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ATP Helicopter Certification…Is The Bar Set Too Low?

Posted 3 years 263 days ago ago by RandyRowles     2 Comments

The highest level of FAA airman certification is the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Upon reaching this level of certification, the airman is expected to have built a treasure trove of experiences only found through years of experience. The title alone infers that the individual holding such certification is capable of operating aircraft utilized in airline-type operations. Not as much make and model of aircraft as it is the capabilities of an airline to include operating within poor weather conditions, high density airspace, and the IFR system.

Within the helicopter industry today, most helicopter pilots holding an ATP certificate have never seen the inside of a cloud. It’s not their fault, the system has allowed this to occur. Beginning with a helicopter pilot’s introduction to the instrument environment, every aspect of instrument flight training in a helicopter is simulated. Further perpetuating instrument training void of actual experience is the ability, and expectation, that the instrument flight instructor has only theoretical instrument experience to pass along.

Why is this? Since no helicopter utilized for instrument training within the civil industry for initial certification is certified for flight into instrument conditions, the only solution is simulated instrument training. To be clear, I’m not referring to high-fidelity Full Flight Simulators or even Flight Training Devices that provide exceptional instrument training platforms. Rarely are these type devices available to students in the initial training industry.

As a lone-time FAA Pilot Examiner, I’m of the opinion that pilot examinations SHOULD NOT be permitted in aircraft not equipped with the most basic of systems associated with Air Carrier type operating aircraft. Systems such as hydraulics are now being found on lighter, more accessible training aircraft. However, complex electrical and fuel systems, auto-pilots, and integrated avionic commonly found in the type of aircraft capable of Air Carrier type operations are not available.

Simply stated, we as an industry are facilitating the initial certification of pilots at the highest level without any confirmation of their ability to manage, operate, or gain experience in critical flight operations prior to being called an Airline Transport Pilot!

Do you believe the training and experience requirements for an Airline Transport Pilot Helicopter pilot is adequate? In your opinion, are the aircraft currently approved and being utilized for FAA ATP pilot evaluations adequate or not?

About Randy:
Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award.  Randy is currently  Director of Training at Epic Helicopters in Ft. Worth, Texas.


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  • ChuckMK23 2 years 71 days ago
    Hundreds of hours of actual instrument in military helicopters and Bell 206 series. When I started flying 135 HEMS in a BK-117, was genuinely surprised at our inability to fly training flights in actual IMC, even with two pilots! I was very comfortable in IMC conditions, but, being a perishable skill, I was soon herded to a VFR / c;lear of clouds menatity. My inadverant IMC plan was always to climb climb climb though and never risk CFIT scenario. Chuck Mahon, ATP, CFI, CFII
  • krysczajkowski 3 years 259 days ago
    Good question Randy. To add your remarks, a competent ATP should be capable of flying a complex aircraft under IFR and handle all the possible in-flight emergencies as well. Honestly, I feel the training and experience requirements for the helicopter ATP could be better. The limitation of a simple training aircraft for a checkride is that multiple simulated emergencies cannot be initiated at the same time. Perhaps a demonstration of proficiency in a simulator to represent such scenarios should be included in the new FAA Airman Certification Standards. It may also be that the FAA simply relies on operators to properly train their pilots in simulators and/or aircraft in actual IMC before approving them for IFR operations. I've been flying as a HAA pilot in an Agusta A109 for a year now. It is an IFR equipped helicopter although we only operate under VFR with NVGs. There are other bases in our company that fly the same ship under IFR. I recently completed my ATP checkride in a R44II, which other than hydraulics, is very rudimentary compared to the more complex airframe that I currently fly. Since getting my certificate, I've had the same thoughts as you regarding ATP rated helicopter pilots with no actual IMC flight time. I do aspire to get some actual IMC experience at some point in time but for now I have been focusing on flying VFR with an IFR mentality. I use the autopilot and all navigation systems regularly to make sure they are working properly. I frequently shoot practice IAPs when returning to base and I have carefully studied all the procedures in our area. My personal objective is to shoot at least one approach every 30 days and to try a different one each time. In the unfortunate event of an IIMC enounter, I don't want the additional stress of lacking proficiency when flying in the clouds. Given that proficiency training in our industry typically occurs every 6 months, it is very likely that a pilot can have a very troublesome experience in IIMC if he hasn't been practicing his IFR skills very often, even if he's an ATP. In essence, the ATP certificate shouldn't be the end-all zenith in pilot training. Each pilot holding this rating should motivate himself to practice his skills every time he goes on a flight, even if the weather is perfect.