Mission Aviation Fellowship

My helicopter FI course – Part I by Helen Krasner

It’s many years since I qualified as a helicopter instructor and nearly as long since I thought about my Flight Instructor (FI) course in any detail. But I was sorting through some stuff recently and I happened to come across the detailed diary which I kept during those weeks. The diary reminded me of just how hard I found that course. Indeed, it was probably the most difficult few weeks of my whole flying career.

I wrote about it mainly for my own benefit at the time, although it was also published on a popular aviation website. At the time, many people followed it avidly and enjoyed it. They said they found it inspiring, that it made them want to do the course. So, I thought I’d introduce it to a new audience here, in the hope that a new generation of pilots might be able to enjoy it and benefit from it – or maybe just prove to themselves that there are others who were once worse at learning than they are!

Let’s set the scene then… It’s January 2003 and I’ve arranged to go down to Thruxton Airfield in Hampshire to do my FI course. I have the bare minimum of flying hours required at that time (300, and I have 300.1). I’m going to be staying there during the week, so I’ve found a cupboard of a bedsitter in Andover to live in. I’ve been told quite a lot about the course by pilots who’ve done it before and this seems to summarise it:

Week 1: Nothing to this instructing lark.
Week 2: Oh dear…
Week 3: I’ve paid for this; I might as well carry on.
Week 4: If I’m lucky and everything goes well, I might just scrape through.
Week 5: Phew, done it!

Was mine going to be similar? Let’s see, shall we…The first week goes fairly well. There are only two of us taking the course and we spend the first day doing intensive ground school – how to teach and how students learn. Then, when we should be flying, we’re hit by January gales and have even more ground school.

The first week goes fairly well. There are only two of us taking the course and we spend the first day doing intensive ground school – how to teach and how students learn. Then, when we should be flying, we’re hit by January gales and have even more ground school. Finally, on the fourth day, we get airborne. The early days are spent learning to fly from the left seat, the ‘wrong’ seat in most helicopters.

Next, we learn to give briefings and are shown how to teach the very early exercises. Mike, our instructor, teaches them to us; then we each have to teach them to him. Apart from the highly artificial situation of teaching the Effects of Controls to a zillion-hour helicopter instructor, things go really well and I drive home after the first week on something of a high. Yes, maybe there really is nothing to this instructing lark.

Then comes the second week…

Monday 03 Feb

The weather is good but it’s expected to change. So, we get given Exercises 6, 7, 8, and 9 one after another! That’s ‘straight and level’, ‘climbing, descending and turning’, ‘basic autorotations’, ‘hovering’, ‘take offs and landings’. Phew!

Tuesday 04 Feb

The weather is OK in the morning, so we get given Exercise 10 – transitions – on the ground and then in the air. I have a lot of ingrained bad habits like raising the collective slightly before I start the transition and forgetting right pedal as I speed up. Mike jumps on everything and I start to wonder how I can hope to instruct when I can’t even fly helicopters properly. Then the weather changes so it’s more ground school and Mike asks us to prepare a briefing on weather fronts. John gives his briefing, then, out of the blue, Mike asks me to give one on wind!

“That’s not fair,” I protest and he asks me what I remember about wind. At that point, under those stressful circumstances, the answer is absolutely **** all. He coaxes me through the Coriolis Force, Buy’s Ballot’s Law etc, telling me that it’s PPL stuff and I should know it. I do, but I’ve forgotten it and I can’t cope with being put on the spot like that. I spend the evening trying to revise, but I’m getting depressed. I can’t fly and I don’t know anything; how do I expect to be an instructor?

Wednesday 05 Feb We get another quick lesson on transitions in the air since the wind has dropped a little. Then we get Exercise 11 (circuits) and Exercises 13 and 14 (hovering sideways and backwards, spot turns).

Thursday 06 Feb

We have to ‘give back’ Exercise 4 in the air. John goes first and I stare at the little card I’ve made up with the relevant points. I realise I’ve forgotten everything; we were taught Exercise 4 last week – a lifetime ago. I manage to stumble through the four main controls and then it all goes totally pear-shaped. By the time I finish I can barely fly, never mind think and speak at the same time. I decide this is all impossible and I say to Mike that I feel as though I’ll never be able to do it. I’m actually giving him the chance to tell me I’m right; I won’t, and maybe I should give it up! He doesn’t though. He says it’s always the way – people think it’ll be easy and it isn’t.

How do I explain that I didn’t think it would be easy; I started with very little confidence and now I have even less? I mess up the approach, then even struggle with trying to land. We get a debrief, being told our first efforts weren’t bad. A little while to recover, then we do ground briefings. My Exercise 4 goes reasonably well.

Mike says I seemed confident, and was I? I said no – but it hadn’t been as bad as I expected. John does Exercise 5, then I’m asked to do Exercise 6, with no preparation, from my notes! This is a massive briefing anyway and I get tied in knots, but it’s not too bad. John then does Exercise 7. I’m knackered after such a long day and I sleep fitfully, waking up worrying about which pedal it is and which way you’ll roll! I finally give up at 4am and make some hot chocolate, eventually dozing off about 5am. I’m telling myself this is not an emergency situation, it’s just a bloody FI course!

Friday 07 Feb

I get in, looking more bright-eyed and bushytailed than I feel after hardly any sleep but lots of black coffee. I’m first out to give back lesson 5. It’s a complete fiasco. It starts bad and gets worse. After about ten minutes I tell Mike that I’m sorry, but my mind’s gone completely blank and I can’t remember a thing. I say I’ll be OK, I just need a minute and I’ll pull myself together. On top of everything we’re above broken cloud with only a few holes and I’m completely lost. Mike doesn’t play amateur psychologist, thank goodness. He does the next bit; then I say I’ll carry on. But I tie myself in knots with what ought to be a fairly simple exercise. I simply can’t fly and talk and think all at once; one of the three has to go. This means if I manage to talk and demonstrate the exercise I get lost, forget carb heat, etc, if I remember those things… well, you get the idea. I fly back, deciding I’ll give this whole thing up. Because of that decision, I relax and fly like I used to rather than like the incompetent beginner I feel as though I’ve become. I go in, head for the loo and burst into tears! When John comes back he asks me how it went. I tell him total crap would be a fair approximation. He says his was the same; he just couldn’t remember anything. I think we
both feel better for realising we’re not alone.

Mike comes back and tells us how it should have gone. We have a break and then he tells us to do some mutual flying, teaching each other Exercises 8 and 9. We do, and it’s fun. Suddenly I get my tongue back and my flying ability and confidence with it. I remember most of what to say and we both enjoy being the student, putting the helicopter into mad oscillations, while the ‘instructor’ sees how hard it is to correct it – surprisingly easy actually.

We agree that hovering with one or two controls is quite hard, especially when the ‘student’ has the collective and pedals and it’s really difficult to keep straight with the cyclic when you don’t know what’s happening on the other two controls. Anyway, we both feel better after this. Mike tells us we may as well finish early as we have long drives home and a lot of homework. I get the feeling he planned all this, that we’re being ever so slightly manipulated.

Am I going to go on? I meet a pilot friend for lunch before driving home and he reminds me that although I gave myself permission to fail, I didn’t give myself permission to quit! So, I gritted my teeth and carried on…(More next month)

Author: FTN Editor

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