If you’re about to begin your training for a helicopter pilot career than congratulations are in order. Learning to fly a helicopter is like trying to balance a basketball on a broom handle until the one day when everything clicks.
When you begin your training you’ll have to choose a school based on cost, the instructors, and the helicopters used for training. Currently there are three helicopters used by most flight schools. They are the Robinson R-22, the Schweizer 300, and the Bell 47. Each aircraft is piston powered and each has its strengths and weaknesses.
The Robinson R-22, designed by Frank Robinson and built by the Robinson Helicopter Company, is by far the most widely used helicopter in the flight training industry. In fact because of its low acquisition and operating costs the R-22 is the top selling civil helicopter in the world. The newest version of the R-22, the R-22 Beta II, improves on previous versions by adding items such as a rotor brake, an auxiliary fuel tank, an engine speed governor and an increase in engine horsepower.
For purposes of instruction the Robinson is a superb machine. It’s very responsive. Some has criticized this characteristic because it leaves students with less of a margin for error. Others say the responsiveness of the helicopter is a good thing because students don’t develop bad habits that have to be broken when they transition into more powerful machines. As a whole, students who did their initial training in a Robinson are better able to handle the transition to larger and more powerful aircraft.
The Schweizer Aircraft Company builds the Schweizer 300. The newest variant of the Schweizer 300 is the Schweizer 300 CBi. The CBi’s most notable changes are the use of fuel injection, which prevents carburetor icing, rotor overspeed protection and a low rotor RPM warning system.
The Schweizer has a wider cockpit than the Robinson. It has great visibility especially towards the rear. It is more forgiving than the Robinson, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Because of it easy handling characteristics it’s easier for students who are just beginning to fly but those same characteristics that make it easy to fly make it more difficult for students who transition into more powerful aircraft.
The Bell 47, built by Bell Helicopter, is the granddaddy of this group. The Bell 47 was developed during the Korean War. Though it’s not used as a trainer as often as it once was, there are schools that instruct in the venerable Bell. The 47 has a large cockpit with a wide bubble canopy, which affords it excellent visibility. The Bell 47 is a good training helicopter but the limited availability of parts makes it an increasingly rare sight at flight schools and airfields around the country.
All of these helicopters are suitable for training. What you need to do is ask yourself what you plan to do when you finish training. Most students become flight instructors when they finish training and since Robinson dominates the light helicopter and training markets it might make more sense to have your initial instruction done in a Robinson.
Regardless of the path you choose, learning to fly a helicopter is an experience you won’t soon forget.