Photography by Jay Miller
Bell Helicopter Training Academy
On May 14, 1946, Larry Bell, the founder of Bell Helicopter, said: “We are now on the eve of the helicopter era. ... We believe that one of the most necessary requisites to the development of the helicopter age is to provide the best possible training for men and women who wish to pioneer in this field. .... We recommend that you investigate our Helicopter Pilot School as a springboard to the future.”
Nearly 70 years later, I am sitting next to Bell Helicopter Training Academy instructor pilot Kevin Brandt, banking hard right in a 180-degree turn, autorotating out of the sky at more than 2,000 feet per minute in a Bell 407, aiming for a no-ground-slide touchdown on a 10-foot by 10-foot box on lane 4 of the BHTA practice area, using techniques pioneered in the ’40s and refined in the decades that followed, all the while being passed from generation to generation of Bell instructor pilots.
Autorotation is the most important helicopter emergency maneuver, as it allows a helicopter to transition from being powered by its engine to having its main rotor system turned by the action of relative wind. Most pilots perform autorotations with a power recovery, and this is how autorotations on the FAA helicopter private, commercial and ATP check rides are done. Much less common, and considered more difficult and risky, are touchdown autorotations, which terminate with a landing on the ground. The FAA only requires performing this maneuver on a CFI check ride. In 2012, BHTA performed more than 55,000 touchdown autorotations in training to add to the more than one million touchdown autorotations completed since Bell training began.
While many manufacturers of turbine aircraft outsource their training to third-party organizations, Bell, through BHTA, continues to provide pilot and maintenance training at its 100,000-square-foot facility, located at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas, and off-site at customer locations around the world. Since its inception, BHTA has trained more than 125,000 students from 136 countries.
Barbara “BJ” Lewis, manager of flight training, and Chad Oakley, chief flight instructor, head BHTA’s pilot training. The pilot instructor staff currently numbers 23, with a mix of military and commercial backgrounds. The instructor pilots average more than 10,000 flight hours each, which adds up to more than 230,000 collective flight hours for the staff. In 2012, those pilots provided 5,500 hours of flight instruction in BHTA and customer helicopters to more than 2,000 students.
At the BHTA facility at Alliance Airport there is a core fleet of nine training aircraft: three Jet Rangers, three 407s, two Long Rangers and one Bell 429. To keep all those machines running is a 13-person department dedicated to maintaining BHTA’s training aircraft. To augment inflight training, BHTA has five flight-training devices, for the Bell 206/206L, 407, 427, 412/Huey 2 and 429 models. These simulators are used to practice normal procedures, abnormal and emergency procedures, instrument procedures, plus recovery from inadvertent IMC. Just a short flight from Alliance Airport and still within Alliance Class D airspace, BHTA has a dedicated 17-acre training area, which features multiple runways and pads, an elevated platform and a wooded area to practice confined landings. BHTA has a crash rescue team in place whenever emergency training is conducted.
While I have been flying Bell helicopters since 2004, returning to BHTA is something I always look forward to. Approaching Alliance Airport, you see the distinctive shape of the control tower from miles away, and it is a visual beacon leading you to the adjacent Bell Helicopter and BHTA facility. Driving into the BHTA parking lot as a Bell pilot, you have a feeling of returning to the mother ship. Passing through security and walking down the main hall, many faces are familiar.