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  • Flight training in the US - what to look for by Kalle Schmidt
    Flight training in the US - what to look for by Kalle Schmidt
    Flight training in the US - what to look for by Kalle Schmidt
    Flight training in the US - what to look for by Kalle Schmidt
    Flight training in the US - what to look for by Kalle Schmidt
American flight schools have been significant contributors to the Nordic pilot market for a long time. With low-priced flight hours and enjoyable experiences the US market still stands strong. The former flight instructor Kalle Schmidt gives us a closer look at the training overseas, what to look for and what to avoid.
Kalle Schmidt is a commercial helicopter pilot, a former flight instructor in Hawaii and a contributing writer. In this article he brings a perspective to helicopter training, the American way. The views expressed in this story are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nordic Rotors.

You might have heard that a lot of people are learning to fly in the US. Why is this? Is this something for you, or would the Scandinavian training suit you better? This story gives you an American perspective to these questions.

First off, it is important to know that there are a lot of advantages in both types of training, no matter if it is Scandinavian or American. The Nordic training will offer challenging weather situations, national know-how and the possibility to get contact with people that might be vital when looking for a job. However, if you aren't buddy with an owner/chief pilot, haven't established a network of contacts, or worked your way through a company, it might be a bit tricky to get your first job with only 185-200 hours in your logbook. New pilots do get jobs from time to time, but 500+ pilots are more prone to get hired.

When training in the United States (the so called "land of opportunities") the schools can give a positive boost in your career by providing some chances to get the first job as a local flight instructor. A newly graduated instructor can fly up to 800 hours or more in a year, which can make you more attractive when looking for the first "real" job. However, you need to be aware of the fact that real-life experience (like photo, taxi, etc.) are valued higher than instructional hours in some segments of the business back home. All flight hours are flight hours in the end, so if you have the chance to get them - go for it!

From here on, let’s focus on the American way in
this story. Here are some important stuff to take into
consideration, if you pick a US based training.

© Kalle Schmidt© Kalle SchmidtIf you play your cards right, the US training can offer you the possibility to obtain more licenses within the same amount of flight hours as demanded for a commercial license in Europe. Instead of just finishing with a European Commercial License (JAA CPL) you can finish with an American (FAA) CPL, an FAA Instrument Rating, FAA Certified Flight Instructor and FAA Certified Instrument Instructor. It is actually possible to do this within 185 hours, but most people accomplish it in 200 hours or slightly less. However, you need to convert your papers to European (JAA) licenses in order to work back home. This means new theoretical exams and check rides. To cope with this, some US schools offer parallel JAA and FAA training, which might come handy. But do you really need all the licenses or just the European ones?

A lot of American schools do also provide courses for external-load, high altitude, mountain flying, Night Vision Goggles and “off shore” experience. These can be fitted into the CPL time building phase.

Choosing a school across the Atlantic Ocean
It is important that you make sure to compare the hourly costs and not the package prices. Some schools have hidden costs that have been excluded from their packages, and others don't (for example check-rides and books). Also, the packages might include different amount of fight/ground hours. It's not uncommon that schools base their packages on the required minimums. Some people might be done at the minimum hours, but most people require more time. Looking at these minimum packages gives a false idea about the final cost for your training. Make sure to always add your own margins.

© Kalle Schmidt© Kalle SchmidtThe most important element in your flight school is your instructor and that the two of you get along well. You need to enjoy flying with your instructor (most of the time) and you also need to build up a trust for each other. You might get an instructor that you don't get along with even though others might think he/she is great. However, this is generally speaking not a problem on schools with a few instructors to choose from.

© Henrik Boresäter© Henrik BoresäterThere are currently only three schools in the US that can sponsor you in the F1 Visa Program (Mauna Loa Helicopters, Bristow and Hillsbro). This visa allows you to work as an instructor for one year at any school in the US who hires you when you have finished your training. There are a number of schools that can sponsor you in the M1 Visa Program. If you study on a M1 visa you can only work at the same school as you did your training when you are done, and for a maximum of six months. At schools not offering visas it is illegal for a foreign nationals to receive flight training.

If you plan to build hours working as an instructor in the US, choose a school where you have good chances to get hired after your graduation. If you choose a school where almost all students who attend aim to work as local instructors your chances of getting hired are obviously less than if you choose a school with mixed students where others just want to get their basic licenses.

Weather conditions in the area
© K.Schmidt© K.SchmidtIt’s a good idea to pick a school that operates in an area with proper weather conditions. Let's say that you choose a school in an area where you only succeed to get up in the air 10 times during the whole autumn or winter. After the bad season you might have to re-learn some maneuvers since you have practiced them sparsely. This kind of problem is most pronounced when you have little experience, especially in your early training. This is costly, you have to pay your living expenses for a couple of extra months and you might need extra flying hours or graduate slightly less skilled.

On the other hand - if you select a school where the weather is always great, you will never learn to take those important weather decisions or fly in marginal weather. You'll want to select a school somewhere in between these two, or the best would be one where the weather allows you to fly every day and you can fly to a nearby area with unpredictable or bad weather.

A diverse terrain will offer more advanced training, which provides valuable experiences and knowledge for your career as a pilot. It is a great advantage to choose a school that is surrounded by a stimulating environment. The different surroundings will pose challenges and you will learn how to adapt your flying, what to look out for and what keep in mind flying over different types of land. Should you experience these conditions again, you both have the knowledge and skill, and you also have easier to adapt to new environments.

© K.Schmidt© K.SchmidtThis aspect is most important for the training following your initial Private Pilot License (PPL). During your PPL you spend most of your time learning to maneuver the helicopter, without extra challenges like high-altitude flying. After your PPL you would most likely want to spend a lot of time away from the airport getting experience, like:
  • Act in areas with mountains, valleys and ridgelines, where you need to predict where you might encounter downdrafts. Where to position your helicopter to take advantage of updrafts, how to plan so you have a safe way out of situations you don't want to stay in.

  • © K.Schmidt© K.SchmidtHow the helicopter acts differently at higher altitudes and how you stay safe with the smaller power margin you are left with.

  • How your actions if you run into unforeseen challenges differ when flying over
    a town or over the ocean.

  • How to maneuver the helicopter in calm and strong wind.
If you cant get all these, at least make sure you get some of the challenges you might meet in your career during your training. So, if you are planning to apply for jobs at places near mountains, don't do most your training over a flat dessert or a big flat swamp. But don't get me wrong here - if you plan to work in a dessert, it might be a good idea to train in one..

What to avoid when choosing your school
Watch out for schools that guarantee you to get your license within a set amount of hours. Everybody is different, and it takes some people less flight time and others more to finish. If you don't finish on the time they put out they will either have you pay for the rest of the hours or they will have to force you through the training and check-ride before you are ready. Both outcomes will have a negative effect on your flying. This is a sign of a non-serious school that probably have other issues as well.
Some schools might even guarantee you a job when you are done. How are they able to do that if they don't know you yet? Every single student will not become a good flight instructor, or at least not the kind that you would want to fly with. These kinds of promising schools will either have a culture where they gladly hire potentially bad instructors, or they will tend to break their promises from time to time.

European Aviation Safety Agency / the former Joint Aviation Authorities of Europe. Issues the Joint Aviation Regulations (JAR), which will transition into EU-OPS.
The American Federal Aviation Authorities, which issues the FAR (Federal Aviation Regulations).
Private Pilot License (FAA or JAA) - you are allowed to fly with friends and family, but not to work as a pilot.
Commercial Pilot License (FAA or JAA) - needed in order to work as a pilot.
Instrument Rating (FAA or JAA) - you are allowed to fly without visual references outside of the helicopter (IFR).
Airline Transport Pilot License (FAA or JAA) - highest pilot rating, allows you to act as a commander in heavy helicopters.
American Certified Flight Instructor, requires a FAA CPL
European Flight Instructor - requires 250 hours before starting course
American Certified Flight Instructor for Instrument flying
European Instrument Rating Instructor
Never pay the whole course up front. Such demands signals a questionable, non-serious school. What about the fees then? Most schools require an enrollment fee and a visa fee, which is normal. If you are going for the F1 visa, the schools sponsoring you in the F1 program will usually request a few thousand $ or a percentage of your training costs to be deposited into your student account. This is also normal. These three schools are serious and you should be able to get the payment minus enrollment, visa fees and used tuition fees refunded if you decide to quit training.

It is highly advisable to figure out a plan for the future before you start spending big money on your training. Are you going for utility/bush flying, or IFR? Are you planning to work as an instructor, or to get your feet into a company as a loading/fueling guy, or do you have another plan? If you are American citizen or have a Green Card you have more opportunities for your first FAA job - photo flights, pollination and tuna boats for example. The JAA world has also got a few low-timer options in Scandinavia, like photographic flights for the Finnish companies Ilmakuvakeskus or Aero-Kuva. For a lot of people, becoming an instructor and then building your time in the US is a good way to head for. No matter which route you take, it is always important to have a rough plan set before you take off, and (as you’ll experience in flying) a backup plan might come handy sometimes!

An important decision
Wondering whether to get a European (JAA), an American (FAA), or both licenses in the US? The decision has to be made based on the ambition to work as an instructor or not.
It might be good to know that if you go to the US and decide to fully focus in the European JAA licenses you will have reduced possibilities to work as an instructor in the US, and you might miss out on one of the best reasons to go there. On the other hand, if you already have a job waiting back home, and just need a license to get you started, a plain batch of JAA ratings is not a bad idea.

If you choose to go for a bare set of FAA licenses you will need to convert your license to a JAA license back home in order to work as a pilot in Europe, and that means taking your postponed theoretical exams and check rides.
This approach might also be an alternative option if you have a job lined up in Scandinavia. Compared to going for JAA straight away this option will take longer time because of the added time spent on conversion and more flying hours. But this way it is possible end up with 185 hours instead of 135 hours for about the same price. If you go for this option and aim to instruct, it's recommended to also obtain FAA CFI and CFII, the later requiring an instrument rating. Schools who teach both visual flying and instrument flying obviously prefer employees who can instruct in both fields.

© Joris Lemmens© Joris LemmensIf you obtain both the JAA and FAA ratings in the US you will need to spend more time/money on your training and living expenses, and with a slightly higher hourly fee for the JAA flying than for the FAA. The cheapest way to go, if you want to be an JAA instructor, is to first obtain your FAA instructors license and to work until you have the 250 hours that are required before starting the JAA instructor course. Now you're not just happy to have both JAA and FAA instructor ratings, the required flight time for the JAA instructor course is also reduced from 30 to 15 hours (or as required).

A lot of helicopter schools in the US use Robinson helicopters for their training. In order for you to instruct on these helicopters you need 200 hours of helicopter experience. There is a special regulation called SFAR 73 that requires this. So, if you plan to work as an instructor in a Robinson helicopter right after your training, start collecting your hours. © Kalle Schmidt© Kalle Schmidt This is the way to go if you want to have the best chances to get hired after your training. You will also need to qualify the following sub-requirements:

To instruct in R22 – 200 hours in helicopters, 50 hours on type.
To instruct in R44 – 200 hours in helicopters, 25 hours on type and 25 hours in R22 (the rule says 50 hours in the R44, but you are allowed to count 25 hrs from the R22).

When you learn and build these hours in Robinson helicopters it is recommended to fit in your CFI training along with other optional courses like sling load, etc, in the later part of your time building for commercial. Then you will likely have almost 50 hours left for your instrument and CFII training before you reach your 200 hours.

Conversion - obtaining a JAA licence
If you take the American FAA ratings and work as an instructor you will most certainly pick up a deeper understanding and better knowledge when you finish your job with © Henrik Boresäter© Henrik Boresäter700-1200 hours, than when graduated from the school. However, you will still have to convert your FAA license to a JAA paper.
Most ex instructors can manage a distance-learning course and save quite a bit of money out of the more extensive and demanding European JAA ground school. This method will also enable you to work to earn your living in your hometown while you study, or study parallel to your work as an instructor.

© Rickard Gillberg© Rickard GillbergYou can get a European ATPL distance-learning course with books for £2250 compared to $15000 excluding books for a classroom course in the US. If you plan to work in Sweden without an IR, there is no need for an ATPL, then you can take an CPL distance learning course for £1495. No you didn't mistake yourself counting the numbers, its almost a tenth of the price. But please don't go out buying beer for all these savings.. it's healthier to spend some of the money on a few extra flight hours at home instead..

After completing the theoretical JAA exams you need to do a check-ride with a JAA examiner. The European (or American) JAA helicopter school will need a couple of hours to fine-tune your skills for the exam. But once you are done, a whole new world opens. You’re now a part of the European family of helicopter pilots, you’re one of us!

Check out the author's own website, Heliexperience.se, for some inspiring pics, videos and stories from his time in Hawaii.
© Kalle Schmidt© Kalle Schmidt© Henrik Boresäter© Henrik Boresäter© Kalle Schmidt© Kalle Schmidt
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