Three years ago, I was wrapping up my flight instructor training in the United States when I attended Helicopter Association International's Heli-Expo 2006 in Dallas, Texas. That year, as in years since, one of the educational courses offered was Canadian Helicopters Mountain Flying Ground School. Despite having some hesitations about the $400 US fee (mind you, I had just shelled out the cost of three or four new cars for my professional pilot training), I took a deep breath and signed up.
I had expected to learn something in the course; what I didn't expect was how much. By that point, just shy of my certified flight instructor check ride, I was intimately familiar with a number of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) publications, from the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook to the Practical Test Standards for private and commercial pilots. As a commercial pilot, I had been required to demonstrate pinnacle and confined area landings in accordance with those standards. But, nothing I had seen in any of the FAA's publications came close to describing the techniques taught by Canadian Helicopters - techniques that made such perfect sense I couldn't believe they weren't the industry standard.
This bothered me so much that, a couple of months later, I made a pilgrimage to the Canadian Helicopters Limited School of Advanced Flight Training in Penticton, B.C., to write about its full 26-hour mountain flying course. I also did some training there (because, when you've just bought four new cars, what's one more?). The experience was eye-opening. By the time I wrapped up my week, I couldn't believe the FAA had trusted me to land off-airport at all. The skills I learned from Canadian Helicopters improved my flying in every way, and I am a better, safer pilot because of it.
Three years later, the rest of the world is slowly catching on. At Heli-Expo 2009 in Anaheim, Calif., Eurocopter formally endorsed Canadian
Helicopters' mountain flight training program with a signed memorandum of understanding. "This endorsement is a significant step and part of the Eurocopter strategy to further develop advanced helicopter mountain training for pilots in Canada and around the world," said Eurocopter president and chief executive officer Lutz Bertling. Eurocopter's endorsement came after an audit of the program by Didier Delsalle, the Eurocopter test pilot who famously landed an AS 350B3 on the summit of Mount Everest in May 2005 (see p.12, Vertical, Aug-Sept 2005).
When I spoke to Delsalle during his visit to Penticton, he seemed as enthusiastic about the school as I was. "I've been really impressed by the proficiency of the instructors and especially their approach," he said. "Their course is very comprehensive and very thorough. . . . I think more pilots should be trained like this."
Learning to Fly
Some 245 miles east of Vancouver, Penticton occupies a chunk of dry land between the Okanagan and Skaha lakes, in the heart of the Okanagan Valley - a long, low valley that stretches south past the Washington border. Historically known as Canada's "fruit bowl," the Okanagan is a booming wine region that is also known for its cherry, peach and apple orchards (in fact, a year after my first visit to the Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training, I found myself on a cherry-drying contract not
The history of Canadian Helicopters starts in Penticton in 1947, when Carl Agar and Barney Bent, former Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) flight instructors, founded Okanagan Air Services Ltd. with Alf Stringer, an RCAF maintenance engineer. Casting about for a way to make a living from aviation after the war, the three had tried, and failed, to run a flying club in Penticton. Then, they hit on the prospect of aerial spraying, hoping to find a ready market among the Okanagan's fruit growers.
According to Peter Corley-Smith's book Helicopters: The British Columbia Story, Agar had read about a Washington state operator who was moving into spraying with helicopters, seeing promise in their slow speed and maneuverability. Corley-Smith quoted Stringer as saying: "So we thought ... well, since we didn't know anything about spraying, we might as well start out with two unknowns." And that's what they did.
The three founders of Okanagan Air paid a visit to that experimental helicopter operation in Yakima, Wash., and came away convinced they needed a helicopter, too. In the spring of 1947, Stringer returned to Yakima for a maintenance course on the first helicopter to be made commercially available, the Bell 47. Agar learned how to fly it from the Yakima operation's plucky 25-hour pilot - Carl Brady, who went on to found Era Helicopters
Bent, Agar and Stringer wrangled the $50,000 they needed to buy their first helicopter, then lined up work. Just a few weeks into the spraying season, though, Agar plowed their brand-new, open-cockpit Bell 47B-3 into power lines. Undaunted, they leased a helicopter for the remainder of the season and carried on. As it happened, spraying the small orchards of the Okanagan Valley didn't prove financially feasible, but larger spraying jobs were a success. Agar began to conceive of all the other uses to which a helicopter could be put - from backcountry surveying to construction.
In 1949, Okanagan Air, which was by then known as Okanagan Helicopters, gained exposure for its high-profile work on construction of the Palisade Lake Dam north of Vancouver. Its real triumph, however, came in the first years of the 1950s, when it turned in a spectacular performance in support of the hydroelectric complex at Kemano, B.C., for the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan). Thanks to the work of Okanagan Helicopters Ltd., the project was pushed months - possibly years - ahead of schedule.
"It was the first major hydro electric job where helicopters were used extensively," explained Jan Rustad, manager of business development at the Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training. Rustad, who is also chief flight instructor, has been flying since 1968 and has been with the school since 1977. He received his mountain training from the school's long-time chief flight instructor, Bud Tillotson, who himself learned to fly from Agar. "They literally pioneered the different uses of the helicopter," said Rustad of the work Okanagan did on the Kemano hydroelectric project.
The aerial surveying, transport and heavy lifting the company did at Kemano made Agar an international celebrity. By the end of the decade, Okanagan Helicopters had grown to be one of the largest helicopter operators in the world. Its descendant, Canadian Helicopters Limited, is still the largest onshore operator in Canada, and maintains an exceptional reputation for operational flying.
Before any of this took place, though, Agar had to figure out how to fly an underpowered Bell 47 at high altitudes, in unforgiving terrain. Then, he had to teach others to do it, too. The basic principles he hit upon are still the foundation of the mountain flying course that is taught in Penticton.
The Demarcation Line
When horizontal wind encounters a mountain or other obstruction, it's pushed up and around the sides of that mountain, creating an area of updrafts, or "upflow." Most helicopter pilots are used to finding these windward-side updrafts - they're handy ways to facilitate a climb.
Likewise, most of us are aware the downwind side of a slope is subject to downdrafts and turbulence - "downflow." But exactly where and when will we run into downflow, and what's the best way to avoid it?
This is the starting point for Canadian Helicopters' four-day mountain flying ground school: understanding airflow through mountainous terrain. The school employs the concept of a "demarcation line," the point at which smooth upflow over a mountain transitions into turbulent downflow. The location of this demarcation line depends on several factors - which includes the shape of the mountain, wind direction and wind velocity - but once pilots have an idea of where to expect it, they're halfway to knowing how to fly in the mountains.
In Helicopters: The British Columbia Story, Peter Corley-Smith quoted Bill McLeod, who learned to fly helicopters from Agar in 1949: "You see, the truth was, you had to learn a whole new ball game. Remember that in an airplane you're trained right from day one to approach a landing, and to take off, into wind. If you persist in this in a helicopter in mountain terrain, you're dead - you're going to kill yourself; it's just that simple. Because it means that if you're approaching a mountain and you're into wind, you're also in the downdraft. If you do that, pretty soon you'll find yourself looking up at the place you were going to land, instead of down at it. So you get a few more grey hairs and you scare yourself a couple of times, and you say, 'There's got to be a better way,' and you develop these ways."
The fundamental insight that allowed these pilots to thrive is that you'll get more aerodynamic efficiency from flying in upflow than from a direct headwind. If you want to further maximize your performance and conserve power usage - and these pilots had to - you should also fly a shallow approach, not a steep one. A high rate of descent established in a steep approach requires large collective inputs at termination. In a steep approach, you'll also lose effective translational lift (ETL) well above the surface - whereas in a shallow approach you'll pick up any benefits from ground effect before you lose the additional efficiency
that comes from ETL.
Then, there's the matter of drop-off. For Okanagan's pioneer pilots, maintaining drop-off was not just a good idea: it was a necessity. With marginal power reserves, they needed to have the ability to abort an approach until the very last moment. They landed close to ledges, so that on takeoff they could over-rev the engine, fling themselves over the sides and build up the airspeed they needed to fly away.
Some six decades later, of course, that
flinging takeoff is no longer a method advocated by the Canadian Helicopters School of Advanced Flight Training. But, in most other respects, its pilots still fly as if every landing and takeoff were absolutely critical - which, in the mountains, is
Over the past 58 years, the Penticton school has compiled these insights into a formal methodology for landing in the mountains. This includes a "contour crawl" to determine regions of upflow and downflow; establishing wind direction precisely through two straight-line reconnaissance passes; and flying an overshoot pass at a speed near translational lift to verify power reserves. Flown consistently, the methodology is as close to bulletproof as aviation gets. In fact, since the school was formally established in 1951, it hasn't had a single accident or incident in its thousands of hours of third-party revenue training.
"To conscientiously do it [employ these mountain procedures] would drastically reduce accidents and incidents," said Rustad. "To see it, you just need to look at the stacks and stacks of accident reports related to a basic lack of understanding of terrain airflow and mountain techniques."
Changing of the Guard
From the venerable Bell 47, the Penticton school moved into the Bell 206, and most of its training over the years has been done in JetRangers. Although the school still operates three JetRangers, it is now doing more and more of its training in the EC 120B, having acquired its first in late 2006 and its second last August. The shift to a Eurocopter trainer reflects the increasing
presence of Eurocopters in its parent company's fleet: Canadian Helicopters Limited currently operates more than 50 Eurocopter aircraft, mostly
AS 350 models.
With its modern instrumentation, ergonomic cockpit and reduced noise profile, the EC 120 is an ideal trainer. I flew it when I visited the school again in 2007, and have to admit it was a much more comfortable ride than the "JetBox." And, given that the mountain-flying course is not an easy one, the minimized pilot fatigue that comes from flying the 120 is a boon. Its chief drawback - limited power at altitude - can actually be seen as a training advantage: after all, the school was founded on the principles of maximizing available power through good flying techniques.
"As soon as we purchased the first one, we started to lay the groundwork for a new one," said Rustad of the EC 120B. "The guys just ate it up. They were dying for something new."
Today, in addition to Rustad, the school employs five instructors, who, on average, have accumulated more than 6,000 hours of mountain flying each. (The reputation of the school's instructors is one of its strengths: Rustad and instructor Mel Schiller are both former recipients of the HAI Outstanding Certified Flight Instructor Award.) Having trained more than 14,000 pilots since 1951, the school now focuses on third-party training and sees between 150 and 200 students per year. It recently won a new three-year contract to train Canadian Forces pilots, and it attracts military, government and civilian pilots from around the world.
"I'm currently really pleased with the way the school is evolving," Rustad told Vertical in February at Heli-Expo. And, with the Eurocopter endorsement announced at Anaheim, the school should begin to get the wider international exposure it deserves.
Thanks to the country's strong mountain-flying tradition, the techniques taught in Penticton are widely practiced in Canada, but they're still little known outside of it. From my own experience, I can say that many new pilots in the U.S. never receive mountain training at all (beyond the FAA's general guidance to fly steep approaches on the lee side of pinnacles). Too many pilots are forced to learn mountain flying on the job: a risky and ineffective way of "reinventing the wheel."
"A lot of people don't understand the problems of mountain flying," said Rustad. "Would you send pilots on an IFR [instrument flight rules] flight without instrument training? Of course not; so why would you send them into the mountains without a mountain course?"
The first dawn-to-dusk trans-Canada flight was completed by J.H. Tudhop and J.D. Hunter in July 1937. The journey, between Montreal and Vancouver, took the pair 17 hours and 35 minutes. www.canadiangeographic.ca