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Transition Training

BY Kevin Means

This article originally appeared in Air Beat Magazine.

New, low-time law enforcement helicopter pilots are fairly predictable when it comes to following the rules. Of course, this is predicated on the assumption that a unit has a set of rules for them to follow (I.e. policies and procedures). New pilots tend to be fairly cautious. Most units attach restrictions to their PIC status and the student knows that their performance is constantly being evaluated. When I say “evaluated,” I’m not talking about the other pilots lining up alongside the hangar holding up score-cards to rate their landings (I’m sure no one else has ever done that), I’m talking about the process of evaluating their skills, their judgment and their willingness to comply with policies and procedures.

In my experience, new pilots are very inclined to comply with established procedures. The operational and safety culture of a unit will dictate early-on how a new pilot will operate on a day-to-day basis. If they’re taught to use checklists, they’ll use them. If not, they won’t. New pilots ask a lot of questions and they’re usually fairly methodical in what they do. They’re also fun to fly with, because they exhibit those traits, they’re sponges for information and they still have the desire to catch bad guys. Their motivations are simple – they want to be part of the unit, they don’t want to have an accident or get into trouble but they know they haven’t yet acquired enough experience to fully understand all the intricacies of performing the mission. It’s very important to ensure that when a new pilot is authorized to fly with other pilots they only fly with experienced, professional pilots who have demonstrated a willingness to comply with the same policies and procedures (i.e. a Mentor Pilot). My unit has the luxury of having several fairly high-time pilots with good skills and attitudes, so it’s pretty easy to avoid the green-on-green problems associated with new pilots flying with other new crewmembers, but that’s not always the case.

One of the things I strive to do as the Training Officer is to put a new pilot with a good partner when they’re authorized to fly with someone other than me. Ultimately they’re going to have to fly with everyone, but the last thing I want to do is put a new pilot with a senior pilot who has a history of not complying with policies and procedures, who demonstrates poor judgment or who is so bored with their job that they can’t perform the mission effectively. It saps the energy of the new pilot and sets a poor example. That kind of pilot falls into the category of what I call the “bored pilot syndrome,” and they’re more of a management problem than a training problem, but that’s a subject for another article.

We require our pilot applicants to already have a Commercial certificate when they come to our unit, and most have it in airplanes. We send them to a contract flight school and they get their helicopter add-on in a smaller, more economical piston helicopter. Afterwards, we transition them to our turbine aircraft. This means we don’t have to spend as much time doing primary flight training and we don’t have to take a flight instructor out of service to provide that training. The student can concentrate solely on their initial flight training without the inevitable distractions that occur at a law enforcement facility. It usually takes about a month to get them back but it can take significantly longer to train someone in-house unless the unit is willing to commit solely to the training process. Sending them to an outside trainer also provides the new pilot with another perspective of the helicopter industry – something that I think is very valuable. Both initial training methods have their pros and cons, and each unit will have to decide which works best for them.

One drawback of sending a pilot out for training is; you get what you get. You get a pilot with a relatively small amount of helicopter time, which will likely be in an aircraft that is completely different than what they’ll be flying on patrol. It is a huge misconception to think that a new pilot who has acquired 60 to 70 hours in a training environment is ready to perform airborne law enforcement missions.

A unit’s transition training program must be formalized, with clear objective performance standards. Training pilots need to be able to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. The trainer must set an example for safety and accountability, and they must be able to demonstrate the safest and most effective methods of performing a mission. If they don’t, they’re going to do a great deal of damage – damage that can take years to overcome. When bad habits or bad techniques get learned, they’re very difficult to change.

When I transition pilots to our turbine helicopters, it’s a methodical process that starts with the aircraft’s flight manual, the FAR/AIM Manual and ultimately ends up with flight training. Each flight is discussed ahead of time, and each maneuver is critiqued at the end of the flight. The process is documented and everyone in the immediate chain-of-command signs the student’s evaluation.

It takes nearly a year to complete the in-house training process and the student’s training jacket ends up being pretty big. But this gives me a lot of time to spend with them to familiarize them with the mission, the airspace and with the aircraft. Only then will they be authorized to fly with other hand-picked pilots, and there will be significant restrictions to their PIC status. They won’t be allowed to fly at night, they’ll have altitude and area restrictions, they’ll be restricted to VFR conditions and I’ll fly with them every 100 hours as a progress check.

After acquiring several hundred hours, they’ll hook up with me again for nighttime training and we’ll start the same process all over again. Ultimately they’ll be trained to fly with night vision goggles, but not initially. Our pilots must be TFOs before they can be pilots, so they’ll already be familiar with NVGs. But we feel that there’s some value in them learning how the world looks at night, unaided. Ultimately, a pilot can expect to acquire anywhere from 600 to 800 hours before they’re off restrictions and authorized to fly during the day and night.

When you fly the same aircraft 6 hours a day or night for 17 years, you get pretty familiar with them. I always enjoyed pointing out some of the unique things about our aircraft to new pilots – things that can’t be found in the books. For example, if the position lights on the tail boom are burning out more frequently, it’s a pretty good indication that the tail rotor is out of balance. In two of our older aircraft, we also noticed a slight buzz on the fuel gauge’s needle. Scientific? No. Covered in the maintenance manual? Definitely not. But both indications are almost always present before we notice a buzz in the pedals.

We recently started replacing all of our aircraft with new aircraft from a different manufacturer, and transition training has taken on a whole new meaning. The department spared no expense when it came to training and all of our pilots attended factory transition training. The training was excellent, but every pilot said the same thing, “This helicopter feels a lot different.” Gone are the fuel gauges and the light bulbs on the tail boom – replaced by a digital multi-function display and LEDs for position lights. There aren’t any needles to vibrate or light bulb filaments to burn out, so I think it’s safe to say we’ll have to find new idiosyncrasies for these aircraft. And I hate to admit it but it took me about a minute to find the outside air temperature gauge the other day – and I’m supposed to be transitioning all of our pilots into these aircraft!

While transitioning one of our pilots into a new ASTAR, we almost encountered dynamic rollover while landing. He had just touched down after a two hour flight and due to our low fuel state, a forward CG and the fact that the toes of an ASTAR’s skids are about 2 feet behind the pilot, not 2 feet in front of the pilot as we’re used to, the aircraft started pitching forward around the axis of the toes of the skids. (He was still holding some collective.)

AStar Helicopter

Jet Ranger

The aircraft pitched so far forward that the main rotor got to within about 4 feet of the ground. It caught me totally off guard and I yanked back on the cyclic so hard that I thought I was going to chop off our tail boom. Better that than rolling over, I thought. Fortunately, I was able to pull enough collective to pad the rocking motion and there was no damage, except to our egos. He later said he just didn’t realize what was happening because he wasn’t familiar with the aircraft. I had always preached to my students, “Don’t stop flying the aircraft until the rotor has stopped.” Well now I preach to myself, “Don’t stop instructing until the rotor has stopped.” Two of our people were on the ramp watching the incident unfold, but they never budged. When it was all over, I asked them why they didn’t run and they said, “We’ve never seen a helicopter crash before and we were just mesmerized.”

Transition training applies not only to new pilots, but also to pilots with thousands of hours. Don’t get complacent. Don’t ever think it can’t happen to you. In aviation it’s often a series of very small things that come together at the most inopportune time to cause you a problem.

Fly safe