Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A Students story in his own words

Helicopter PPL – Getting started on a budget
“Don’t bother unless you have at least £17,000”, “its unsafe to do it in the bare minimum hours”, “don’t expect to pass in 45 hours”, “helicopter schools are there to scam you for every penny you have” – These are some of the typical phrases I came across on forums when I was researching into getting a helicopter PPL. It can be said that sometimes these statements are true however its unfair to say that they apply all of the time.
I am a student at the University of Portsmouth and on the third year of my course I took a year out to work in industry (recommended by the University). I was lucky enough to land myself a job (only 12k p.a, a few minutes from where I lived (my parent’s house)). I also had a weekend job which again wasn’t amazingly paid but it was a good job never the less. It was a few months into this placement year that I had a decision to make; 1. Save my money long term, 2. Pay off student loan, 3. Spend it all on something big. I decided to take option 3 as I recognised it would be one of the rare occasions in my life where I had this amount of disposable income. I then decided that this ‘big thing’ was going to be a helicopter PPL.
Budgeting – the absolute most important thing if you want to get a PPL and aren’t a millionaire (or simply have a spare £20k). From doing some research I knew it would cost around £15,000 so that was my target. I decided to work the first few months to see if it was going to be achievable. Working 53.5 hours a week, over 7 days isn’t easy, but as you get used to it, it really isn’t that bad. I knew that in order to reach my goal this is what was required. It’s not complicated maths; work hard = get paid more. In all I worked seven days a week for 11 months and this allowed me to save up enough money (how much it cost me in all I do not know to this day – hypocritical I know).
During the time I was working I had one simple rule that helped me save money:
“if you don’t need it, don’t buy it”
If it’s a mars bar in a petrol garage, if it’s some new trainers when your old ones are still fine, don’t buy it! Granted this is a harsh way of living and there are some exceptions: drinks down the pub, gifts, social events etc... but again its not complicated, just don’t spend what you don’t have to, right down to things as small as a chocolate bar. If you want your goal enough, you will stick to the rule. If you find yourself splashing out on unnecessary things ask yourself if you really want it (your goal) enough.
There is a lot of negative reviews on helicopter schools and some extreme ‘horror’ stories of people losing money however they are worth reading so you understand how the industry works. Initially I planned to do my helicopter PPL in the US in order to save money. This was a floored plan, no matter which way I planned it learning in the U.S is more expensive overall (however since writing this the VAT increase may have changed this). So it was decided that I will learn in the U.K. As I couldn’t afford to rent a place out that meant I had to use a local airfield. The airfields local to me that had helicopter schools were; Thruxton, Blackbushe and Goodwood. After reading a similar article to this someone said that it was absolutely vital that you just go around and visit a few airfields, I totally agree with this. The best way to choose where to learn is to go and speak to the people at each school. Yes this is effort, however you need to go and experience the atmosphere and see if you like the people working there (as you’re going to be spending a lot of time + money there!).
Previous to doing my PPL I had no flying experience and simply had a few rides in helicopters. In order to help prepare myself I got a copy of MS flight simulator and a joystick + pedals. This did help me somewhat however, you need to put in a lot of hours in order for it to be beneficial (which I did not).
On my umpteenth hour of research, I found an advert “Helicopter PPL £9999”, this instantly grabbed my attention. Knowing that this was an excl. VAT price I calculated the incl. cost and it seemed one of the most reasonable prices around. This was from Phoenix Helicopter Academy – Goodwood. I would like to at this point, point out I am in no way affiliated or a representative of this company. I think that people are very quick to assume that because a review is rather positive there is something fishy about it.
On calling up to enquire about the course I spoke to the Paul who runs the school. I seemed to get along well with him and he was very helpful. I arranged a meeting with him and a trial flight. At this point I knew my budget and discussed this with Paul and we worked out a plan. The plan being that I had just enough money (I think the figure was £14,000) in order to complete the course in a minimum time. However this was a large gamble as Paul made it very clear that everyone takes different amounts of time to progress and obviously you cannot progress without being safe and competent. This was in June and I planned to start flying 1st August as I finished my placement end of July. I also started back at University in October so I had a two month period in which to complete the course. From Pauls opinion and other reviews, the fact that I would be flying every day would help reduce the amount of hours needed. In June / July I read up on each of the exam areas through a good (but if anything, overly detailed book) called Private Helicopter Pilot Studies by Phil Croucher. This prior knowledge helped greatly in order to speed up the process.
And so the day came Monday 2nd of August and I started my training. Phoenix Helicopter Academy is based at the Goodwood aerodrome inside the race track. The airfield is a really nice place to be with a friendly atmosphere. It’s whole grounds being designed to keep a vintage feel. On most days there is some kind of vehicle going around the track so if you also like your cars its perfect! On driving in through the gates of Goodwood you head straight ahead under the track (through a very narrow tunnel) and you will see dead ahead the tower (who are all very friendly and luckily don’t get that annoyed when you’re learning the radio and a bit slow). Phoenix Helicopters are then to the left along side the airfield at the end of the car park. Overall Goodwood is a really nice place to be and I am extremely pleased I chose this airfield to train from (having now seen quite a few other airfields).
The area itself is also a really nice place to fly over especially over the coast by Bognor and the Witterings, and for some reason there is usually really good weather here, even if elsewhere is poor.
Phoenix helicopter academy is located in the white building with a nice seating area outside the front. There is a classroom with a computer you can use and I can’t fault anything to do with equipment as Paul has everything available to buy at a reasonable price or simply just to lend you.
The school itself I simply can’t fault. It is only a small company with Paul and a few other instructors (dependant on demand) but this gives a very personal tailored experience and you don’t really feel like your being pushed through a corporate style ‘program’. Pre and post flight briefings were carried out on each flight if necessary and to a good quality. Paul was my instructor for the all of my training and again I cant fault him. He is a very experienced pilot who undoubtedly knows what he is doing when it comes to training new pilots. Sometimes you even get the feeling he knows the moves your about to make before you know you’re going to make them! At no point did I ever feel unsafe or even unsure.
The aircraft I learnt in was G-CCVU, which was an R22 Beta 2. It was in brilliant condition and was well equipped. I did fly in another R22 (no longer with Phoenix) on a couple of occasions and it made G-VU look brand new.
There is an online booking system to book your training slots which is implemented and used well. Payment wise I never had any problems at all. You know exactly what your paying for and there were never any hidden costs.
As for the training itself I did two hours flying a day throughout August (depending on weather), and then fitted the rest in amongst my university course (which I do not recommend). I completed the written exams as I went along aiming for an exam a week. These exams aren’t hard however if you haven’t done your reading they can be very hard.
So I did my training, never had any problems and completed my PPL in November this year 2010.
Looking back there is so much to mention I could go on forever. I think the message I’m trying to get across is:
• Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it or it’s not worth doing – you can do it if you put the effort in
• Go and visit at least a few flight schools, and do your research
• If you’re looking for a flight school in the south definitely consider Phoenix Helicopter Academy

By Sean Laesen December 2010

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