July 1st, 2017
It’s been exactly three years since I enrolled in the Professional Pilot Program at Mauna Loa Helicopters. It’s hard for me to believe that I’m here in Alaska, flying the AStar, actually living out the fantasy I’ve had since childhood. It has not been an easy journey, but it’s been worth every effort, all the stress and sleepless nights, every moment of uncertainty about the future. And while it was not always a smooth or straight path I have so much to be thankful for and to be honest I’m not even sure what would have made it better.
Looking back I can see that completing my training was just one challenge on the path to my dreams. While instructing is many things it is not an easy job. While I tried to tell myself that I was living my dream, working as a helicopter pilot, the reality fell woefully short. Nonetheless, as I’ve said in previous posts instructing is well worth the effort and the experience gained. When I moved on to flying tours in the R44 I hoped I was making a good choice. It wasn’t an easy decision for me and I wondered if I was making a mistake leaving behind the world of instruction so quickly. And when it came to fulfilling my dreams of flying the tour job would only be a few steps further forward. Like many decisions in life there was no clear answer.
In the end flying for Novictor on Oahu proved to be a good choice for me. Not because of the company, but because of what I put into it and got back in return. My first real experience with commercial work taught me that once you leave the CFI world the lines between acceptable and unacceptable become blurred. As a student the instructor watches over your every move informing you of each action that could be improved, whether through physical performance or better understanding. When you take over as CFI you do the same for your students. And in this way things stay fairly tight and regulated, always with the clear goal of becoming a better pilot both mentally and physically. The realization that I was going to create habits during my first commercial job that would likely stick with me throughout my career was a powerful one. With no one watching what kind of pilot will you become? Attention to detail, discipline, and never losing sight of the pilot I want to be kept me on my path in spite of a work environment that required very little of us.
Out in the tour world the requirements for precision seemed to fade away. What exactly do I mean? Simply that you can fly at whatever altitude, whatever airspeed, whatever power setting…you can fly approaches at any angle and through any weather…all constrained only by what you perceive as being safe. And what right does a pilot with 500 hours, or even 1000 for that matter, have to judge what is safe and what isn’t? As “young” pilots we only know enough to get ourselves into trouble. And yet we have to take our fledgling knowledge and shape it through experience. I can only encourage the other young pilots out there to take it slow and continue to develop the good habits that you learned in school. Keep studying and learning, don’t stop just because you don’t have to anymore. And don’t be afraid to say no and stand up for what you think is right.
Quite frankly I was shocked at the careless attitudes I saw concerning pre-flight inspections, weather briefings, and respect for the limitations of the machines. These were not coming just from the pilots, but also from the company, which seemed to make very little effort to help develop better habits. In this respect I’m afraid that most entry level positions flying the R44 are more similar than different. And perhaps this is why some people discourage instructors from taking these types of jobs so early in their careers. Ultimately, regardless of whether the company you work for has the type of culture that promotes responsible behavior or not it is up to you to make good decisions. That is your primary job as a pilot, the one that is far more important than your physical skill, and the one that is most likely to get you into trouble if you don’t take it seriously.
As I meet more and more pilots from different areas, ones who have followed different paths, and had different experiences, I see that each of us has had to work through our own set of challenges. This is not an easy career to get started in. Before starting my training I always thought the dangers of running out of money, not finding a job, or not being able to reach 1000 hours were the most significant. When I started to meet careless, lazy, or disenchanted pilots I started to wonder if I was right. What does it mean to make it through the hardships of our training only to be so dissatisfied with what it means to work as a pilot that you don’t even want to do the fundamentals of your job?
These are some of the things I’ve learned in my early experiences as a commercial pilot. I am so happy that I’m now with a company that has a good safety culture. One where I am surrounded by people that appreciate what it means to be a pilot and the responsibility that goes with it. These things are not to be taken for granted. I still have so much more to learn and so many ways I want to improve myself, I’m feeling fortunate to be in a good place for these things to happen. So, stick to your training, get every ounce you can out of your instructors, expect the most of your students, and always strive to do better every day you fly and every time you touch the controls. It’s worth the work and the effort, for this is a unique and rewarding job, the best one I’ve ever had.