July 6th, 2014
I’ve just finished my first week of training at Mauna Loa Helicopters here in Kona, Hawaii. I was really nervous coming over from the mainland, wondering if I was making the right choice and of course wondering how easily I would be able to settle in to this new place and new endeavor. Thankfully the settling in went as easily as I could possibly have hoped for. The day after I arrived I found a room to rent and a motorcycle to ride. I also had my school orientation. This was followed by several days of ground school and culminated in my first flight. Details follow.
Because I had spent so long (really only 18 months) waiting to start my training I had built up a lot of ideas and of course some expectations about how things would be. Not surprisingly these ideas were not completely accurate. For example, in my mind I pictured flying right away, and of course finishing my Private in the first month or so! In reality there is a certain amount of ground school to be completed before the first flight and in retrospect that makes perfect sense. But because I had spent so much time working on ground school and passed my Private Knowledge exam before arriving I wasn’t very clear about what my formal ground school would look like. Let me make an effort to explain the basics.
There are two main paths for instruction, Part 61 and Part 141. The main difference between these two paths is that Part 61 allows for a less structured approach to ground school while Part 141 follows a very specific curriculum. A less important difference is the number of hours that the FAA requires for specific certificates. I say that the difference in hours is unimportant because most pilots will not meet the minimums anyway and ultimately we still need the same number of hours to become instructors. At Mauna Loa full-time students start their training with Part 141. If for some reason the school, instructors, or students feel that Part 61 would offer some advantage then the change can be made. It is worth noting that you cannot transfer from Part 61 to Part 141.
Part 141 training is broken down into three main sections: Private, Commercial/CFI, and Instrument/CFII. Each section is broken down further into 3 stages. Each stage has a number of ground lessons and flight lessons built into it. In this way you work through each section toward the ultimate goal of a CFII rating and work as an instructor. Before I could have my first flight I had to cover the first three lessons in Stage 1 of the Private section. Because of the work I put in over the last eight months this went quickly. Mostly it consisted of my instructor introducing ideas, spending time talking about them, and then the next day a quick quiz about the subjects we had covered. There were a number of things that proved very beneficial about the time spent in ground school before ever getting in the machine though.
I think the biggest benefit came from the improved communication that happens naturally after several days of working with someone. The ability to communicate is very important in the flying environment. The more comfortable student and instructor feel with each other the more productive the time spent together will be. Not to mention the increased safety factor that comes with better understanding and communication. Another benefit to my ground school was that all the material was specific to the Robinson R22, the helicopter we would be training in. In most ground school books they cannot go into detail because they must be able to apply ideas to a large audience. I had made some attempts to learn particular data about the R22 during my self-study but it proved to be too much. Without the hands on aspect I believe it is very hard, and perhaps pointless, to memorize things like takeoff and cruise speed. However these things become second nature when combined with daily flying. The final benefit was that no matter how many times I had read about a particular topic, even from multiple sources, my instructor often had yet another way of looking at things. To me, the more ways a subject is introduced the better. Perhaps this just fits my learning style, but I enjoyed having yet another perspective.
After six days of ground, averaging about 1.5 hours each (plus 3 to 4 hours of self-study), we had covered the required material and it was time for my first flight. After a lengthy pre-flight inspection where I learned the specifics of checking out the R22 for flight we took off and headed south from Kona International. My instructor first demonstrated each control and then gave me control of the pedals. He made changes to the collective and I corrected trim. Then he gave me pedals and collective and allowed me to climb and descend. Next was cyclic alone while he controlled pedals and collective. Finally I was given all the controls. After almost exactly twenty-two and a half years I was flying a helicopter again! My instructor had me perform a number of basic maneuvers including straight and level flight, turns, ascents and descents, and ascending and descending turns.
In all the passing years since my boyhood experiences flying with Don I had never forgotten how sensitive a helicopter can be nor how incredibly difficult they are to fly. Perhaps my respect for what it takes to fly these machines had built up over the years but I was very pleasantly surprised at how comfortable and at ease I felt back at the controls. In the coming week I will make many more flights, the beginning of what will hopefully be a long and productive career, and I’m sure I will see a lot of progress. I look forward to sharing my experiences here.