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When searching for helicopter flight training, there are several factors to consider. For some students, cost and convenience are the deciding factors, but what about the experience and commitment of instructors, course structure, training environment, aircraft make, model, availability and maintenance? Not all flight schools are created equal, and neither are all flight instructors.
In Southern California, one relatively small flight school has some special features that have been attracting students from around the globe for over 30 years. Civic Helicopters, based at Palomar Airport in northern San Diego County, offers the full gamut of helicopter flight training and is home to a small cadre of carefully selected and uniquely experienced instructors.
In addition to year-round nearly perfect flying weather, Civic’s proximity to miles of Pacific Ocean shoreline, rolling coastal foothills, mountains and deserts, provides students with beautiful and diverse training environments that are far removed from busy airport traffic patterns. However, it may be the wisdom and reputation of owner and lead instructor, Chin Tu, that continues to lure new students and brings alumni back for more.
Tu has been instructing helicopter pilots for more than 40 years. It may sound a bit cliché, but teaching really is his passion. He instills into his fellow instructors the objective of “saving one pilot at a time.” Even after all these years, and more than 26,000 hours as a certified flight instructor and certified flight instructor -instrument (CFI/CFII), Tu remains hands-on in the cockpit with his students.
Tu was born in China, but immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan as a teenager in 1965. There, he pursued his dream of flying and attaining his private and commercial pilot certificates. Drafted into the U.S. military in January 1970, he served with the Army’s 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, maintaining and test-flying the Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” in Vietnam.
When he left the Army in 1973, Tu worked at Hughes Helicopters in Culver City, California, manufacturer of the Hughes Model 269, Hughes 300, and Hughes Model 369 (OH-6/Hughes 500) light helicopters.
Initially, Tu worked in administration in the manufacturing operations division. In 1979, he was reassigned to the company’s flight department as an operations fixed-wing pilot. His role was ferrying personnel between the Culver City manufacturing/assembly plant and test facilities at Palomar Airport and Mesa, Arizona. He later moved to helicopter production, flight testing the Hughes 269 and 369, and also provided flight support during flight testing of the Model 77/YAH-64, which became the AH-64 Apache.
By 1987, Hughes had sold the helicopter product line and manufacturing was taken over by Boeing and MD Helicopters in Mesa. Tu chose to leave the company, unwilling to uproot his family from their home in California.
Establishing a company
Back home in familiar surroundings at the Palomar Airport, he worked briefly at a small flight school until it closed and Tu took over some of the assets — acquiring two Hughes 300s that became the cornerstone of his own new business, Civic Helicopters.
Instead of promoting the company as a full-service commercial operation, Tu focused on helicopter flight training.
The following year, the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) approached Civic with what became an important opportunity for the small flight school. The agency acquired two Bell 206s during a property seizure in a criminal case and created the SDPD Airborne Law Enforcement (ABLE) program. Civic provided training for pilots and guidance as the unit developed. The success of the contract and the stature ABLE would eventually earn among law enforcement operators gave Civic valuable industry exposure.
One of the first SDPD pilots to train was Kevin Means. Throughout his career, Means spent considerable time training with Tu before retiring in 2013 as the agency’s chief pilot.
“I have nothing but praise for Chin Tu. I have met very few helicopter pilots in this world that are as knowledgeable and as skillful,” said Means. “He’s one of the smartest, most natural pilots I have ever seen. I feel so fortunate to have trained under him.”
While Tu’s knowledge and competency as a flight instructor made him sought after by domestic students, his fluency in his native language, Mandarin, put him in a unique position and made him highly sought after by a rapidly emerging international market.
Over the past 10 years, China’s civil helicopter market has experienced remarkable growth. The number of civil aircraft registrations has swelled with an annual growth of nearly 20 percent. Also, the Chinese government entices original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to bring production facilities to their shores.
As a result, Chinese operators and students are scrambling to identify sources for primary and advanced flight training. Tu believes language is the biggest hurdle for foreign students, and competent Mandarin-speaking flight instructors are key to ensuring their success.
Civic’s reputation and capabilities are well known in the Chinese helicopter community. Organizations including the Shanghai Municipal Police and the Civil Aviation Flight University of China (CAFUC) have contracted with Civic for all levels of flight instruction. CAFUC, an institution similar to, but larger than, Embry-Riddle, has cycled their entire cadre of helicopter flight instructors through Civic, to improve their knowledge, flying and teaching skills.
Tu also aided the Chinese in developing a helicopter safety program to address an alarming trend of accidents associated with pilot error.
A family business
Tu’s daughter, Candise, is Civic’s vice president of operations, a helicopter CFI, and is fluent in Mandarin. Since 2011, she has spent considerable time working in China to promote helicopter safety.
“Being able to speak Chinese, being a flight instructor and understanding the culture, we are better able to assess a student’s level of understanding and determine what method of training best suits them,” said Candise. “We use that approach with all students.”
In 2018, Robinson Helicopter introduced Tu as the company’s director of flight safety for China. He and Robinson chief instructor Tim Tucker traveled to China to visit Robinson dealers, and announce Robinson’s international safety course would be provided by Tu in China. More recently, Candise was brought on board as a Robinson’s safety course instructor.
Civic’s operation base remains at Palomar Airport. While Federal Aviation Administration part 61 and the more structured and regulated part 141 operations are the primary focus for instruction, limited single pilot part 135 charter work is available using an R44. The business is also an authorized service center for Robinson and Schweizer RSG helicopters.
In addition to Tu and Candise, there are eight full- and part-time instructors, including current and former military pilots; some with more than 1,000 hours of instruction experience.
Nancy Baccheschi is one of Civic’s instructors. An active duty United States Air Force LCol, she also attended Civic as a student.
“I was an instructor flight test engineer at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (TPS) in 2013,” she said. “The school contracted with Civic to bring an R44 up to fly with the TPS students. The next week I was down at Civic doing my first flight toward my private license. I enjoyed flying so much, especially flying at Civic. I felt comfortable with the helicopters and had faith in the maintenance standards, so I just kept going. Ten months after my first flight toward my private license, I had my CFI and began flying for Civic.”
Another home-grown instructor is Andrea Tornielli. Italian-born-and-raised, he earned his commercial, instrument, CFI, CFII and Airline Transport Pilot ratings while training at Civic.
“The safety culture at Civic is a reflection of the way Chin flies,” said Tornielli. “It has always struck me, seeing the connection that he has with the helicopter, while he demonstrates emergencies and his ability to break down difficult concepts in ways that everyone can understand — he’s the backbone of the school.”
Ying “Sunnie” Xie is one of Civic’s Chinese students. She has earned her private and commercial ratings and is working toward her CFI.
“The first time I came to Civic was in 2013 with my dad for his emergency training with Chin,” she said. “I guess my dad always wanted me to get my own license at Civic, ever since he saw how extraordinarily well Chin flies, takes care of the aircraft and runs the whole business.”
An evolving fleet
Civic’s primary training fleet consists of five Robinson R22s and three R44s. Two Schweizer 300Cs are also available, typically used by law enforcement pilots and other students going back to fly a fully articulated rotor system. They also operate a Bell 206B-3 and a Bell 505 Jet Ranger X.
Tu is excited about the potential of the 505, pointing out the aircraft’s more spacious cabin, glass cockpit and available power over the legacy 206 series. While the 505 is new in the market, it has already been sold in large numbers in China, with predictions for many more to follow over the next five years.
However, he believes some of the 505’s controls and instrumentation — including the dual full authority digital engine control, two-position fly/idle throttle, and glass cockpit — will require carefully developed course content, especially for foreign students, in order to accurately describe and teach the 505’s idiosyncrasies and operational best practices.
With his test-flying background, Tu was inspired to develop what he believes are improved procedures for the 505. For example, on approach to landing in a classic in-flight tail rotor failure situation, the right yaw cannot be managed using traditional methods prior to touchdown because the 505 has no manual throttle. Tu’s technique takes advantage of what he describes as “predictable and dependable” engine torque reduction that occurs when the throttle is switched to idle.
Another recurring problem for pilots, which affects all makes and models of helicopters, is the loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE).
“Chin has realized that in the timeframe available to teach pilots emergency procedures, there is a lot of confusion that was never fully clarified for the pilots in training, and there are misconceptions,” said Candise. “For instance, many pilots have never seen a demonstration of recovery from LTE in a cockpit and have never performed a recovery in training.”
Tu ensures every pilot earning a rating or certificate at Civic experiences the phenomenon, first recognizing the eminent LTE condition, and then acting to prevent it, learn and practice recovery procedures for LTE at hovering and in slow flight.
“It’s only a matter of time before LTE catches up with any one of us at the worst moment,” he said. “The very recent accident with the Bell 206 that went into the Hudson River is already being used as an example when discussing LTE with our students and instructors, and also a testament to how much of an issue this is.”
He believes there is considerable room for improvement in the overall helicopter training industry and is concerned about courses of instruction that train only the practical test standards and nothing more.
“As trainers, we need to innovate. The aircraft are continuously being innovated and improved, so we, as trainers, need to do that as well,” he said.
In the decades since SDPD reached out to Tu, Civic has trained countless local, state and federal agency pilots. The company has welcomed students from more than 35 countries, including foreign military operators, and continues to conduct helicopter training for Robinson Helicopter and the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Through various training endeavors, Civic’s instructors embrace Tu’s passion and commitment to flight training and producing truly exceptional pilots.
“We train well beyond certification,” said Candise. “I often tell people that I try to get them to the standard of what I would be willing to hire. Chin is what sets us apart, hands down, and he’s why we’re all doing our best to ensure he can continue to fly and teach for many years to come. He’s a finite resource and, someday, I’ll take over and continue the ‘saving one pilot at a time since 1974’ tradition.”