Teaching Helicopter Trial Lessons

During the helicopter instructor course, you get a lot of advice on how to teach each lesson of the PPL(H) course. The novice instructor practises constantly, usually being given a lesson, then having to give it back…and I never got over the weird feeling engendered by pretending to teach basics such as straight and level flying to a 30,000 hour instructor! But you do this for every lesson. Every lesson, that is, except one…

Nobody ever tells you how to teach trial lessons. Exercise 3 in my instructor course book simply says ‘Trial lesson or air experience flight’. That’s all. There seems to be a general feeling that if you can teach the rest of the course, then there shouldn’t be a problem. After all, trial lessons are a piece of cake, aren’t they?

No, actually, they aren’t. For a start, trial lesson students vary tremendously. You are presented with a complete unknown – somebody who may or may not know about aviation or helicopters, who might or might not have decided to learn to fly. The person may be excited, even terrified, or quite calm and even blasé. Yet what they do next may well depend on their reaction to this first lesson. Trial lessons are also the flying school’s shop window, as it were; they are how the potential student finds out about flying. As such they are crucially important.

Soon after getting my FI(H) rating, I started phoning around the local helicopter schools, looking for work. One friendly, very experienced instructor explained that he was basically a small one-man school, but would keep me in mind if he needed anyone. “But I’ll tell you what I can do”, he added. “I bet no-one ever told you how to teach trial lessons. Well, I still have the Trial Lesson Briefing that my first CFI gave me. I’ll email it to you”.

My supervising QHI, a man of few words, grunted at me that my briefings were far too long

I still have that Trial Lesson Briefing. It ran to five and a half A4 pages! It included most of the Effects of Controls exercise, plus some general theory and a few other bits and pieces including an explanation of autorotation. It was extremely thorough, and had obviously involved someone in a great deal of work. But it looked to me as though it would take absolutely ages to give, and indeed it did.

Soon afterwards I started instructing, and I used that briefing. Students developed a glazed expression before I was halfway through. My supervising QHI, a man of few words, grunted at me that my briefings were far too long. It was patently obvious that it simply didn’t work.

So I began to shorten my briefings, and also to ask other instructors what they did. I soon discovered that there was no consensus whatsoever. But I did pick up some useful tips. As a new and part-time instructor, I was doing mainly trial lessons, and despite all the difficulties, I gradually became more experienced.

I learned from my students, and especially from my mistakes. And I began to realise that briefing and conducting trial lessons is a definite skill, and one that should be taught to the new FI. After a couple of years of this I was something of an expert.

Most of my students were now not only acquiring that ear-to-ear grin which helicopter pilots know so well, but handling the helicopter reasonably well after a very short time. I knew that, finally, I was doing something right. So, the following is a summary of what I have learned over the past years about this extremely important topic.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand…is that all trial lessons students are different 

Perhaps the most important thing to understand, and worth repeating, is that all trial lessons students are different. Therefore, they need to be taught differently. So I always start by having a general chat with the students. Have they been in a small aircraft before, or indeed any aircraft?

If they have, have they ever taken the controls? What do they do for a living, or for relaxation? People whose jobs require good co-ordination, such as forklift truck drivers, usually pick up helicopter flying fairly easily, as do some computer game addicts. Are they planning on continuing with flying, or is this a one-off? All of this, discussed over a cup of coffee, helps me decide what to include in the briefing.

For the complete novice, a brief description of the controls, what they do, and how to pass them between us, is more than enough. Any more will probably scare them, and they won’t remember it anyway. But if the potential student has a technical background, is a fixed-wing pilot, or has been reading about helicopters for years, my approach is very different. In this case he or she will probably want to know how helicopters fly, and won’t run away screaming at the mere mention of dissymmetry of lift.

The briefing complete, we go out to the helicopter. I give a short safety briefing, keeping it light-hearted as many people are quite nervous at this stage. But I make quite sure that the student could undo the seat belt and open the door in the event of an emergency. I do the start-up, but rarely talk it through, since people are usually overloaded with information anyway. In the early days I was keen to give students as much detail as possible, but unless the person knows a fair amount in advance, this is actually counter-productive.

However confident the student appears, I make sure I lift off and transition away quite gently. For some people, this is all very new and scary, even if they don’t want to confess that to me. There will be plenty of time later for throwing the helicopter around the sky, if that is what they want.

I then leave them alone for the first couple of minutes, as many people are almost struck dumb by the wonder of it all. Those of us who’ve been flying for a while tend to forget the extent of the ‘Wow’ factor of that very first flight. After that I gently enquire if they are alright. 99.9% of them are, but I have had one student who at this stage was in complete terror and wanted to return to the airfield, so I need to make sure.

This is not yet the time for sitting there with my arms folded pretending to be asleep

I level off at a safe height, and then explain carefully to the student how to use the cyclic. I emphasise that it really helps to relax, and that my only requirement is that they enjoy themselves. It’s amazing how many people feel that this is some sort of test, and that I will be judging them; I assure them this isn’t the case. I then give them control of the cyclic, making it really obvious that I can grab it back at any time.

This is not yet the time for sitting there with my arms folded pretending to be asleep. Most people are wary; their life is in my hands, and they want to know that I can take control at any moment.

No matter how well or badly the student is doing, I take back control after about 30 seconds. Flying an R22 is difficult, especially when everything is new. The student has probably been concentrating 110%, and needs a rest. I again tell them to relax, and assure them that that I’ll let them have it back in a moment.

Usually when I give them back the cyclic 30 seconds later, they have improved dramatically. Indeed, many at this point manage to fly straight and level fairly well. If they do, I let them get on with it; if not, I continue with the 30 second changeovers. I praise students if they’re doing well, but if they obviously aren’t picking it up, I just tell them it’s really difficult, but not to worry as it comes with practice.

I always try to find something positive to say, but I won’t bullshit people and tell someone they’re a natural pilot when it’s not the case. People aren’t stupid, and they don’t like being lied to.

From then on I play it by ear, depending how much time we have and what the student wants. If it’s a half hour lesson, it’s probably now time to return to the field. Quite often I can let the student fly us back, just taking over in the circuit. If we have longer, I may show them the other controls, or demonstrate an autorotation or how to get into a confined area.

If the student is picking it all up quickly, I might give them a challenge; a good one is flying round some feature such as a lake or the edge of a small town. It gives them something to aim at, and a great sense of achievement when they manage it.

I try to find a few minutes for hovering when we get back

I try to find a few minutes for hovering when we get back, as for many people this is what helicopter flying is really all about. However, in a half hour trial lesson there’s rarely time for much more than a demonstration.

Also, if the student appears relaxed, now is the time to show them a few low level manoeuvres such as quick stops and spot turns. It’s fun, and I emphasise that it’s really not that hard, and that if they carry on flying they will be able to do it themselves quite soon.

We then land and shut down. I again tell them they did well, since managing to fly a helicopter at all in half an hour is actually pretty good. I pass on information about the PPL(H) course, and then say goodbye. Or maybe…“See you next week”…

Author: Rob Hall

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