September and October of 2015 were tough months for me. I had a full workload of students and taught a lot of ground but I felt like I was barely getting into the air. There were maintenance issues with the IFR equipped R22 preventing me from flying with two of my students, both of whom needed the IFR ship to fly. I started to worry about reaching 1,000 hours PIC in time to apply for jobs in Alaska even though it was still a little over a year away. I wasn’t sure what to do and when I talked with the management in Kona one option that came up was to move over to Honolulu and start instructing there instead.
I had only flown out of Honolulu a couple of times during my training, but it was enough to see that Oahu was a totally different world compared to Kona. My experiences there made me quite interested in instructing at the Honolulu base when the opportunity came. It wasn’t easy to leave the place I learned to fly or the life I had created around Kona. Nonetheless I knew that some day I would have to leave! My frustration over flight hours helped propel me forward and I decided to go to Honolulu for better or worse. I knew that if nothing else I would be flying in a dramatically different environment from Kona and while this was intimidating it was exciting as well. Looking back I can see there was no real reason to worry.
What’s so different about Oahu? To start with the airport in Honolulu is much bigger and much busier. It is what they call class Bravo airspace, reserved for the busiest airports in the National Airspace System. Mainly this means more time talking to Air Traffic Control and more time spent looking outside searching for traffic. Good things to practice for an aspiring pilot!! The thought of flying in class B airspace was daunting, but as it turned out it was the least formidable of the challenges I would find on Oahu. The weather turned out to be the real game changer.
In Kona we rarely flew in anything other than blue skies and nearly endless visibility. If the rain actually made it over the mountains we were quick to cancel flights. On the other hand Oahu’s trade winds bring in a steady supply of low clouds and rain, especially during the winter. My first month on Oahu it rained almost every single day. This didn’t mean flying around in the pouring rain all the time (thankfully!). It simply meant dealing with isolated rain showers and navigating the weather to reach the training areas. For the first time in my life as a pilot I was making real-world weather decisions. Practicing this skill proved to be the biggest boon of flying around Oahu.
Not only did we have to deal with rain and low clouds, the winds were far stronger on Oahu as well. Combine these blustery trade winds with steep mountains and suddenly there is turbulence. I’m not sure I ever flew in real turbulence around Kona where even with elevated wind levels the terrain is too gentle to create significant bumps. Being exposed to mountain turbulence allowed me to start seeing how wind flowed around the mountains with a clarity I could not hope to develop looking at a textbook diagram. In the end the real world almost always proves itself a better classroom.
The mountains also provided an overabundance of tricky off airport landing sites. The steep sides of the Ko’olau Mountains, the thick vegetation, and the robust winds created many worthy challenges. While these Hawaiian mountains are covered with green jungles instead of white snow and ice the mountain flying lessons are no less real. I am confident that the time spent flying in these mountains will prove itself useful as I move on in my career.
The last new challenge Oahu offered was traffic. I knew that flying in class Bravo would be a learning experience because of the constant flow of aircraft in and out of the airport. While this was true I learned even more while flying outside the Bravo airspace. Oahu is a small island with a lot of aviation. Besides the 3 to 4 training helicopters there are over 10 tour helicopters based in Honolulu. Then there are the fire department, the police department, the various utility machines, and of course plenty of military helicopters too. Oh, and don’t forget all the small fixed-wing training and tour traffic. Scanning the sky is a never ending job in the air around Oahu. And once you’ve seen the traffic making decisions about how to avoid it comes next. The words “see and avoid” suddenly come to life! Again, real-world decision making.
So what are the lessons learned? I think the biggest thing I learned from making the switch to Oahu was something I already knew; if you want to improve at something you have to challenge yourself with new experiences. While practice makes perfect you only become perfect at what you practice. Building new skills will always create all around improvement whether it is in aviation or some other field. In my opinion the only caveat is to build a good foundation. But if you have had good training and logged a bit of time instructing that should certainly prove enough to start expanding your horizons.
Several experienced pilots I’ve talked to told me that when a door opens, go through it. Simple advice indeed, but to me it seems spot on. Going through new doors will challenge your ability to make good decisions and think creatively. While new experiences are a must for any developing pilot this is no excuse for being reckless. There is no such thing as eliminating risk completely and yet for some there seems to be no such thing as too much risk either. The reality is that our jobs as pilots force us to define the line between what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to risk. And the only way to learn the line is through experience.