features Taking control: Airbus’s Non-Pilot Emergency Landing Training Course

Vertical editor Oliver Johnson takes a look at Airbus Helicopters Inc.’s newly evolved and rebranded course that aims to help non-pilots learn to fly and land a helicopter in just five days.
Avatar By Oliver Johnson | July 22, 2020

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 32 seconds.

That first moment when you push the cyclic and feel the rotors respond is pretty magical. After eight years of editing a helicopter magazine, that moment finally arrived for me on a beautifully clear summer’s day just south of Grand Prairie, Texas, last year. I was in an Airbus Helicopters H125 at the time, about 1,200 feet off the ground, with the aircraft in straight and level flight.

Erin Callender, Airbus Helicopter Inc’s (AHI’s) head of communications; Kent Stevens, AHI instructor pilot; and Oliver Johnson, Vertical editor, alongside the Airbus H125 used for the NPELT training program. Erin Callender Photo

“I’m going to give you just the cyclic,” said Airbus Helicopters Inc. instructor pilot Kent Stevens, who was sat to my right. “I have the cyclic,” I responded, as practiced. Every muscle in my right arm tensed as my hand closed in a vice-like grip of the cyclic. After a few seconds, Stevens asked me to make a slight left bank to aim for a point in the distance. I very gradually willed the cyclic left and felt the strange sensation as the aircraft actually responded to my movements. The effort required to do so made me remember I was supposed to use relaxed hands with the controls, so that I could more easily make small, gentle — not jerky — movements. The following right bank was much easier, as I noticed, in a way I had never done before as a passenger, the pull and power of the rotors above, with the airframe below just tagging along for the ride.

I kept a close eye on the horizon in relation to the compass above the control panel to try to keep the aircraft in level flight, with regular glances at my altitude on the Garmin G500 display in front of me to make sure I wasn’t drifting too high or low. We remained around 1,200 feet at 85 knots. “See how I’m not really using the collective and pedals?” said Stevens. I made a mental note not to make excessive use of the collective and pedals. “I’m going to let you take over the rest of the controls,” he said. “I have all controls,” I replied. I was (technically) flying!

As my comfort level grew along with my belief that I wasn’t putting the aircraft and its occupants in severe and immediate danger, I tried a few more banks. On one of these, the rotor bit the air harder than I had intended or anticipated, and I felt the reassuring and immediate counter input from Stevens to lessen the angle. There was no panic on his part, but for me it served as a reminder of the immense power at my fingertips — and my inability to control that power.

Students on the NPELT course complete three one-hour flights in the H125 as part of their training. Oliver Johnson Photo

Those magical first few minutes were an adrenaline-spiked mixture of intimidating and exhilarating — and that was with a decent amount of preparation, a qualified instructor pilot on the other end of dual controls, and the prior knowledge that I was about to fly a helicopter. Thankfully, almost all first time pilots have these luxuries… but there are exceptions. We featured one such story in Vertical Valor (then known as Vertical 911) early last year (see p.58 Winter 2019 issue). On that occasion, one of the medical crewmembers in the back of a Bell 206L LongRanger had to climb into the cockpit to help the pilot control the helicopter after he became incapacitated. It’s easy to imagine that the first few seconds of helicopter command under these type of circumstances are distinctly less magical and a whole lot more terrifying.

It was for this reason that I was at the controls of the H125 in the first place, after Airbus Helicopters Inc. had invited me to observe its newly-rebranded Non-Pilot Emergency Landing Training Course (NPELT). The title may not roll off the tongue, but it’s a spot-on description of the course’s objective. In just five days, it aims to teach non-pilots the fundamentals of how to safely recover a helicopter from an unusual attitude and fly it, navigate to an airport through some basic GPS use, perform emergency communications, and attempt a running landing. Hovering, it turns out, is quite hard, requiring a skillset well beyond that which students could develop over this short program. So we’d be aiming for a more agricultural end to the flight rather than the graceful hover across the airstrip most of us are used to seeing.

Still, it’s a sizeable amount to learn and attempt to teach, and Stevens and the Airbus training management are under no pretenses as to the scale of the task facing students in this scenario.

“The thing to remember is, we’re not trying to take a person from ‘unable to do it’ to ‘able to do it.’ We’re trying to build the confidence to try,” said Stevens. “And that is the feedback that we get from almost everybody that comes through, is: ‘Man, I have a serious confidence boost here.’ ”

Stevens (right) explains how the NPELT course has evolved in response to student feedback. Erin Callender Photo

Getting the angles right

The NPELT course is delivered in a mixture of ground school (six hours), simulator flight (2.4 hours), and flight in the H125 (three hours).

After observing a CBP class complete the first three hours of ground school I was given the opportunity to have some sim time, to get familiar with the cockpit, controls and panels; get a feel for flying the aircraft; and perform the running landing.

Up in the real aircraft, once I’d become somewhat comfortable with the controls, we began practicing recovery from unusual angles. The idea behind this being that if a pilot becomes incapacitated, it’s highly likely the aircraft will not be in straight and level flight by the time the person in the co-pilot seat realizes what has happened.

Stevens illustrated the process with the first couple. “There is an order we do this in,” he said. “Correct the bank, then the pitch. Then make sure you’ve got enough power to stay away from the ground. If not, gently raise the collective.”

Thanks to entering the maneuvers with decent airspeed, when it came to my turn, the cyclic was all that was required to put us back into safe and level flight. Stevens pointed the aircraft with a slight nose up, right bank attitude and handed over the controls. Correct bank (inch left); correct pitch (inch forward). It seemed straightforward enough; for my part, I was just happy that my corrections weren’t causing us to see-saw back and forth. A second recovery had us in a slight nose down, left bank. Correct bank (inch right); correct pitch (inch back). “How’s our altitude?” asked Stevens. “Are we staying away from the ground?” Peering outside, the ground seemed happily distant. We had airspeed. “Yep, we’re good,” I responded.

Stevens (right) explains the route for the training flight to Johnson and Marc Hennes, senior marketing specialist, support and services at AHI. Erin Callender Photo

Stevens wanted to illustrate a recovery from an unusual attitude in a hover, but took the controls himself for this one. Simply correcting the unusual attitude isn’t enough here, he said, as “people taking this course don’t have the skillset required to maintain a hover.” Therefore, they would need to get the aircraft out of the hover, too.

Correct bank; correct pitch; then nose down with slight increase in power (and right pedal to counter the torque) to get airspeed and keep moving. Stevens said that by the end of their third flight, students on the course are typically confident and capable enough to perform this maneuver on their own.

Then we used the navigation equipment to locate the nearest airfield and check its suitability. We programmed in a route to Mid-Way Regional Airport, a quieter airfield about 30 minutes’ drive south of Dallas, to practice our running landings.

The running landing

First off was the demonstration, with me loosely holding the controls to feel the movements required. We flew parallel to the runway as we began our approach, at 90 knots and 600 feet. As we passed the point on the runway at which we’d aim to touch down, Stevens lowered the collective to both slow the aircraft and reduce altitude. With the theoretical point of touchdown 45 degrees behind us, he made a right-hand turn to run parallel to the end of the runway, and then another right-hand turn to line the runway up ahead of us. We were now at 65 knots and 300 feet.

Before climbing in a real aircraft, students get the opportunity to develop a feel for the controls in a simulator. Oliver Johnson Photo

We maintained our course, aiming for the landing spot we’d picked out a little way down the runway. Stevens counted down to 100 feet, and when we reached it, pulled the nose up and reduced power “just a fingernail.” “Eyes out from here on,” he said. From here, it was a matter of maintaining sight picture and gently increasing the power as required. The helicopter kissed the runway and began to slide on its specially reinforced carbide-covered skids. Having never been in a helicopter that had performed a running landing before, what struck me was the sensation and the noise — rather than the angry grinding of metal on the runway surface, it felt incredibly smooth, sounding more like a bobsleigh going down a track. Stevens reduced the power a little to increase the weight on the skids, and then used the pedals to steer. The sounds and the aircraft ground to a stop.

Then we took off again to begin my attempt. Stevens put us parallel to the runway at 600 feet then handed over control. I reduced the power by easing the collective down as we passed the landing spot, pushing a touch on the left pedal, and felt the reassuring guidance of Stevens on his mirrored controls. I aimed for that 45-degree point ahead of the landing spot ahead of us where I could begin the first right turn. “We’re going a touch towards the airport here,” Stevens pointed out. “Just ease us a little to the left.” Oops. Course corrected, we reached the point of the first turn at that 65-knot target, and then it was time to turn for final approach.

Students learn enough basic GPS use to be able to navigate to the nearest airport in an emergency. Oliver Johnson Photo

“Are we looking too shallow compared to the runway? Are we looking too high like we’re going to overshoot it?” asked Stevens. “No, this looks great. Life is good. We’re just going to keep on trucking.”

The runway ahead looked part terrifying, part welcoming, as it seemingly sped towards us, looming ever larger. Stevens counted down to 100 feet again. Then nose up, reduce power a touch, and keep that sight picture. Eyes would now stay outside, he reminded me, as we glided closer to the ground. “Ok, add a little power — just a touch,” he said. I pulled the collective up a small amount and the helicopter seemingly floated in the air a second, before slowly resuming its decent. Just a few feet off the ground, he asked for a little more collective to slow the descent. “Just a fingernail,” he said. I eased it up, proud of myself for also thinking to push the right pedal in a touch. I didn’t know whether I was in fact making any difference, or simply following Stevens’ inputs, but it didn’t really matter — I felt like I was controlling the helicopter, and the confidence that provided was enormous.

At this point, I was wondering when the ground was going to meet us. When it did, there was no mistaking it — a bit more forceful than the demonstration, along with the sort of “scooch” sound that reminded me of an airliner’s tires touching down, followed by the dragging of the skid down the runway. “Lower the collective to put weight on the skids and steer with the pedals straight down the runway,” Stevens reminded me. Pushing on the left pedal, I was briefly confused as to why we were going off to one side… then I realized that was the wrong pedal. I just had time for a brief correction before we ground to a halt. Collective all the way down, and lock it. Breathe.

Widening the target

The course has been offered by Airbus in one form or another for about a decade. Between 2016 and 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) was the primary customer.

As much as the course is designed to build the mechanical skills needed for basic control of a helicopter, it equally aims to build student confidence. Erin Callender Photo

Andrew Pritz, a supervisory air interdiction agent at the CBP’s National Air Training Center, said the organization’s involvement stemmed from a 2015 incident when a CBP aircraft was shot at, and hit, several times while patrolling the Mexican border, forcing it to land. This highlighted the potential danger of pilot incapacitation during a flight, so the agency began looking for a training solution — and found it at Airbus.

Beginning in October 2016, the CBP sent between two and four air enforcement agents (AEAs) every month to complete what was then known as the TFO Emergency Recovery Training Course.

“The feedback has been extremely positive, with many AEAs wishing that it had been available when they first entered the agency,” said Pritz. “Many have requested to attend some sort of recurrent training on an annual or biennial basis.”

Pritz added that the main benefit provided by the training is the confidence it builds.

“Many AEAs were previously hesitant, reluctant, or intimidated by the complexity and skills required to safely pilot a helicopter,” he said. “[The NPELT course] has broken down those barriers and instilled confidence in our AEAs that if the need arises they can take control of an aircraft, navigate to the nearest airport, and perform a safe landing.”

Johnson (left) and Stevens at the controls of the H125 near AHI’s facility in Grand Prairie, Texas. Erin Callender Photo

Shortly after Stevens joined Airbus in early 2018, he was tasked with updating the NPELT courseware. Thanks to feedback from the CBP and other instructors, that quickly evolved into an expanded target market. “It turned into, ‘Let’s make this course available to more than just the TFO, let’s make it available to anybody who has access to a second set of controls,’ ” said Stevens.

This could include emergency medical services flight crews, other law enforcement agencies, or those private/business aviation customers who frequently fly with their non-pilot partners.

“We renamed it NPELT so that we can have a broader range of people that can come here,” said Marc Hennes, senior marketing specialist, support and services at Airbus Helicopters, Inc. “Training is all about safety. We can always improve on safety, and we’re always thinking about how can we improve safety, and we thought if more people do this course it could, at some point, be very helpful.”

Vertical editor Johnson sits in the cockpit of the H125 ahead of his flight. Erin Callender Photo

The NPELT course absolutely has the potential to be lifesaving. For anyone working with or around helicopters, it also offers a wonderful opportunity to experience a “Helicopters 101” in just five days. I’ve been living and breathing helicopters for eight years, and my experience observing the program gave me an invaluable new perspective. Crucially, though — and the whole point of the course — is I feel I would at least have a chance, even if it was just a very small one, if the worst did happen to a pilot and I was in a position to assume control. I would at least have the confidence to try.

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