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Learning to Fly in America.

By Rotorway owner the late John Tickner.

So, you’ve got the bug and want to be a helicopter pilot.  How, where, how much, how long, already it’s becoming a problem until suddenly, when all these discussions are almost made, someone mentions America. As a fixed wing student I’d arrive early at the airfield, then, high wind, rain or fog would sometimes clear in an hour or three, sometimes not at all. Not once but often this would happen so the idea of every day being warm, dry, clear and flyable seemed attractive.

The more research I did the more attractive the idea. America, weather good, English speaking, FAA or JAA PPL(H), maps in English, teaching in English, lots of schools, some with a couple of elderly R22’s- very cheap, others bigger and more expensive but more reliable. I ended up choosing a big well known school in Florida with a fleet of 22 CBi Schweitzer’s all less than 18 months old plus 5 R22’s for the specialist courses of full instrument, sling operations, mountain flying and so on. The school boasted 28 instructors, teaching side by side the American FAA or European JAR licence.

8 am each morning you’d be allocated an aircraft, do your own pre-flight, have a 10 to 20 minute pre-flight briefing with your own instructor then it was off on a long hover taxi to that departure point on the airfield for your particular task or exercise. Be it Southern,  Eastern or Western training areas, vast areas where safety segregation exists, high, medium or low altitude exercises took place at the same time, with, it seemed to me, each area chosen in relation to an element of danger, maybe to keep you alert!

You are for example doing your very first ‘settling with power’ in that area but you can see and hear (everyone is on a common frequency) your pal Fred into his first 360 degree auto while trying to spot and miss the turkey sized birds that fly up at 2000 feet. A different area, trying to keep level within say 200 feet at a constant speed within about 20 knots on a steady course plus / minus 20 degrees but aware that the local microlite manufacturers also use that area for their test site and the fisheries and wildlife helicopters are there doing their work. On yet another site its approach and departure exercises, hover practice, low level and throttle chopping into soft marshy ground that looks like solid grass until you land. All the good flat grass land is full of cattle, fenced in to protect them from the Alligators. I thought alligators were supposed to lie half submerged waiting for that Australian Dundee character but no, they sunbathe! It certainly concentrates the mind whilst doing 360 degree spot turns. That area was my worst, doing hover practise about 20 yards from a river when up from the river suddenly swoops one of these air boats to confront my Schweitzer 2 feet off the ground.

Having completed whatever that mornings task was its try to remember where the airfield was, carry out all the radio necessary to return inbound to base which is after all a fully operational Provincial Airfield with piston and jet commercial traffic and a barely understandable Texan ATC officer. After the debrief a chance to revise for the next flight, ground school or ever a test. Then if you are ready for it, the next flight.  This is monitored not only by yourself but also the instructors deciding when they think you’ve had enough and that a further flight of instruction may not be fully effective.

On the subject of instructors, they are all rather special because it turns out they are the ‘best’.  They are the best because they have been chosen from ex-students and the company clearly can pick the best. Periodically they themselves are reviewed by their superiors and their superiors take a turn at instructing. This way teaching methods, schedules, progress and effectiveness of pupil/instructor mix are all monitored.

With around 50 students of all nationalities at any one time the easy going yet flexible and good humoured atmosphere really gets the whole set up working as a very efficient and very helpful team. The helpful and humorous theme is encouraged by light hearted micky-taking of those incidents we all wish we hadn’t done and awards and posted notices for ‘first solo’ and such like along with parties and organised trips around the area.  This of course means residential.  Residential covers a variety of possibilities from local ‘digs’, shared flats or on  airfield company accommodation. All this and hire cars, rentals and bus service can and generally is arranged by the company, everything in fact except your time away from work.

The word flexible was used regarding this company and its proved here in that clearly they prefer to run set starting times for a group of students but if you are able to adapt by joining a group that has already started, start before a new group or even do two or three weeks then return later to complete, its all possible although in this case you will do something in the order of 60 hours.

So with all of these costs adding up is it worth it ?  Well for starters don’t even imagine that the American PPL(H) is easier, quite the opposite. From the foregoing you can see its well proven, well established with  more use of active commercial airfields, wider use of radio but all at lower cost particularly with the Dollar at its present state.  Food, accommodation and extendable return flights are all low cost and with high standards of instruction you will end up with training as good as anywhere in the world. So you see it’s well worth it. I opted to take the American FAA licence as its readily usable worldwide, does not require ECG’s for the medical, does not require 5 hours type approval for other helicopters and the medical itself costs only $35.

There are some ways to reduce the time and cost.  Before you go to the States it’s possible and a good idea to study and take the radio exams and all the ground school exams and thereby get a pretty good theoretical knowledge of how to fly a helicopter, its not the same as actually trying to fly but you will be well on the way.  You could even save some flying time by spending some time on a simulator, it wouldn’t make you good enough to fly but could save you a few hours.

John Tickner

It is with deep regret we lost John Tickner who died on the 22nd October 2011 at his home at St Ives in Cambridgeshire.


A long time owner of his beloved and outrageously registered Rotorway 162F G-ESUS which he built he loved flying his helicopter and although he had a few mishaps, was always keen to get flying again. So pleased with his Rotorway he showed it at an Earls Court exhibition a few years ago and in the true John Tickner style he badgered the organizers until they agreed to let him exhibit for free.

He always had many tales to tell and one concerned his helicopter flight training in Florida. Unable to understand the broad American accent of the ATC tower John went to see him and in his usual forthright manner told him he was English and needed directions in English. Not sure what the controller thought but on every occasion after that the controller called “is that you English” this amused many other students at the flying school who also heard the radio call, so you can guess what they all called him.

Over the years we got to know him well and he became a really good friend. He would help anyone and often flew with his fellow Rotorway owner Alan Saul.

John was a real character and a true friend and the world is a sadder place for his passing. He will be sadly missed.

Jonathan & David
Southern Helicopters Ltd.