The objective of the first flight lesson is to determine the student’s motivation and goals and introduce the student to:

  • Training procedures
  • The helicopter
  • Local flying area and prominent landmarks
  • The relationship between control inputs and aircraft attitude

Training Procedures

The introduction to training procedures offers the certificated flight instructor (CFI) an opportunity to better ascertain the student’s experience and background, which influence training. At this time, the CFI explains the general safety procedures, lay out of the school, the course syllabus and how it is used. This includes how, when, and where instruction will take place. The CFI also discusses the role of preflight and postflight briefings in the training program, as well as how he or she monitors the student’s progress. Additionally, the introduction to training should be used to determine the student’s motivation for flight training and learn what their goals are. By understanding what the student would like to gain through flight training, the CFI will be better prepared to tailor their training plan to the needs of the student.

Introduction to the Helicopter

Walking the student through a preflight provides an excellent opportunity to introduce or review the main components of the helicopter. [Figure 1]

Helicopter Instructor
Figure 1. A CFI provides an overview of the helicopter to introduce the main components and discuss how to enter and exit a helicopter properly

Refer the student to the Helicopter Flying section for in-depth information on the rotor systems, landing gear, and flight controls. During the discussion, the CFI should demonstrate how to enter and exit the helicopter properly while the rotors are turning. This is also a good time to explain or review:

  • General helicopter hazards, such as main and tail rotor blades. A simple demonstration of how low main rotor blades can droop is possible by manually pulling down on the tip of a static blade. In aircraft equipped with retractable droop stops, the CFI must explain that actual droop can be greater once the stops retract with greater rotor revolutions per minute (rpm). Ensure that all demonstrations comply with restrictions found in the appropriate rotorcraft flight manual.
  • Emergency egress.
  • Foreign object damage (FOD) hazards associated with items, such as hats, jackets, and loose paperwork.
  • Seat belt use at all times during flight.
  • Proper wear and use of the headset.
  • Proper sitting posture and position of the hands and feet.
  • Positive exchange of controls procedures and acknowledgments.
  • The see-and-avoid concept.
  • The clock method of reporting aircraft and other hazards to flight to the other crewmember.
  • The need for clothing suitable for the location and weather. It is always good practice to have sufficient clothing for walking back to the starting point. Helicopters can readily take a pilot far beyond populated areas. The pilot should always have enough resources to survive or to wait for a repair crew to arrive, in case of emergency.
  • Suitable eye protection, such as good sunglasses to protect the eyes from harmful rays that produce cataracts in later years. Helicopters admit much more sunlight than almost any other aircraft, due to the bigger bubble or cockpit plexiglas area and chin window areas. Additionally, many helicopters fly with the doors off in warmer climates, thereby exposing the student’s eyes to much more radiation.
  • Seat and pedal adjustment in the helicopter to achieve full control travel.
  • Headset and commonly used noise-canceling microphone function, so that the headset and microphone can be properly fitted and adjusted. The student should know how to adjust the volume of the headset and be able to understand the instructor and radios through the headset. If a voice-activated intercom is installed, the student should be taught what the squelch control function does and how to adjust it when necessary. Headsets not utilized should be disconnected and stowed away to prevent unwanted noise and reduce the risk of FOD. Also, loose items such as seatbelts, bags, jackets, hats, and flight publications should be stowed.
  • Controls and buttons located on the cyclic and collective. Most of this preflight instruction should be done in as quiet a location as possible before engine start. After engine start, student perceptions will probably be overloaded quickly with new experiences and sensations from their first helicopter flight. Effective instruction would have the ground instructor bringing the class out to the helicopter after every lesson to have them locate, examine, and describe the function of each part described in that lesson. The students should be able to explain the relationship between a component of the helicopter and the aerodynamics requiring that component.

The importance of good prebriefings can never be overstated. In almost every case, if the student does not learn from the briefing what is expected and the contents of the flight lesson for that day before going to the helicopter, then that student will not learn after getting into and starting the helicopter. Instructors forget that the new student pilot is constantly barraged by new information. Newly experiencing the sights, sounds, vibrations, and other sensory inputs of helicopter flight, the beginning student has great difficulty understanding and remembering what the instructor says. If the instructor merely reinforces what the student learned in the classroom, the student is more likely to recall the instructions and procedures for the maneuvers amid the new experiences.

Likewise, during the prebriefing, the student should be introduced to the flying area. The time required for a review of the chart to be used depends on the experience level of the student and when charts and maps were taught during the training. The instructor should also remember that the student may not remember as well if the student is always on the flight controls. The instructor may need to relieve the student of the flight controls for a few moments near each boundary marker or checkpoint for the student to have time to fully absorb the view and relate the sight to the chart or map being used.

If the student has airplane experience, the instructor should be aware of negative transfer of airplane skills to helicopter flying. The first flight should set the stage for the remainder of the flight course. A shorter flight is always better than a long flight. If the student becomes warm or hot, the likelihood of airsickness is greater. Some students have an aversion to heights, which can be overcome by determination and gradual exposure.

The instructor has the duty always to give the student just enough—just enough encouragement, or just enough challenge for that stage of training, or just enough critique—for the student to learn but not to discourage. The instructor should always have enough understanding of the student’s progress to discuss the student’s problems and explain how or why the error is occurring and what corrective or different action to take to have a better outcome. Especially on the ground, the instructor should always strive for the student to comprehend, not just remember and perform by rote memorization.

Introduction to Flying

For the first flight, the instructor should give the student just enough flight experience to make the student want to come back for more. During the first flight, the CFI should allow the student to fly the aircraft and have fun doing it. An enjoyable introductory flight builds student motivation and the student will be more ready to learn. Solo flight comes after more flight experience, so there is plenty of time for the student to learn local landmarks. [Figure 2] This flight should be an introduction to flying itself and should follow the pattern of learning simple tasks before more complex tasks. The student should learn to fly first, and then learn where to fly.

Helicopter Instructor
Figure 2. During an introductory flight, a student pilot receives the first helicopter flight experience while being shown the general functions of the controls and instruments and is also introduced to the local landmarks and the layout of the airfield

The CFI must show the student that flying can be fun, and then introduce the student to the local flying area. During this flight, seat the student at the pilot’s seat. (Seat the new student at the copilot’s seat for the first few flights if access to engine starting or flight control friction is not easily accessible from the copilot’s seat.) Explain the general function of the controls and instruments. Demonstrate adjustment of the controls for comfort and safety, as applicable to the make and model of helicopter being flown. Relate this flight to the student’s flying background and level of experience. For example, a new student’s introductory flight can also be used to discuss basic air traffic control (ATC) functions and procedures.

A brief “hands on” for the student during cruising flight helps the CFI further evaluate the student’s level of ability. If at all possible, the first flight or at least the first portion of the first flight should be conducted in a calmer environment, such as in the morning or at a higher altitude, so the student has a chance to experience the helicopter flight without the turbulence that is often confusing to the student.

This flight also provides the CFI with an opportunity to evaluate the student’s attitude, tolerance, and temperament. The student should enjoy this first trip, creating a positive foundation for the rest of the course. Explain that procedures that seem complicated at this time become easier with more exposure and training.

Try to avoid confusing the student by presenting too much detailed information at this early stage in training. As discussed in the Aviation Instructor’s section, students tend to acquire and memorize facts when exposed to a new topic. As learning progresses, they begin to organize their knowledge to formulate an understanding of the things they have memorized. Progressing further still, students learn to use the knowledge they have compiled to solve problems and make decisions. Encourage and praise such behavior whenever students exhibit the pilot in command (PIC) input. Keep in mind that student performance should not be criticized or corrected at this stage; explain in general terms what occurs during flight to clarify student’s understanding.

In the early stages of flight training, the traditional lesson plan (see the Aviation Instructor’s section) provides the CFI with a teaching delivery method more in tune with the student’s level of knowledge. Scenario-based training (SBT) works better with learners who have mastered the basic knowledge needed to make more advanced decisions. The samples used in the early posts utilize the traditional lesson plan.

The most important lesson for helicopter pilots to learn is to be wary. As training progresses, the instructor can incorporate discussions of documented helicopter accidents related to the lesson of the day. The instructor can offer techniques and procedures that would prevent that type of incident from happening. While it is important to relate some of these stories to student pilots, the instructor should avoid too many accident discussions early in the training as they may instill fear in students that may not understand the details. Respect for the dangers in aviation can aid a student’s progression, but fear acts as a barrier to learning.

Instructors in the debriefing after the flight should always discuss what was satisfactory and then discuss what improvements the student could make and, even more important, how to make improvements. It does not help the student to say the flight was unsatisfactory that day if the instructor cannot describe in detail how the student could correct any responses or maneuvers.

After the debriefing, most successful instructors begin to brief the student on the contents of the next day’s training flight. This allows:

  1. The student time between flights to study and think about the next maneuver to learn at their own pace.
  2. The student to recall questions from the current flight about a specific point during the flight.
  3. The student to formulate questions concerning practices or procedures for the instructor to address before the next flight.
  4. The instructor to relate the current flight to the upcoming flight’s goals and maneuvers to further the student’s understanding of the relationship of the procedures.

Instructor Tips

  • For the airplane pilot transitioning to helicopters, remind the student that a helicopter is very different from an airplane and much negative transfer is possible if they do not continually remind themselves of which aircraft that they are flying at the time. Helicopters are designed and built to be controllable. Airplanes are designed and built to be stable. Helicopter flight controls are considerably more sensitive than those in an airplane, which can be difficult for a former airplane pilot to adjust to. CFI’s must also explain the aerodynamic effects that must be controlled by the helicopter pilot due to the main rotors’ blade tip speed. [Figure 3] The Helicopter Flying section is a good reference for detailed explanations on the calculations of the main rotors’ blade tip speeds and the magnitude of the aerodynamic effects that must be controlled by the helicopter pilot.
Helicopter Instructor Tips
Figure 3. Example of a traditional lesson plan
  • Avoid sudden or violent maneuvers that might make a newcomer to flying nervous. Emphasize how little movement is required on the cyclic and collective controls. This is critical for prior airplane pilots and can be demonstrated by calculating and explaining the blade tip speed to emphasize the magnitude of the aerodynamic effects controlled by a helicopter pilot. Introduce the pedal requirement immediately with short quick inputs rather than slow and long inputs. Demonstrate and point out to the student which part of the body should be used and are necessary in order to achieve the proper input.
  • Monitor the student pilot’s hand grip pressure on the flight controls, foot position on the pedals, body posture, and eyes regularly for clues of nervousness, lack of progress, improper reaction to the situation, and situational unawareness.
  • Always practice positive transfer of control procedures and acknowledgments. This is particularly important in the early stages of training to instill good habits and safety when either the student or the CFI is on the controls for a long period of time.
  • Helicopters are not acrobatic in the general sense. Therefore, positive “G” loads are the normal condition. All good helicopter pilots are smooth flyers because they know smooth flight is good for the machine and passengers/cargo.
  • Sudden or violent maneuvering is usually the precursor for main rotor or tail rotor strikes. The helicopter pilot should always be planning the flight path to avoid close, tight situations requiring rapid maneuvering.

The helicopter instructor should be relating the ongoing training to student plans for after they earn their certificates. This encourages learning and help students relate the training to a positive personal goal.

The goals of the first flight should be for the student to recognize flight attitude of the helicopter relative to the horizon and to relate the control inputs necessary to achieve changes in the aircraft’s attitude. On the first flight, acquaint the student with the basic flight instruments, such as the rotor tachometer, engine tachometer, compass, airspeed indicator, altimeter, and power gauge (manifold pressure or torque). Additionally, show the student how the helicopter responds to pedal inputs at a hover versus in forward flight, and how the power changes depending on tail rotor power demands.

The first helicopter flight should be rewarding, and not overwhelming or boring. If possible, one day should be the detailed preflight and prebriefing and the next the regular preflight and actual first flight.

Another item to include on the first flight is the engine cooling time, including the reasons the student sees airplanes come to a full stop and kill the engines immediately, while the helicopter pilot must sit for some minutes before the engine can be shut down. Explain that a helicopter requires relatively more power to hover taxi than an airplane requires to ground taxi. Helicopters require more of their available power to hover so the powerplant is relatively hotter and requires a longer cool-down period. Generally, airplane engines begin to cool during descent to landing and require little or no time to cool down after landing.