George Tonking

American fighter pilot Col. Robin Olds stood by the mantra “preparedness wins the battle.” He should have known, becoming a triple ace in the Vietnam sky while flying 152 missions in Southeast Asia in an F-4 Phantom jet, a pig of a dog-fighter.

IN THE GUN-TOTING MIG-INFESTED North, he sharpened his previously demoralised men into formidable fighter pilots, embedding his experience and cunning into their young hands. Robin Olds taught that the key to air superiority was not only regular battle-ground training, but last-minute flexibility, the very ability to change and adapt to any environment and deal with unpredictable enemy tactics.

It was also said that Olds valued all of his people – from the base’s support staff to his airmen. This remains true in our context – the business and human resources side of things keeping the flying work coming in, while creating the opportunities for further training and development.

‘operational training is never complete’

But what does half-century-old fighter pilot lore have to do with the modern helicopter pilot? To develop from a merely competent pilot into a flexible operator pilot requires an immeasurable amount of input from many spheres. As you may have read before in this column, throughout my helicopter flying career I’ve had the advantage of great mentors and teachers. It’s a crucial enough topic to mention again. So this month I’d like to take you into the operational training environment.

Unlike basic flight training, or ab-initio as it’s known, operational training, also known as line training in airline circles, is never complete. For as long as you remain a pilot, ab-initio should be an ongoing calendar item to keep your skills sharp. Of course, this type of training is invaluable to any pilot, whether commercial or a private license holder. We can and should all learn continuously.

Again, Olds is an excellent role model, who kept reinventing himself throughout his career. Despite his experience as an active pilot during World War II and beyond, he chose to fly as the “new” guy when he first arrived in Vietnam, while learning from those who had been in-country longer than he.

A pilot fresh out of flight school or with a fresh commercial license is often thrown into the deep end when put into the flying environment on his or her own. Various tasks learned in the safety of a flight school won’t necessarily translate in real-life situations. This could be as simple as a flight to an unknown airspace, with complex navigation procedures new to the pilot, or, for the professional pilot, it could mean flying for a new client with unknown expectations and sensitive operational requirements. All of this adds up to complicate an already busy and challenging task environment, potentially leading to unforced errors.

An informal learning atmosphere is best for line training.

The aim of line training, then, is to develop the pilot into a safer and more efficient operator, able to respond to situations on the fly. When training is needed in our context, I always lean heavily on my more experienced pilots, allowing them to fly with the new pilot for a few initial missions from the left seat of the helicopter. I also try to match personalities in the cockpit, to enable the healthiest learning environment possible. Mostly, the trick is facilitating effective communication among the crew, which includes forums like guided safety and operations briefings where lively banter is encouraged between all crew; where everyone is allowed an opinion and contribution.

‘helicopters don’t “run out of power”’

Once we have paired up the line-check pilots, the next part is to start with the basics of real-life helicopter flying. It’s important to understand the difference between an Operational Proficiency Check (OPC) and a Line Check. First off, the OPC is primarily a flight safety check, which requires a nominated, qualified flight instructor with dual controls fitted in the helicopter and performed in a training area. A Line Check, on the other hand, does not require dual controls or incorporate emergency training manoeuvres. Rather, the line check pilot or captain’s role is to train the student pilot through thought-provoking patter and encouragement. These flights often are to the benefit of not only the student pilot but also the check captain in establishing and developing better and safer flight techniques for the future.

Techniques like confined or off-airport landings (which I covered in previous articles) are taught in-situ. Due to the high altitudes above sea level flown on the Reef, where most of our operations take place, helicopter performance planning is frequently briefed and exercised to maintain a healthy performance margin.

For example, helicopters don’t typically “run out of power” as many accident reports state, but generally suffer from bad planning on the part of the pilot when a landing or takeoff zone is not carefully considered before a flight. Pattering a pilot on handling technique also comes into play when the demands of the flight profile exceed the helicopter’s documented operating performance. A higher-than-documented take-off zone or heavier than documented Out Of Ground Effect hover, for instance, may be achieved by using available wind over the LZ to achieve landing or take-off.

After the initial line-check flights, many of my newer pilots have commented on feeling more confident in their ability to command the ship. Even as experienced crew we often fly line-checks to keep our minds fresh and our hands in as we are also susceptible to complacency.

Col. Robin Olds was outspoken throughout his career – calling for a renewed focus on training, especially from seasoned pilots, accurately foreseeing that it would save pilots’ lives. The greatest responsibility we have as flight crew is that of care of duty to ourselves, our passengers and those with whom we share the same airspace. May we always be open to correction and learning and also be ready to help anyone involved in the incredible adventure that is flight.

American fighter pilot Col. Robin Olds stood by the mantra “preparedness wins the battle.” He should have known, becoming a triple ace in the Vietnam sky while flying 152 missions in Southeast Asia in an F-4 Phantom jet, a pig of a dog-fighter.