It's a no-brainer…what works on a smooth runway will not always work somewhere else. Think about it: If the helicopter's skids get caught up on something, the helicopter will flip over. Sgt. Standridge trained our pilots in full down autorotation by teaching them to pick a spot, head there by any means possible (glide, corkscrew, left and right turns, etc.), flaring at the end to stop forward motion, leveling off, and bringing the bird straight down. While we never went all the way to the ground (the instructor would kick back power at the last minute), we still made all those twists and turns and flared at the end to a hover. Shy of crashing, it was as real as it gets.
I thought this type of training was the norm. I figured since we ground pounders use realism when we train, pilots must do the same. To my dismay, my 15 year plus pilots said it was the first time they had trained to this level. Let's face it; pilots fly in support of road patrol units. If the aircrew is flying a search pattern in a sub-division at 1,000 feet and the engine goes south, they have approximately 12 seconds to land. In a subdivision, that may very well mean setting down in someone's backyard. They need to train to that end, not do bare bones training that merely constitutes a check on some form.
In our primary drill, the instructor would cut engine power to simulate engine failure and pick a spot nearby. He would then twist and turn and do whatever it took to get there. He showed how to increase airspeed and gain distance. He made our helicopter dance, which gave us a deeper appreciation for the OH-58. When it was our pilots' turn they did quite well for the first time.
From a 1,000-foot orbit, the instructor would cut power to the engine and make the pilot count for two seconds to simulate the "WTF" factor. The pilot would then flare the helicopter by pointing the nose up to the sky, which made the helicopter feel like it was floating in the air. To make it more challenging, our instructor would pick out and call the spot. Next, the pilot would put the nose back down and do whatever maneuver he had to, to get the helicopter down to the chosen spot.
As the pilot got closer, the instructor would kick the power back up. The pilot would then flare the helicopter again, killing the forward momentum, and settle the helicopter to a hover over the target spot. We never actually came down all the way but it was close enough. After a few tries, all of my pilots was doing the maneuvers like they had been doing them all their lives. It was truly a tribute to their skill. They each walked away with a new confidence level. One of our pilots said that prior to this training, he was always left with doubts. This observation points to the fact that training should never leave anyone with doubts. Get this point now and help save lives: realistic training yields real world results.
It's All About the Instructor
Those that would argue against this level of helicopter training will say it's too dangerous and not worth the risk. It is true that between 1999 and 2005, law enforcement helicopter aviation suffered 86 accidents, of which 23 were from engine failure and an additional 14 were from autorotation training. I suggest these numbers encourage more training and not less. It's not the training but the skill level of the instructor that's the key. For two days and without question, Sgt. Standridge drove that point home for me. Through training all five of my pilots, we never had a mishap or even came close.
An article written by Keith Johnson, the current Airborne Law Enforcement Association safety program manager, suggests the same thing. In the association's Air Beat May/June 2010 magazine issue he wrote, "Most autorotation accidents occur when an instructor does not take control of the aircraft soon enough to avoid an accident. This is often the result of the instructor not having the skill and experience to avoid the mishap."
In these lean times, I hope that bean counters aren't placing budgets over critical training. The loss of human life, inherent property damage, and the accompanying lawsuit will far outweigh the cost of instruction. It’s the failure to train that results in the failure to perform.
Training is Everything
In September 2007, after reviewing crash data, the U.S. Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team submitted a report to the International Helicopter Safety Team that included a recommendation to "improve primary and recurrent autorotation training." I take that to mean they recommended doing more of this type of training and not less.
My experience has taught me that training is everything. The closer you train to real-world conditions the better prepared you will be to handle them. The reality is that whether you’re prepared or not, you're still responsible.
Amaury Murgado is a retired Army Reserve master sergeant with more than 30 years of martial arts training who currently serves as the special operations lieutenant for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office in Kissimmee, Florida.
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