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The Autorotations Are Back

by Darren Smith
PocketLearning, August 2006
Helicopter Navigation:  Why Learn Helicopters | Costs | Private Pilot Helicopter | Commercial Pilot Helicopter | Glossary | Helicopter Lesson GuidesHelicopter Ground School | SFAR73 | Accelerated IFR Rating 
Every CFI candidate dreads the crowning maneuver of the Initial CFI checkride:  the full-down auto.  This is a simulated engine failure in a helicopter taken all the way to the ground.  Yes, it means you'll dead stick the helicopter from 500-800 feet AGL to the ground without any added power.  Students training for lesser ratings, learn autorotations with power recovery.  It means at the bottom of the autorotation, you'll complete the flare and hold altitude (5-20 feet AGL) with application of power.  During the early months of 2006, it was rumoured that the FAA would eliminate the requirement.  That day came on April 10th, when the FAA Director of Flight Standards issued a memo eliminating the requirement. 
The reasoning behind the action was to increase safety.  Specifically, the action addressed the safety of FAA employees while examining helicopter CFI applicants as well as the students taking checkrides.  The result promised to be less destroyed helicopters and more CFIs. 

If you were one of the lucky few that got your initial Helicopter CFI certificate between April 11th and July 12, 2006, then you were not required to demonstrate full-down autos. 

Those days are over. 
With a simple memo, the FAA Director of Flight Standards re-instated full-down autos on July 13th, 2006.   Upon careful reading of his memo, it seems the real concern is the liability of FAA employees conducting checkrides in which full-down autos would be conducted.  Additional resources will be put into place monitoring those employees to ensure they remain current.

Yes, you heard it here first, they're back.  And for good reason.  What was failed policy from the beginning has been corrected after three short months.  During the "PTS changing comment period," hundreds of students and future CFIs logged in and lobbied for the change.  Many safety experts, examiners, and existing CFIs (including myself) wrote in and protested such a change.  My logic is this:
  • The natural outcome of an engine failure is eventual contact with the ground.  How you get there depends on your training.  If you weren't trained in full-down autos -- and no one is going to do something they aren't required to -- then you'll be unsuccessful when the need arises.
  • A CFI should be able to demonstrate this maneuver to their Private and Commercial students so that they have an idea of the practical uses for autorotation practice (i.e. walking away without injury).
  • The maneuver is a time-honored practice that all CFIs had to become proficient at and demonstrate.  Why "dumb-down" the requirements for CFIs?  Are we trying to turn out more qualified CFIs or less?
  • The life-saving maneuver is a combination of skills that fluidly applied would provide maximum protection to the occupants.  Those skills are: autorotation, quick top, and hovering auto or run-on landing. 
  • The CFI must be trained to a higher standard, not only to protect himself and the helicopter from the student, but also to be a credible instructor.
Bell Helicopter's factory training course fully embraces the Full Touch Down Autorotation.  Marty Wright, Bell's chief flight instructor, said the most important part of training involves learning how to handle emergency procedures, "spending most of our time with people doing full-touchdown autorotations."  Those folks have about 100,000 hours of dual given with the current instructors on board.  They seem to know something.

Maybe all helicopter pilots should be able to demonstrate full down autos for every certificate.  This is at a cost however.  There will be certainly more damaged helicopters.  Manufacturers wouldn't want this because it makes the safety records look bad for the helicopters most often used for training.  The truth of the matter is that its not a matter of IF an engine failure will happen to you, but when.  Even in today's world of super reliable engines.  So why not make all helicopter pilots demonstrate full down autos for every certificate?  Well the number of destroyed helicopters from practice autorotations would skyrocket.  So it will never happen.  For the benefit of private and commercial pilot candidates everywhere, I hope these students urge their instructors to teach or at least demonstrate this valuable skill. 

There may be an alternative that hasn't be put forth to the decision makers.  Why not allow CFI candidates to show proficiency in training and receiving an endorsement which can be used in lieu of demonstrating the task on the checkride. This is similar to the required spin training for the CFI - Airplane candidate which results in an endorsement when proficient in the maneuver.  It is then left to the examiner whether it would be demonstrated on the checkride.  I suspect the examiner would accept the endorsement almost everytime.   What do you think?

Your Thoughts

28 Jul 2006 06:45  Name = H60Pilot
Comments = During my time at Ft Rucker, thousands of fulldown autos of every type (straight, 90 degree, and 180 degree) were performed everyday in both TH-55's and Hueys with ever having one of them go rolling up into a ball. My feeling is that the civilian side of the house has blown the risks associated with full down autorotations completely out of proportion. If the instructor is properly trained and proficient, and the student has the skill set to perform the maneuver, then doing an autorotation is no more dangerous than any other maneuver that we do in helicopters.

Mon, 9 Oct 2006 10:15:47  Name = JM
Comments = As retired military helcopter SIP, who over the years has performed auto's under every flight condition you could imagine, I disagree with your premise. A student that can perform a coordinated auto with power recovery will be successful when the need arises.

Fri, 17 Nov 2006 18:50:19 Name = CFII LarryD
Comments = Fort Rucker didn't have a major problem with TD's.  The hard landings were happening in the field with recurrent and transistion training.  That's why the military decided to eliminate them after initial training.  There is simply no evidence that continuous training in TD's will make for a successful emergency (no damage)landing.  There are simply too many variables when a pilot experiences an engine out over an unprepared site.  The last few feet do make the difference between a nice touchdown and a hard landing but only to the extent of salvaging the aircraft.  Getting the aircraft to that point in the auto is much more important than minimizing damage on touchdown (at the cost of many hard landings during training).  I'm glad that the fed's added the TD requirement again but really don't think it makes a difference in the
accident rates.  Besides, most civil training accidents happen during power recovery auto's, not TD's.  Read the NTSB reports to verify.  The primary reason is probably because the most experienced CFI's do the TD's under very controlled conditions.  That's why Bell has such a great record in their training academy.  They do not hire 200 hour CFI's!

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