Rotor & Wing International

Training a Pilot Like an Equine Rider

In French, dressage means training. It is the process of developing a horse’s ability and willingness to work in relation to its rider.

My wife competes in the equine discipline called dressage. Therefore, I have become a dressage enthusiast — we all know how that works. In French, dressage means training. It is the process of developing a horse’s ability and willingness to work in relation to its rider.

In dressage, the competition starts when the horse and rider come up the centerline of the competition arena, halt, salute the judge and perform a predetermined list of maneuvers. (Think of this as taxi to and hold on the runway for takeoff). The maneuvers include the halt (transitioning from movement to a hover), the trot (moving forward but below translational lift), the canter (moving forward at cruise speed), the gallop (VNE for this particular make and model helicopter), turn about the haunches (turn about the tail rotor), turn on the forehand (turn about the nose) and reverse (go backward in a straight line with nose and tail rotor aligned with the direction of travel).

The equivalent maneuver to an autorotation might be when the rider has an unscheduled dismount and lands with or without injury, depending the dismount quality.

There are several levels of dressage competition. First there’s the training level (think of this as flying fewer than 40 hours in a Robinson Helicopter, with an instructor, with you or watching). At training level, a dressage test is comprised of basic maneuvers, and success occurs when rider and horse finish the test at the same time with the rider still seated.

Next comes the first through Prix St. Georges levels. The complexity of the dressage tests becomes more difficult. In helicopter terms, this is your first paid job, maybe as an instructor, and maybe you get to fly a Bell Jet Ranger sometimes.

The next levels are intermediate through Grand Prix. As the dressage rider approaches Grand Prix, it is likely that the horse is owned by someone else. The owner is footing all the costs of the horse and paying the rider as a professional. In helicopter terms, the pilot is no longer a novice and is flying for hire. Competence is demanded. At the Prix St. Georges level, one might be flying a Jet Ranger for tours in Hawaii. At Grand Prix, one is flying a complex helicopter in a demanding mission profile and is compensated as such.

The quality of training is similar in both disciplines. At the lower levels, the instructor may have just entered the discipline and does not have a great deal of experience. This leaves the rider (or pilot) subject to errors in training received. Training errors at this level tend to disrupt the success of both rider and pilot going forward.

At the intermediate levels, the dressage rider is probably training with a professional trainer, who has had some success as a competitor at the higher levels of competition. A helicopter pilot would be at a point in his career of being mentored by experienced pilots.

At the higher levels of dressage, the trainer becomes a coach. The function of the coach is to point out small errors or perhaps alternative techniques. The cost of training at this level also gets considerably more expensive. At a comparable level as a helicopter pilot, you are now attending FlightSafety, with the equivalent expense. You as a pilot are expected to overcome whatever is thrown at you in the simulator.

In dressage, a lot is made of the training pyramid, the idea being a broad base of basic skills that allow the dressage rider to graduate to the next level of complexity. This base-building continues until the rider attains the skills to ride at the Grand Prix level. But in dressage, even the highest-level riders spend hours each day working on their basic skills. They always break down the more difficult maneuvers into basic skills.

Can you say the same as a pilot? Are there solid basic skills providing a foundation for your flying? Can you, and do you, do the basics to the best of your ability? Do you consistently pick the helicopter off the ground without letting it slide around? Same thing on landing from a hover? What about altitude discipline or trim control?

Dressage riding and helicopter flying consists of attention to basic skills. It’s the basics that allow you to do the more advanced maneuvers. Don’t worry about the fancy stuff. R&WI