Bell Helicopter Training Academy

Safely training to the edge of the envelope: Bell delivers world-class helo emergency prep.

Photography by Jay Miller|

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.

Banking hard, midway through a 180-degree autorotation, using variations in airspeed and rotor rpm to try to hit a 10-foot box with zero ground slide.|

I was last there for 407 recurrent training, but no matter what model helicopter you are training on, it is like drinking from a fire hose for the duration of your stay. The morning of the first training day starts with a safety enrichment session with BHTA’s pilot training safety manager, John Williams. Williams flew a Huey in Vietnam, joined Bell in 1977, knows as much about Bell’s history as anyone and intermixes that knowledge with various Bell, FAA and industry safety initiatives.

Then it is off to ground school to start the eight hours of academics that comprise a recurrent course. My ground school instructor, David Fox, has a pilot and maintenance background and first started working on helicopters in 1969. Over the years, I have attended Jet Ranger, Long Ranger and 407 ground school with Fox, and I value his expertise so much that I have his cell phone number in my satellite phone. (That paid off last summer, when I got a transmission chip warning as I was making an approach to land in a helicopter in a remote part of Alaska. I reached Fox on the satellite phone and, with his guidance, was able to troubleshoot, determine the chip light was due to just a tiny sliver of metal not uncommon with a newer engine and get the helicopter flying again.) BHTA ground school, whether with Fox or the other experienced instructors there, covers the helicopter and its systems, not unlike a jet recurrent at FlightSafety but with the added advantage of giving pilots the ability to go out in the BHTA maintenance hangar to lay hands on an actual helicopter.

Midday, it is time to make the first of two recurrent flights in the real helicopter. While I enjoy ground school and the simulator, like most coming to BHTA, I love the flights! You meet your instructor in the BHTA “ready room,” the pilot’s lounge looking down upon the BHTA ramp area at Alliance. The room is filled with other customers, any number of BHTA instructor pilots in blue flight suits and the prominently displayed flight schedule; every wall is filled with pictures documenting the long history of BHTA. We gravitate to the large windows to watch helicopters returning after their practice sessions, and every pilot knows everyone in the ready room is scrutinizing his hovering and touchdown.

Firing up the 407, we lift off for the short flight to the BHTA practice area, known as the “PA.” If the wind is out of the north, you fly by the Alliance control tower, rubber-necking at the military iron common on the main ramp, hook a right down the taxiway in front of the FedEx maintenance facility, go an exit up I-35, fly by the Texas Motor Speedway and, after making the radio call, “coming to join you,” arrive at the PA. The first approach is normal, generally the only normal thing you do on the flight. Following that approach, you get three or four hovering autorotations — a maneuver where, at a normal height hover of about 3 feet, the instructor pilot rolls the throttle back to idle to simulate an engine failure. It’s pretty basic, but it gets you back into the emergency procedure groove. From there, it is a hydraulics-off landing, where the hydraulics are turned off to simulate a failure, and you return to land without the benefit of hydraulics to reduce control forces.

The ramp at BHTA’s facility at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas.

Next comes what we all are here for, touchdown autorotations, which are as much art as science with the variations in how a skilled pilot can bring a helicopter safely to earth. With knowledge passed on within the organization since the 1940s, BHTA instructor pilots are experts at safely demonstrating maneuvers that for most would seem to be at the edge of (or beyond) the helicopter’s performance envelope. You get about 10 touchdown autorotations in your first flight session, practicing different combinations of rotor rpm, airspeed and maneuvering to improve your skills at safely landing on an exact spot, and then, all too soon, you are ready to “head back to the house,” meaning return to BHTA’s facility at Alliance. I have been training at BHTA long enough to know to expect one more simulated engine failure when departing the practice area, and I don’t relax until we are back on the ground at Alliance with the rotors stopped. Then it is ground school for the rest of the afternoon.

A Bell 407 makes an approach to the elevated platform, affectionally called Mount Brown after recently retired longtime BHTA instuctor pilot Wayne Brown, at the BHTA practice area.|

Training day two starts with a session in the FTD. My last time in the FTD was with Joe Schmaltz. Schmaltz had a military helicopter career followed by a law enforcement helicopter career and is now with the BHTA. As you might expect, Schmaltz is quite devious in the FTD, giving you various start malfunctions and then systematically breaking everything in the helicopter to challenge your systems knowledge, use of checklists and continued scan. A highlight of the 407 FTD training is a full-authority digital engine control failure, forcing you to fly the helicopter in manual mode, meaning you have to adjust the throttle position with each different collective input. I also appreciate the opportunity to practice extricating myself from an inadvertent IMC encounter — a high workload maneuver in a helicopter.

Finishing in the FTD, it is back to the ready room and flight line for your second and final flight. After reaching the practice area in the 407, you typically start with one or two fadec failures, allowing you to perform in the real helicopter what you just practiced in the FTD. Then it is more autorotations, often as many as 15 in that second session, simulating increasingly difficult scenarios. The Bell 407, with tremendous lift in its rotor system at low rpm and a great skid system, is a joy to autorotate. All too soon, the session is over and you are back at Alliance, trying to make your smoothest touchdown for the peanut gallery in the ready room. With my internal rotors spinning down slower than those on the helicopter, it is back to class to finish up ground school, completing the recurrent program.

The Bell 407 flight-training device, where students experience numerous abnormaland emergency procedures.|

Regardless of how many rotorcraft hours you have, a BHTA recurrent provides a pilot an enormous amount of confidence in his ability to execute an autorotation in the event of an engine failure and respond to other possible emergencies. In a world where most high-level fixed-wing training is done in a simulator, it is hard to describe in words the intensity of being in a real helicopter, falling out of the sky at a descent rate three times what would be considered a stabilized approach in a business jet and terminating the maneuver on the ground with almost no ability for a do-over. I have friends who have called me in after their first BHTA course and reported that no matter what they experienced in previous emergency training, they were utterly amazed at the quantity and quality of autos. One said a number of maneuvers seemed so extreme, he had no idea how the BHTA instructor pilot saved them, which underscores how different the BHTA experience is from most helicopter emergency training. In fairness to him, while I have seen hundreds of touchdown autos over the years, thinking back to my first ones during my initial training at BHTA, I do recall my eyes rolling back and my mouth agape as I prayed we were going to end the maneuver with the helicopter able to fly again.

While initial transition and recurrent training is the core of what BHTA does, they do much more. BHTA provides ab initio helicopter training as well as training for the commercial, instrument, ATP and CFI ratings. Both my wife and I learned to fly helicopters at BHTA and did our private, commercial and ATP check rides there. Also of note is BHTA’s night vision goggle program, led by Scott Baxter. Besides orienting pilots to best practices using NVGs, the whole range of emergency procedures covered in a normal recurrent course is performed at night wearing goggles. I was fortunate to attend this program in 2005. I regularly tell Baxter and the other NVG instructor pilots that they have so much experience doing emergency training flying with goggles in the dark that I am scared to fly with them during the day.

In addition to pilot training, BHTA provides maintenance training, headed by Charles Fisher. BHTA now provides 236 different maintenance courses and in 2011 had 2,100 students. There was a recurring theme from the pilot and maintenance training staff at the BHTA — they have the answer or know where to get it, sometimes even from the experimental test pilots and engineers on the original development team of each helicopter.

Speaking with Trey Wade, director of the BHTA, on a recent visit, I learned about the new tactical flight officer course, providing instruction in operating a FLIR and other equipment used in law-enforcement helicopter operations. Looking to the future, and underscoring Bell’s support of operations in Asia, Wade described the new pilot and maintenance site in ­Singapore and soon-to-open facility in China. BHTA is also developing a new level-D simulator to support the introduction of the Bell 525.

With a mix of the old and new, BHTA’s future certainly looks bright — and I can’t wait to return for my 407 recurrent training.

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