How Orbic Helicopters is producing highly trained student pilots

Over the last 30 years, Ken Obi, owner of Orbic Helicopters, has built and maintained a reputation for exceptional flight training and helicopter flight services in Southern California. His company’s development owes much to Obi’s own reputation as a pilot — he has recorded more than 18,000 flight hours, and 13,000 of those spent training pilots in Robinson helicopters.

Orbic has four different Robinson aircraft in its fleet: the R22, R44 Raven II, R44 Cadet, and R66 Turbine. Skip Robinson Photo
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Obi’s love of helicopters began early. “I took a helicopter demo flight when I was 20 years old and got hooked on helicopters at that moment,” he said. “I obtained my private airplane license at Santa Monica Airport and continued on to a commercial helicopter license and CFI [certified flight instructor] at Van Nuys Airport.”

In 1990, Obi took over a failing flight school at Van Nuys Airport, near Los Angeles. His goal was to produce the safest, best-trained student pilots possible. “I have found that flying with pilots from all over the world, with varying degrees of experience — from private to military trained — taught me a lot and made me a much better instructor and pilot,” said Obi.

In 2005, Obi relocated Orbic to Camarillo Airport, located about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, in Ventura County. Orbic moved into a freestanding office/hangar facility which has fit the company’s needs ever since. Camarillo is a great environment for helicopter flight training. Weather-wise, it is flyable almost 365 days a year, other than some early-morning fog during spring and fall. The average daily temperature is very consistent — 19 C (66 F) in winter and 23 C (73 F) in the summer. It rarely gets cold and the only snow is in the mountains. The airport is easy to access, with local accommodations, food, shopping and the beach only a few miles away.

The Orbic fleet assembles outside the company’s hangar at Camarillo Airport. Skip Robinson Photo

“My goal since day one has been to produce pilots with excellent skills and, in particular, proper judgment,” said Obi. “Helicopters are interesting machines with the ability to land offsite, in the mountains and other places a fixed-wing pilot will never experience. These new (or old) pilots need to be able to recognize a bad situation and how to avoid it. This is what we try to do — have our students think things through and make the right call, hopefully every time. A smart pilot is a safe pilot. We feel preventing accidents is best for Orbic, the student and the helicopter industry as a whole.”

Obi became a Robinson pilot safety course instructor in 2002, although he hung up his khaki-colored flight suit in 2017 to focus on company operations. Robinson was sorry to see him go.
“Ken Obi is one of the most competent, sincere flight instructors I have encountered in my 48 years of flying,” said Tim Tucker, Robinson’s chief safety instructor. “His knowledge, proficiency and professionalism while a Robinson safety course instructor reflects great credit on himself, Robinson Helicopter Company, and the entire helicopter instructor community.”

Orbic currently operates a Robinson R22, R44 Cadet, R44 Raven I, R44 Raven II, and two R66 Turbines. Also in the fleet is a Bell 47G3B-1 and a bright yellow Magni Gyro M16 autogyro. For twin-engine training, Orbic operates a Leonardo AW109E Power.

The Magni Gyro M16 autogyro cruises at between 75 and 95 miles per hour, with over three hours’ endurance. Skip Robinson Photo

The Bell 47G3B-1 is the latest addition to Orbic’s fleet and is Obi’s personal helicopter. The aircraft will not be used for flight training but will be available to the public for tours or pleasure flights. This Bell 47 has passed through a couple of owners in the last 20 years, and each has kept it in pristine condition. With a full custom leather interior and a nice suppressed exhaust, the helicopter flies like it’s made of one piece. “This was a present to myself,” said Obi. “It really flies beautifully and is a superb example of the breed.”

Orbic’s newest venture is a program to train people to fly autogyros, in particular the Magni M16 Tandem Trainer. This Italian aircraft cruises between 75 and 95 miles per hour (120 and 150 kilometers an hour) and has well over three hours’ endurance. A transition to this machine takes eight to 12 hours for a trained helicopter pilot. The cost per hour is reasonable, and Orbic feels it will be a popular addition to its normal helicopter flight training.

Excellent training facilities

Orbic’s location is another of the company’s key assets. “Camarillo is like an oasis for GA [general aviation] flying,” said Orbic manager Sheila Collier, a commercial helicopter pilot and former Orbic student. A former US Air Force base, Camarillo transitioned into a civilian airfield during the 1970s. With the Greater L.A. area’s relentless outward expansion, what was once a quiet airfield adjacent to a sleepy farming community is now ideally positioned to serve as a hub for the region’s GA activities.

This immaculate Bell 47G3B-1 is Ken Obi’s pride and joy. The aircraft is available for rides and flight tours, but not training. Skip Robinson Photo

“There are so many reasons for an aspiring pilot to choose Camarillo,” said Collier. “We’ve got a wonderful training environment. We have a helipad on the north side of the field with its own traffic pattern where students can get airborne and be practicing maneuvers in less than two minutes — without having to commute to a practice area or queue up with fixed-wing aircraft. We’ve got two civilian airfields and a military field within a few minutes’ flight.”

The airfield also functions as a sort of self-contained aviation community. In addition to playing host to a variety of fixed-base operators and multiple flight schools, Camarillo is home to several useful services and attractions.

“We’ve got a medical examiner and computerized testing facility on the field,” said Collier. “It’s very convenient for our students.” But Camarillo is not merely a utilitarian place. “We have the best airport restaurant I’ve ever encountered,” said Collier, referring to Waypoint Cafe, a local hotspot that draws crowds of both pilots and area residents.

Ken Obi (center), owner of Orbic Helicopters, has recorded more than 18,000 flight hours, and 13,000 of those have been spent training pilots in Robinson helicopters. Skip Robinson Photo

Camarillo’s advantages aren’t limited to the airport environment, either. “We’ve also got a tremendous variety of flight environments for our students to learn in,” said Collier. “To the southeast and west, we’ve got the beaches and the sea, the Santa Monica mountains, Malibu, Santa Barbara — all beautiful scenery, whether it’s for our tour customers, renters or a solo cross-country flight. To the north, we’ve got mountains ranging from 1,500 feet [460 meters] all the way up to 8,000 feet [2,440 meters]. So on the one hand, most of our training flights can be done around sea level, allowing plenty of safety margin. But if we want to practice high DA [density altitude] maneuvers, we can be doing mountain flying well above the engine’s critical altitude in about 20 minutes.”

And, of course, there’s always the L.A. basin itself. Located about a 45-minute drive up the coast from Malibu, and just down the hill from quiet enclaves like Hidden Valley, Orbic’s Camarillo operation is well-positioned not only to provide helicopter services to residents of Malibu, Santa Monica, and West L.A., but also to provide its students with experience navigating some of the busiest airspace in the U.S.

“We always give our students some exposure to flying the basin — it’s a great confidence booster,” Collier said. She would know; in recent years, Collier has worked the basin, flying helicopter tours out of Van Nuys airport. “If you can successfully navigate the basin, you’ll have the confidence to fly pretty much anywhere in America,” she said.

Orbic is an FAA-approved part 145 repair station for all Robinson models, so all maintance is done in house. Skip Robinson Photo

Orbic was founded as a flight school, and remains focused primarily on providing high-quality, practical flight training.

“We have four instructors, including Ken Obi,” said instructor Charles Robinson. “Aside from Ken having 18,000 flight hours, we all have between 2,000 and 6,000 flight hours, and can offer a large variety of helicopter training for the hobbyist or for anyone seeking a career in aviation.” This includes ratings from private through certified flight instructor — instrument, touchdown autorotations, and recurrent training, as well as training courses for insurance requirements, foreign students and private owners.

The company also offers turbine transition training and twin-engine helicopter training. Orbic often performs specialized training with police department and public agencies for initial and recurrent training. “Orbic’s been around so long that many local police air support units use us for their training,” said Robinson. “We also do flight training with police departments from outside of the U.S. Recently, we started a program with the Ventura County fire and sheriff departments, providing flight training to the crew chiefs. In the event the pilot becomes incapacitated, the crew chief is able to fly the aircraft to provide time for the pilot to recover or, in a worst case, land the helicopter if the pilot is unable.”

Instructor Julian Byrne talks students through a ground school lesson in Orbic’s classroom. Skip Robinson Photo

Spreading its wings

Orbic’s mission profile has expanded over the years. In addition to its flight training operations, it is also a certified part 135 air carrier and air taxi operator, and Orbic pilots perform scenic tours, passenger-carrying charter flights, aerial surveys, aerial photography and video production work.
Orbic’s exposure to a variety of jobs in multiple fields is good for both the company and its pilots.

“Flight instruction is fantastic for keeping pilots’ aircraft-handling skills sharp,” said company flight instructor Julian Byrne. “But it can also be limiting. If you spend too much time doing the same six tasks in the same familiar area, it’s easy to become too comfortable. Your handling skills may be excellent, but you get too accustomed to the same routines, the same radio calls, the same landmarks and weather patterns. . . . Getting away from the usual training environment and focusing on different tasks helps maintain pilots’ real-world PIC abilities.”

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Byrne said Orbic’s pilots were lucky in being well-positioned to take on a variety of aerial work. “We’re a stone’s throw from the L.A. basin, so we have all sorts of customers. You might be flying frost control for a local farmer one week, and flying clients out to Palm Springs or filming a sports broadcast the next.”

Orbic operates the extremely speedy Leonardo AW109, as well as the slightly more pedestrian Bell 47. Skip Robinson Photo

The company’s operations routinely take its aircraft as far as San Francisco or Las Vegas — and sometimes even further. “I ferried a machine down from Alaska last November,” said Byrne.

“It breaks things up, helps expand people’s horizons a bit, keeps us sharp. You can study training materials and practice maneuvers as much as you like, but there’s no substitute for getting out in the real world and putting theory into practice. You learn a lot about the aircraft, the environment, and about yourself.”

Orbic’s students also benefit from their instructors’ experiences in the field and, occasionally, they can find themselves in a position to do some real-world flying of their own. “We try and include students in our work wherever we can,” said Byrne. “Any time we’re looking at flying an otherwise empty ship, we’ll try and offer that extra seat to a student — ferry legs, frost control, things like that. The students really love it, and it’s great to expose them to new environments. It’s eye-opening and can be a real confidence booster for them.”

The R44 Cadet and R66 are both very popular training aircraft. Orbic has two R66s in its fleet. Skip Robinson Photo

Orbic has been a Robinson Helicopter authorized dealer and service center since 2005. It is also a Federal Aviation Administration-approved part 145 repair station for all Robinson models, so all maintenance is done in house. “We have complete quality control on our helicopters’ maintenance, and I make sure that is kept to a very high standard,” said Obi. “Since we fly every model of Robinson, we know each inside and out.”

Obi remains a loyal supporter of the Robinson brand. “I’ve flown these my entire career and have a lot of confidence in every model,” he said. “The R22s are a very simple design, but robust in operation and able to go to overhaul with very few problems. When the R44 came out, it gave operators additional seats and more capability. For more than 25 years, they have proven to be one of the most useful helicopters ever designed.”

Instructor Charles Robinson prepares a helicopter for a training flight. Skip Robinson Photo

Orbic plans to stay the course as it moves forward. It will continue to train students to the highest standard at an airport with year-round consistent weather. The Robinson line of helicopters will stay, with possibly a few additions, and its professional pilots are always in demand for many film, production and utility jobs.

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