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For most helicopter pilots, learning how to fly a helicopter is one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. Few accomplishments are as satisfying as mastering the art of hovering, and once we’ve done that, the world becomes forever divided into those who can hover and those who cannot, with ourselves among the privileged few who can. The ability to fly a helicopter is not just a skill set — it is, for many of us, our identity.
And then, after one or five or 15 years of feeling comfortable in that identity, some of us will fly our first long line. After hundreds or thousands of hours in the air with our head up, looking forward, we now try leaning out the side of the aircraft, looking down. Our heading drifts. The aircraft wobbles. Suddenly our identity falls to pieces, because any casual observer would doubt that we know how to fly at all.
This is the frustrating, ego-bruising, addictively challenging experience that awaits any pilot who seeks a career in the utility helicopter industry. And it was the experience that awaited me last year, when I signed up for an 11-day vertical reference long line course at Volo Mission in Campbell, Texas.
I already had a few hours of long line training here and there (see p.64, Vertical, June-July 2012), although never enough to feel even close to proficient at it. Yet proficiency is what Volo Mission founders Kim and Andre Hutchings promise to students who complete their full course in a Robinson R44 (and to the employers who might be sponsoring their training).
The 20-flight-hour course is designed to bring helicopter pilots with zero vertical reference time to a point where they can safely go to work with a long line — maybe not with the speed or finesse of more experienced pilots, but with the ability to place any basic load exactly where they need to.
When three of us showed up for orientation on a cold, windy morning in mid-November, Hutchings assured us that by the end of the course, we would be using a 150-foot (45-meter) long line to place an air conditioning unit in the bed of a pickup truck (without knocking out any windows or errant bystanders, in case you’re imagining what I was).
Hard as it was then to believe, he wasn’t wrong. But getting to that point was an excruciating process: physically draining, psychologically taxing and, ultimately, richly gratifying.
It was, in fact, like learning to fly all over again.
Going into the Volo Mission course, I already knew from first-hand experience that Hutchings was qualified to teach it. Hutchings is a long-time pilot for Columbia Helicopters; currently, when he’s not teaching pilots how to long line, he’s managing Columbia’s contract operations in Afghanistan.
Back in 2010, I signed on with Columbia to write about the experience of flying the Model 234 Chinook as a co-pilot. That summer, I spent a week working with Hutchings in Kearney, Nebraska, watching gauges and making notes on a clipboard as Hutchings leaned out the left-side bubble window, setting 12,000-pound (5,400-kilogram) transmission towers to rebuild a power line that had been knocked down in a windstorm.
The Chinook is comparable in length to a Greyhound bus, but in Hutchings’ hands, it seemed as nimble as an MD 500. Not that the construction workers on the ground were particularly impressed — they took it for granted that every helicopter pilot has such exceptional vertical reference skills. I had to explain to them that well, no, actually we don’t.
Back then, Hutchings was already teaching a long line course at Los Angeles Helicopters in Long Beach, California. He and his wife, Kim, launched Volo Mission in 2014 in order to take that training to the next level. They purchased a rural property in Campbell, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Dallas, and set about creating the ultimate long line obstacle course.
Students at the Volo Mission “ranch” progress through a series of increasingly difficult challenges: from placing loads within spacious rings in wide-open fields, to threading them through narrow gaps in between 50-foot (15-meter) mesquite trees. A wide variety of props allow students to practice realistic mission scenarios, including setting an AC unit on bolts, and lifting a Stokes litter out of a confined area. And simple log helipads are everywhere, because students perform a vertical reference landing on logs at the end of every flight.
While Volo Mission training is designed to impart a high level of technical skill, Kim and Andre have placed just as much emphasis on developing their students’ mental games. Volo Mission aims to create not just long line pilots, but long line professionals: pilots who don’t take shortcuts, who strive for perfection, and who are diligent about managing the risks associated with these uniquely unforgiving operations.
Here, the company has benefitted from Kim’s extensive academic background in psychology and human factors. Volo Mission takes a conscious, methodical approach to teaching good habits and decision-making, both on the ground and in the air. It’s a far cry from how many pilots in the industry learned how to long line: by just throwing a line on their helicopter, and struggling to figure it out.
Volo Mission’s official motto is “Prepare. Execute. Succeed.” But its unofficial motto has to be “Dig deep!”
Are you pouring sweat as you attempt to extricate your long line from the evil thorny branches of a mesquite tree? “Dig deep!” comes the voice of Andre Hutchings in your ear.
Or perhaps you’re exhausted after a particularly punishing flight, and struggling to align your skids with the orange paint marks on your landing pad’s heel log. “Dig deep!” Hutchings helpfully advises.
My introduction to the “dig deep” concept started on Day 1, with our first lesson at Majors Field in Greenville, Texas, a 15-minute drive west of the Volo Mission ranch. Hutchings starts all of his courses here, not only because it’s easier for out-of-town students to find on Google Maps, but also because its large paved ramp area provides a safe place for students to practice vertical reference landings before moving on to the log helipads.
On that first morning, I was feeling pretty good about my prospects, since I already had a bit of long line time under my belt. But I had never done a vertical reference landing before; even with a line on, I had always just shifted my gaze forward prior to touching down.
That wasn’t going to work for what Hutchings wanted us to do, which was hover the aircraft around a square marked in orange chalk, and touch our skids on the corner of each square at the point of the rear crosstube. To see when the crosstube was over the chalk, we had to be looking down and back — and that was hard. Really hard.
Sitting in the left seat of the R44 with the doors removed, my head craned around and down, I quickly lost all sense of a horizon. The helicopter would begin to wobble and I’d have to look up to regain control. Then I would slowly try again… and lose it all over again. It was exactly like learning how to hover for the first time, except that the instructor who would take the controls and steady the aircraft was my forward-facing self.
“But I know how to hover!” I wanted to exclaim. “It must be the wind! Or this T-bar cyclic!”
“We’ve heard all of the excuses,” Hutchings told us, as he and instructor pilot Jordan Wilson took turns riding along on these agonizing short flights. “You don’t have to make excuses. It’s just hard.” To learn how to do a vertical reference landing, we would need to keep our frustration in check, keep our focus, and keep trying. We would need, in other words, to “Dig deep.”
Once we made it out to the ranch, the practical benefit of this orange square exercise became clear. All of the helipads at the ranch consist of two flat, parallel log beams, either buried in the ground or elevated with cross beams. To make a stable landing on these platforms, it’s essential to align the heel of the skids just so.
“The whole idea of vertical reference using this kind of system is to be able to land the aircraft in a tight spot with a solid heading,” Hutchings explained. While many pilots use mirrors to accomplish the same thing, practicing vertical reference landings on the ground also helps develop your seating position and scan in the air.
“We know that not everyone’s going to land on a log helipad in their careers, more than likely, but this just reinforces the vertical reference techniques,” Hutchings said. “We make you look aft [at the skid], so it forces you to look down.”
Jumping into the deep end
We spent a lot of time during the course looking down — way, way down. Most pilots learn how to long line on a 100-foot (30-meter) line, which is challenging enough for beginners. When they’re comfortable with that, maybe they’ll move on to a 150-foot line. Some pilots never encounter a need for anything more.
Hutchings takes a radically different approach to long line training: he starts everyone out on a 200-foot line and works down from there. His rationale is that if you start out with a very long line, you’ll never be intimidated by the prospect of flying one; you’ll never try to get away with a shorter one when a 200-foot line would keep you safely clear of trees. And if it means a little more frustration at the front end, well, “Dig deep!”
Before we flew the line, we spent time on the ground learning how to preflight it, how to conduct hook checks, and the basic hand signals and procedures we would use while acting as ground crew. With three of us in the course, each of us spent twice as much time performing ground crew duties as we did flying the aircraft — an arrangement that was extremely helpful in understanding the big picture of long line operations.
From the ground, we could see what it looked like when our classmates came in too fast or slow, too high or low, giving us ideas for how to refine our own approaches on our next flights. And in the air, working with inexperienced crews revealed any number of ways in which ground crews can help or hinder an operation, driving home the importance of thorough briefings and clear communication on any job involving ground personnel.
Having three of us in the course also allowed us to rotate through the aircraft and break up our flight time into manageable chunks, while still completing long, productive days. That was essential, because early in the process of learning how to long line, even 30 minutes in the air can be utterly draining, with every muscle in your body tightly clenched, no matter how much you tell yourself to relax.
When I got out of the helicopter after my first short flight with a 200-foot line, I felt like I had just spent two hours at the gym, doing leg and bench presses. It was exactly how I had felt after my very first helicopter lessons, back when I was working toward my first 10 hours of flight time.
We started our long line training with simple approaches and hook shots to our classmates on the ground. We also practiced “walking the line,” in which one of us on the ground would hold onto the hook and walk it from one location to another, while using hand signals to tell the pilot flying whether it was too high or too low. This was not a particularly relaxing exercise, but great for developing line control and depth perception.
Once we got the hang of hook shots, we started flying basic loads: a logging choker, three empty barrels on a sling, three empty barrels in a net. By the fourth day of our course, our approaches weren’t stellar, but we could all manage to place our loads within a 10-foot (three-meter) ring. Hutchings then swapped us over to a 150-foot line, which we used for the rest of the course.
We also began flying loads into confined areas, beginning with fairly open areas surrounded by friendly juniper trees. Friendly, because if you happened to brush your barrels against them, the trees would respond with a light springiness, often nudging the barrels in the direction they needed to go. Not so with the mesquite trees that surrounded the more challengingly confined areas. Brush your barrels against these, and the load would begin spinning uncontrollably, usually tangling your line in the trees in the process.
This was the stage of the course in which expletives began flowing more freely.
Getting over the hump
Hutchings is well aware that 20 hours of flight time can seem excessive, when most initial long line training is accomplished in closer to 10 (and Volo Mission does, in fact, offer a 10-hour “Fundamentals” course for those without the time or budget for the full curriculum). For me, the halfway point of the course was the most frustrating time, because I was acutely aware that in a normal training program, I would already be signed off.
In a normal training program, placing your load within a 10-foot circle is good enough.
In a normal training program, brushing your hook on the ground is not cause for a go-around.
In a normal training program, you can pile your synthetic line in a heap at the end of each flight, rather than having to lay it out in neat parallel lines.
In a normal training program, you can land on a flat surface, looking straight ahead.
After 10 hours of flight time, I could do most of the things that beginning long line pilots are expected to be able to do. But I had to admit that I wasn’t totally confident in these maneuvers — and I certainly wasn’t meeting Volo Mission’s standards. The prospect of long-lining an AC unit into the bed of a pickup truck still seemed very far away.
Over the next few days, it didn’t really seem like I was making progress, because Hutchings kept dialing up the pressure. We started flying loads into exceptionally confined areas. We flew a more complex two-part load — consisting of a heavy log beam slung underneath a barrel — which we had to pick up and set down slowly, while holding just the right amount of tension in the line. We flew a Stokes litter with the same care we would take if there were a patient inside (well, we tried to).
We learned what it was like to fly in flat light and gusty winds. We flew late into each day, and learned the limits of relying on shadows for depth cues as the sun sank below the treeline.
Every day of the course brought new challenges and new frustrations, and yet somehow things started to click. By the 11th and final day of the course, all three of us could do everything Hutchings asked us to do: set an AC unit on bolts and in the bed of that pickup truck; place a replica power pole into a hole just large enough to accommodate it; long line a four-wheeler into and out of a confined area; and place barrels into “The Hole,” an impossibly small opening in a thick grove of mesquite trees.
None of us did these things with ease, but by that point we had come to realize that long lining never really gets “easy” — there’s no level of experience at which you can afford to let your attention drift with a load at the end of the line. And while we still had a lot to learn, we were no longer intimidated by the prospect of learning it, because we now had a basic toolkit of skills and concepts to fall back on when the going got tough.
That felt good, really good. It felt, in fact, like becoming a pilot all over again.