PPL(H) – Radio – a “Black Box”?

PPL(H) – Radio – a “Black Box”?

First Talk ends in a good laughter

My very first contact with the tower happened on the second day. During Startup Check it reached that time when we needed to contact the tower and my instructor asks me if I feel ok to call the tower. I have heard this message twice now and think, “give it a try – the sooner the better.”

We rehearse it first, more than once. Then, sitting there like a virgin and concentrating for a few seconds, I pull the trigger and start talking – slowly & very clearly. The message passes like butter –  the ice is broken, I think.

But then, the other side fires back at rocket gun speed & in a very strong British accent!

It is so absurd that I really start to laugh. The instructor completes the radio call but he can’t stop smiling either and looks at me: “Well now, you got a hard one, really. They are not all the same. Perhaps he is just new.”

I can’t believe what just happened, can’t stop laughing and tell him, “This felt like being in that famous Japanese hidden camera TV-Show! Where is the camera?”

The broken ice just turned into an iceberg within one single message.

Anticipating & Understanding

My instructor constantly repeats that I have to anticipate what they will say – it’s always the same and in the same order. Even though I know what to expect, it’s just not much of a help if I don’t understand a single word. Also, it’s sometimes acoustically difficult.

After the glorious start on my first ever radio talk, I was convinced that this radio problem was simply a non-native English, plus British, pronunciations kind of problem.

I mean, if someone talks to me in Swiss-German, German or French, I could immediately understand every single and slight nuance at whatever speed, react and, afterwards, I could even guess where he comes from.

But, some days later, another student who started training one or two weeks after me, a British guy, asked me how I overcame the beginner’s problems with the radio.

So he had the same problem? Well, probably not the same, but he didn’t catch it straight away either.

At the end of the day, it’s really not many terms (perhaps 20 or 40), it is always more or less in the same order and is really not that difficult. But, it takes more time to get used to than I expected.

Flying & Talking

And the real challenge is only just beginning. Combining the first radio talk, whilst hovering, is an interesting moment of self-experience of what the brain does when working at its limit.

The potential for distraction is immense.

Somehow, balancing in hover and telling the tower the simple phrase of just – 5 words! – “Ready to departure from Triangle” – was enough to almost unbalance my hover.

Afterwards, I even asked my instructor if you could first land on the ground before talking. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense and, as I found out later, the final landing itself was the bigger issue anyway.

The ability to listen, talk and fly is an ongoing challenge through the different stages.

During my first solo navigation flight, where I had to switch the frequency and talk to someone else at some point, I managed to climb 300 feet whilst listening. Then, I had to set the pressure setting and transponder code he just gave me and climbed another 300 feet only to realise that apparently I had managed to get the transponder code wrong. It is only 4 digits!

Black-Box  – Humans on a daily mood?

Starting to use the radio became a journey of its own. It was not a constant problem, it was an up and down through the different steps. Sometimes, I could not understand anything and then the next time it was a piece of cake. In some situations I got it from the beginning and, in others, it distracted me so much I was almost unable to fly any more.

However, it started to be a running joke – how was the Black-Box today?

In the beginning I was really confused: I am fluent in 4 languages, talking played a major part in my former profession (hundreds of technical terms), I regularly performed on stage in front of more than 1,000 people, and now, I am hard pushed to stumble through 3 half-sentences of 4 words each!?

And yes, the tower people are different. Some are clearer than others. Some are slower than others. Once you get it, it doesn’t really matter. Because they are all say the same and in the same order.

90% of the problem is your own brain – it has to puzzle together “listening, understanding, talking and flying”. Exactly this feeling repeats itself through all the different stages. It usually starts with a quick shock, starts to get familiar but is really difficult to handle, and finally, it works.

It is one of those times during training when I had to always remind myself: “It’s the same for pilots as it is for musicians. The masters did not usually fall from the sky. They trained and trained.”

Some weeks after my very first talk, I met this guy outside the tower. It was somehow a relief that, even here, I did not understand him very well. He had a really weird accent and talked extremely quickly.

The magical sound of the radio – Up in the Sky

I had always loved this magical sound of pilots talking on the radio. My first visit to the cockpit of an airliner took place when I was 8 years old. The only language I talked at that time was French. It was on the approach to Geneva Airport at night.

It was a really long time ago, and obviously I did not understand anything, but I can still remember it very clearly:

“Just the sound. The ambience. Different voices.”  I can not really describe it but magical is sure close to it, that’s for sure.

During my PPL(H) training, the radio was often more of a hassle than a pleasure. But this magical feeling of cruising around in the sky to the sounds of the radio, towers and other pilots was always there.

Even better, is the feeling of starting to become part of it.


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PPL(H) – Daily A-Check

PPL(H) – Daily A-Check

The First Time

This morning we started with the A-Check, also known as Pre-Flight.

Again, there is a checklist to work through. This involves walking around the helicopter with the checklist and having a closer look at all the different parts. Chris explains how they are all connected and exactly what they do.

There is a lot of information and engineering expressions which can be difficult to follow as I have never been in close contact with any kind of engines before, not to mention the inner workings of a helicopter, the rotor blades etc. and English isn’t even my first language!

The first A-Checks take more than one hour and all sound really complicated. There are so many new things that sometimes I am more just following than really understanding.

A New Relationship

However, from here it becomes a daily routine and the checks come more easily the more you do them. Also, the more I advance and the more I read the book about Aircraft / General Knowledge the different functionalities start to fit together perfectly.

Despite the R22 being one of the smallest helicopters to reach the market at the same time I was born, 40 years ago, it is amazing what they had thought about.

During the training you fly almost every day, you control them during the A-Check and you feel them in the air. You can even start noticing differences in movements or behaviour between the different R22’s at the school..

It’s like a relationship that starts to build & it is really nice to touch the little bird and make sure everything is working fine.

More close-up pictures of the R22 A-Check – click this link.







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PPL(H) – Common Myths

PPL(H) – Common Myths

Book Advice for Pilots starting “From_Zero”

After my trial lesson, I could not wait to start my training and googled to find some former students telling stories about their training. I did not find a lot, that was one of the reasons I started this website.

Instead, I found this book on Amazon – it is not part of the ground school or exam books in my training but it gave me some general ideas on how to approach things during the first few weeks.

The author is a former, obviously experienced US Air Force and North Sea offshore helicopter pilot, who received his primary helicopter training at the US Army’s flight schools in Texas and Alabama.

Perfect for a beginner “From_Zero” like me. I found it really helpful and it alleviated some of the concerns that I had in my mind. And, most importantly, I found it very easy to read  & understand – more like a novel for non-pilots.

I would recommend the book to give yourself an idea of what to expect before starting and/or during the first few weeks of training.


Learning to Fly Helicopters – by R.Randall Padfield  / 2nd Edition

It starts with the chapter “Helicopter Myths”

Myth #1 – If a helicopter engine stops, you fall from sky like a brick

Myth #2 – A helicopter needs two engines, one for the big and one for the small propeller

Myth #3 – Helicopters are too fragile to fly in strong winds

Myth #4 – A flight in a helicopter is always bumpier than in a aeroplane

Myth #5 – Helicopter pilots are different from other people

Myths #1 – Autorotations

In Myths #1 he covers and explains the ability of helicopters to “land” safely in autorotation and states:

The fact is: You have a better chance of survival after a complete power failure in a helicopter than you do in an aeroplane.

Although a helicopter in autorotation will descend at a faster-than-normal-rate, helicopter pilots are trained to handle this event. As the helicopter nears the ground, the pilot manipulates the controls so that the momentum generated by the turning rotors during the descent is converted into lift.

“Even under the most unfavourable conditions, a skilled pilot can usually still make a safe autorotative landing – no damage & no injuries – into an area not much larger than the helicopter itself.”


I decided to handle this question for myself as follows

I have the impression that whatever you start to fly – you will find a very plausible and reasonable explanation as to why exactly this kind of flying or aircraft is the safest. And, with all of them, fatal accidents can happen.

If you fly paragliders for example, you will become convinced that they are the safest because they have no technical parts that could fail at all. Yes, there are no technical parts to fail – there is no argument about this. But, they can collapse in on themselves, you can get seriously blown away, sucked into clouds etc. and of course fatal accidents can happen.

I do not know any statistical numbers, whether or not it’s true, that the chance of survival of an engine failure in a helicopter is higher than in aeroplanes.

However, there are many scientific studies that prove that more then 75% of all aviation accidents – whatever aircraft type – are pilots mistakes anyway (mis-interpretation of the weather, over-estimation of their own skills etc.).

So for me it’s not the question as to which aircraft is the safest, but how your own skills are. And this, in my opinion, is purely dependent on your training. Exactly the same as driving a car, motorbike, sailing or downhill skiing etc.

It is a matter of fact that during helicopter training the autorotation is constantly trained straight from the beginning and I did not find them scary at all – see post about autorotations.


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PPL(H) – Concept of this Website

PPL(H) – Concept of this Website

General Concept – “From_Zero_To_Pro”

This project is spread over different web-channels. The idea is to balance between entertainment and information.

To illustrate this journey I have taken a diary “approach”.

But have also mixed in different things I came across during my training.


This Website – Articles & Blog

Picture Gallery & Instagram – my pictures during training and also living around the South of the UK.

Facebook – The more diary-like part – spontaneous posts.

Pinterest – Thousands of pins I have continously collected since I started the training.


All blog posts are related to a specific step I am learning – chronological.

But, they are not written on a daily basis like a pure diary.

They are grouped in parts which made a major impression on me, or, represented a significant milestone to me.

So, most blog posts cover such a step on the day it happened & a retrospective Added Note.

Sometimes, I uploaded or linked some stuff I created to memorise things or make my student life easier.

Bear in mind

That said, it is a personal and subjective description of what I experienced or felt.

The helicopter training covers a wide spectrum of quite different activities or talents. For example: physical vs. brain work / mathematics, physics vs. general knowledge, verbal expression etc.

That is one reason I really like this training and it’s versatile demands.

If you get struck at one end, there is always another end where you can continue to work on your skills.

Other students, or yourself, might have some very similar, but of course, very different major impressions.

And last but not least –  I am neither a teacher nor experienced pilot and just on my way “From_Zero_To_Pro”.

It could be that the ‘pros’ totally disagree with some of my impressions. I hope not too often though …

My aviation pre-knowledge before starting the training

I was flying paragliders quite intensively for about 8 years and stopped more than 10 years ago. Paragliding without engine & radio in The Alps (outside of any air zones) brings a lot of understanding and experience concerning weather, wind- & thermal systems. It also brings a bit of an understanding about basic airfoil aerodynamics and, of course, skills about recovering collapsing wings and absorbing heavy g-forces. However, none of this is of much help to fly helicopters and it’s too long ago and not in my inner reflex-system any more – but perhaps I understimate this part.

Half a year before I started the Helicopter training, I had built a quite unstable RC Quadcopter (Drone) and trained flying it to quite a skilled level, 100 hours in 4 months. I do not think that this kind of flying helps a lot but during the last 10 years I had almost forgotten and with this drone it came back to me what amazing, completely new skills one could build within respectable time if one really wanted to. It’s all about continous training & keeping it going, for everyone.

Before my trial lesson I had flown as a passenger in a helicopter twice almost 20 years ago. The same with small fixed wings and shortly before my trial lesson I made a pleasure flight in a gyrocopter.

My mother tongues are German & French – that’s not of major importance, but did not help on British radio!

I have never read a book about helicopters before and I have no friends flying helicopters.

I have played the drums since the age of 12. It has nothing in common with helicopters, but, training new, coordinated and individual movements between arms and legs was not new to me.

That’s it, the expression “From_Zero” fits pretty well, I suppose.

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