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How I Became a Helicopter Flight Instructor

you can learn to fly at any age

by Helen Krasner

“I’m doing….what?  A helicopter flight!”

The speaker was an elderly lady, leaning heavily on her stick.  It was her 75th birthday, and she’d thought she was going to a car boot sale (garage sale).  Instead, her relatives had bought her a trial helicopter lesson, and I was her instructor.

It had come as a complete surprise, and as I led her out to the helicopter, she got a bit panicky.  “I’ll never be able to climb in,” she said.  “Don’t worry,” I reassured her, “I’ll get one of the fire crew to help you”.  Once aboard, she was fine; she had always wanted to fly a helicopter, and couldn’t wait to have a go on the controls.  Half an hour later she was glowing happily, with that ear-to-ear grin which we instructors recognise so well.  “Thank you,” she said.  “That was the greatest experience of my life”.

*     *     *     *     *

If anyone had told me 20 years ago that at the age of 54 I would become a helicopter instructor, I would have thought they were quite mad.

I had never even considered learning to fly.  I had always liked trying new things, it is true.  But I had never really found a career which suited me.  I had studied psychology at university, then travelled the world; I had been an occupational psychologist for a short time, and also a Buddhist nun, market research interviewer, and freelance writer.  I lived in rural North Wales, where I was very happy - I had a lovely old cottage, five cats who I adored, and many friends.   Then in 1996 my mother died.  Two weeks later my favourite cat died, followed a short time after that by my Buddhist teacher.

I felt as though everyone whom I loved and who loved me had gone.  On top of that, I fell out with my brother, now my only close relative.  I became depressed and run down, then caught a bad dose of flu, which left me feeling even more miserable.  Soon afterwards, back at work but not yet completely recovered, I happened to pass Welshpool Airfield on my return from a meeting.  On impulse I booked a trial lesson in a light aircraft, more as a way of trying to cheer myself up than anything else.  But I loved it!  And, as I was about to inherit quite a lot of money once my mother’s affairs were sorted out, I decided to learn to fly.books about flying helicopters

I Learned to Fly at Age 49

I wasn’t a natural pilot by any means, and 49 is not a particularly good age to learn something new.  The minimum number of hours for a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) in the UK is 45; the national average about 60…it took me 80.  But once I got that licence, this hardly mattered.  I paired up with another new pilot, and that first summer, we flew and flew.  We went to many new places, got lost on the way back from Oxford, were stranded overnight in Blackpool due to thunderstorms.  Our aerial adventures culminated in a flight to Cornwall in August 1999 to watch the total eclipse, and unlike many on that cloudy day, we actually saw it.

But, what could I do next?  How could I top that?  I decided to have a trial helicopter lesson.  It was just something different, and I told my friends that helicopter flying was too expensive, and even if I liked it I wouldn’t take it up.  But, I managed to hover by myself on that lesson, and that got me hooked.  Helicopter flying was amazing; these little machines were so versatile, they could go anywhere, do almost anything.   I went back for more, and soon realised that I might as well stop fooling myself – I was going to get a PPL(H) or Private Pilot’s Helicopter Licence.  After all, I had the money, my inheritance having come through by now.  So why not?

I enjoyed my PPL(H) course, but towards the end of it I began to get a little worried.  An inheritance is not a regenerating money tree, and I knew I couldn’t afford to keep flying helicopters regularly forever.  But, by now I was familiar with the aviation world, and I knew that many people got commercial helicopter licences in their 30s and 40s, since they often couldn’t afford it till then.  So I began to wonder…

I Needed a Commercial Licensebook about flying helicopters for pilots

My decision was made the day of my final flight test.  “You’ve passed, “said the examiner.  “Well, can you tell me about getting a commercial license,” I replied.  So he told me what I’d have to do – 14 exams of around degree level, in a range of subjects such as navigation, meteorology, principles of rotary flight, radio aids, aircraft engines and electrics, etc; followed by a Commercial Flying Course.  Could I do it?  I didn’t know.  I hadn’t passed any exams for years, and I’d never been very technically minded in the first place.  But, I decided to give it a go.

I spent the winter studying for the exams; then booked myself on a short crammer course, hoping they’d explain some of the things I was struggling with.  I found it all quite hard, and had to re-sit a couple of exams, but by the summer I had passed the lot.  So that autumn I did the 30-hour commercial flying course, again finding it difficult but managing to pass.

I was now in a difficult position.  A Commercial Helicopter Licence and around 200 flying hours is a bit like a degree in some obscure subject – it sounds impressive, but no one will employ you without more experience.  I wanted to instruct anyway; I liked working with people as much as I liked helicopter flying, so this had been my goal from the start.  But, I needed another 100 flying hours before I could do the Flying Instructor course, and I realised I would probably have to pay for them.  Flying is much cheaper overseas, and I decided to combine getting these hours with two holidays, albeit rather busy ones.  So, I went to Southern California for three weeks, then spent ten days in Russia, experiencing things like mountain flying, which I could never have done in the UK.

I Started My Instructor's Course

By January 2003 I had everything I needed, and I started my Instructors’ Course.  This turned out to be the toughest thing I’d ever done.  I hated it, was ready to give up, and became convinced I’d never be able to fly well enough to pass.  Then I became ill, and abandoned the whole thing just before the final test.  But after I recovered, with a little help and encouragement from friends and old instructors, I managed to pass the test.  I was a helicopter instructor at last!

I had never intended to instruct fulltime; I had a well-paid research and writing job, and flying is insecure and weather dependent.  So for three years I instructed at weekends, gradually gaining more experience and confidence.  I also began writing regularly for the aviation magazines.  By this time I had moved from North Wales to the Peak District in the centre of England, for a whole variety of reasons.

Then, in 2006 my research and writing work began to dry up, and at the same time a flying school in Sheffield found that they needed me for more days than they had previously.  So that summer I began to instruct fulltime.  It was hard work, but I loved it.  And, when the weather was bad, or during quiet winter periods, I continued with my aviation writing, for which I was now becoming quite well known.

I Started Writing Books in 2009

This continued for a few years, and I thoroughly enjoyed my twin careers of helicopter instructor and aviation writer.  But soon after the worldwide economic crisis, around 2009, helicopter-instructing work began to dry up – fewer people could afford to learn to fly, so the flying schools began to cut back.  So, I carried on instructing, but rather less.  And I wrote more, since I had a great deal of experience by that time.

Since I knew I was good at getting on with people and making complicated topics simple to understand, I started writing books which tried to make the helicopter world interesting and accessible to the non-technical, i.e. people like me!  To date I have had two print books on helicopter flying published, and also several ebooks for the Kindle; they can all be found on Amazon (along with a couple of my books on other subjects) at Amazon.com.

I still can’t quite believe that at an age when many of my friends are retiring, I have a career flying these wonderful little machines and fulfilling people’s dreams, plus writing about it.  Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Author Bio:

Find out more about Helen Krasner at Must-Fly.com .

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Helen Krasner has been writing for most of her life but she has always done many other things besides writing. She has travelled the world, visiting around 70 countries. She has a degree in psychology and has worked as an occupational psychologist, she has been a meditation teacher, and she worked in marketing and market research for some years. She practises yoga, has a longstanding interest in complementary medicine, and has been a cat owner for around 30 years. She also flies both small aeroplanes and helicopters, and holds a Commercial Helicopter Licence and Instructor's Rating. Read more about Helen at her website must-fly.com.

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  1. Jill Browne

    So, That's What Happened

    Helen, what an intriguing story! And I know you have a whole storehouse of adventures, some of which aren't even flying-related. This tale of perseverance is quite inspiring, thanks for sharing it. Wonder what the next chapter will be.

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    [...] I Learned to Fly a Helicopter at 49: Now I'm an Instructor [...]