s still amazed he can wake up and do the job he’s always wanted to.