Flying Without Wings

Scott Dixon of Northumbria Helicopters Ltd with Robinson R22 Helicopter

Scott Dixon is the Chief Pilot and Chief Instructor at Northumbria Helicopters Ltd based at Newcastle Airport in the north-east of England. He traded his previous career as a wheeled commercial vehicle driver for his pilot’s licence in 1998, and has been an instructor pilot since 2000. He has over 4000 hours flight time logged in helicopters. It’s a change he clearly does not regret; despite the economic ups and downs common to any commercial enterprise. He sums this up whilst wheeling one of NHL’s Robinson R22s from the hangar out onto the apron: “At the end of the day, I’m here and I get to play with helicopters!” We asked Scott about flying for pleasure and as a career.

TBU: Having invested in the 45+ hours training (with at least ten ‘pilot in command’ or solo) and 7 ground exams to obtain a Private Pilots Licence (Helicopters) or PPL(H), what opportunities to fly are available to PPL holders? Do many people really buy into their own helicopters?

SD: “Most PPL holders hire machines to self-fly from commercial operators such as ourselves. Unless you are going to be flying very regularly, the reality of owning, operating and maintaining a helicopter of your own just doesn’t make sense. It’s more cost-effective and far easier to hire a machine which is already in regular service, prepped and maintained by a professional commercial operator like NHL. You book a machine, turn up and it’s ready to fly.”

TBU: And for individuals like yourself, who want to progress from a Private Pilot’s Licence to a Commercial Pilots Licence and make a career of flying, how do you go about logging the hours necessary to qualify and achieve that transition?

SD: “People mainly build the hours they need through self-fly hiring. If someone expresses an interest in working towards a CPL and wants to build their hours, I’ll give them tasks to do: tell them to navigate to a certain place and back. One of my favourites is to ask them to find a telephone box at a particular road junction where there is no telephone box. If they come back and tell me they found the phone box, I know they haven’t really navigated to the right place!”

With NHL Scott and the other contract pilots divide their time between instructing students and flying charters for anything from corporate, private and sporting events, to aerial surveying, photographic and film work. A local radio station also charters daily flights for traffic bulletins. Scott outlines various opportunities open to CPL holders:

SD: “You could potentially make a lot of money in the oil industry flying people out to rigs; but in reality you need to have very expensive instrument ratings (for flying with no visual references; for example above or in cloud) to be eligible and even these don’t guarantee an interview. Also that type of work, shuttling from Aberdeen over the same stretches of the North Sea out to the platforms and back every day doesn’t seem to me to  have much variety. It’s like being a glorified bus driver. Here I get to fly around Northumberland and in and out of lots of different places, which provides real variety to the flying.”

NHL currently operate Robinson R22 two-seater piston engine helicopters, along with their four-seater bigger brother the R44 which is used for most charter work. In addition to this, Scott has been rated in the Bell 206 Jet Ranger. We asked Scott about their various characteristics.

Northumbria Helicopters fleet of Robinson helicopters: R22 two-seaters flank their bigger four-seater R44 brother.

SD: “The R22 is a great little machine. It is very rewarding to fly, but can also bite back as its control systems are very direct (no hydraulics) and it requires sensitivity to handle it. The R44 is larger of course and has hydraulic control systems, which whilst seemingly easier to master require a different degree of training (for systems management/failures etc).  The Jet Ranger is a completely different machine altogether. Bigger and heavier, with more power and hydraulic controls it seems (or at least gives the illusion of being) more stable and easier to fly. For most people the start-up procedure for a jet turbine engine is the tricky thing to master. It’s completely different to starting a piston engine. If you mess up starting a piston engine the worst that will happen is that it won’t run. With a jet turbine if you mess up the start up you can cause thousands of pounds worth of damage to the engine.”

Scott has never been interested much in flying fixed-wing aircraft. But if you ask him which helicopter he would most like to fly, the answer of course is the iconic Vietnam War era ‘Huey’ (Bell UH-1 Iroquois).

TBU: Have you ever flown overseas?

SD: “I flew across into the Republic of Ireland once, actually for my rating flight in the 206 Jet Ranger. We encountered (unexpected) bad weather and it turned into an arduous two day ordeal. It was the only time I got out of the aircraft and vowed I’d never fly again”. (Of course that didn’t last!).

We asked Scott about safety, as so many people seem to be nervous of flying and most nervous of small aircraft and helicopters in particular.

SD: “We have only had one blot on our copy book in all our years of operation: A PPL holder on a self-fly hire wrote off one of our R22’s in a heavy landing here at the airport. He allowed himself to feel pressured by air-traffic control to expedite crossing the main runway coming in to land, and ended up approaching the landing site too high and too fast. Flaring the aircraft late, he found himself ‘settling with power’ inducing what’s known as a vortex ring. Basically it’s an avoidable flight condition which happens if you have too much power, too high a rate of descent and too little forward airspeed across the ground. The machine settles into its own turbulent rotor wash and loses lift, in this case resulting in a very heavy landing. Fortunately neither the pilot nor his passenger was seriously hurt. The guy continued to fly but his family insisted he always flew with one of our instructor pilots after that.”

Robinson's little R22 may be versatile, but you're not going to get 22 people in one of these!

Typically however elements of the press misreported the incident. Instead of ‘R22 helicopter in heavy landing, pilot and passenger survive’ it was reported as ‘22 seat helicopter crashes with only 2 survivors’! Scott elaborates on these common misconceptions.

SD: “A (slightly nervous) female passenger once asked me if I wasn’t scared flying helicopters, because if the engine stopped you died. I told her that simply wasn’t true; and I wasn’t scared at all because I know what the machine is capable of. But she (laughs) had believed that was true – and had got in anyway!”

Most people seem to very quickly overcome their nerves and enjoy the experience however.

SD: “We had a charter for an aerial photographic shoot recently. We remove the doors on the R44 for better access for photographers with their cameras, employing safety harnesses to make sure people or equipment can’t fall out of course. Half way through the flight I glanced over my shoulder and the lady in the back, who had been the most nervous about flying, had her feet out on the skid and was completely engrossed in her photography! Needless to say I immediately asked her to get back inside the aircraft!

Private owners sometimes take chances with the weather etc. But here I sign-off all flights with our helicopters, and if I don’t think it’s safe to fly, you don’t fly. End of. I point out to people though, that in reality you’re in far more danger on a daily basis driving your car on the motorway to the airport than you are in one of our helicopters. I also point out that the only vehicles that have saved more lives than helicopters are ambulances!”

Certainly when it comes to the stringent rules and regulations for operating, maintaining and flying helicopters, Scott knows them all. He can quote them at you from the top of his head. More importantly he knows why they are there. So if you’re not a thrill-seeker, and have no ambitions of piloting a helicopter yourself, rest assured you’re in safe hands if you simply want to sit back, relax and enjoy the experience of flying; or beat the traffic and arrive at your destination in style.

New owner Claire Jobling is certainly keen to promote the charter side of the business, and NHL have already done quite a few senior ‘proms’ and weddings. This may seem surprising in the midst of a recession but Scott has a theory about this.

SD: “People are simply looking for better value for money for their experiences and important occasions.”

So Claire promotes charters, and Scott helps steer people away from dubious requests to land in small car parks and tennis courts to guide them through the maze of rules, regulations and written permissions required of a professional commercial operator to make their dream day come true; and occasionally, when a venue drops the ball, he circles for a few extra minutes whilst somebody gets on the phone and asks event managers to remove tables, parasols and guests who have strayed onto the lawn where the happy couple are due to land. For many people it’s an exciting, memorable, once in a lifetime experience; but for professionals like Scott, it’s just another day at the office . . .

Read our experience of a trial helicopter flying lesson with NHL here.

For UK charters, pleasure flights and flight training visit Northumbria Helicopters site at http://www.northumbria-helicopters.co.uk/

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