Helicopter Pilots Panel Discussion

How does your work in helicopter design and engineering influence pilots lives in the field? On November 15th 2018, 60 people in the aerospace community joined together at the Laboratoire d’Enseignement des Systèmes Intégrés en Aérospatiale du Québec (LESIAQ www.lesiaq.aero) facility in Montréal-Est to hear stories from 4 helicopter pilots about their experiences.

The pilots at the panel discussion were Eric Emblin and Leo Meslin, experimental test pilots at Bell, Major Jack Wesselo, a Chinook pilot for the Canadian Air Force, and Mathieu Belanger, an electrical engineer turned offshore commercial pilot of Sikorsky S-92’s in Newfoundland. The moderator for the panel was Naor Cohen, owner and operator of Stratos Aviation and a pilot himself.

The biggest takeaway about the development of helicopters: listen to the customers (and the customers should listen to their pilots!). While it may not be possible to create a perfect model for every mission, configuration (and re-configurability) to make the lives of the operators easier and smoother is the most important. A lot of emphasis was placed on instrumentation panels and switches that have a layout and a tactile feel in such a way as to allow the pilots to focus on their flight “out the windows” as much as possible. Those windows should offer as much a view of the outside terrain, weather and traffic as possible.

As far as safety, Mathieu Belanger says that in some emergency situations, the flight manuals could provide more details in order to allow pilots to make split-second judgement calls based on risk. A pilot may be presented with several choices, none of which are ideal. In these situations, information in the flight manual about the consequences of each “wrong” action could be laid out such that pilots can balance that risk. For instance, given a situation for which the manual instructs to “land immediately”, the choice of making an immediate but controlled landing into a forest versus toughing out a situation with an unknown rate of deterioration for the time it takes to make it to clearer ground is made clear if the pilots know the detailed risk of continued flight for that particular situation.

Of course, on the experimental side, the risk is sometimes not known beforehand because those scenarios are being assessed during the flight testing campaign. Interesting things can happen, such as an engine that will not re-start in an autorotation, on a helicopter which has to be flown with the pilot’s (Eric Emblin’s) legs controlling the cyclic in order to operate the re-start procedure with his hands, all while an authority’s official watches on from the co-pilots seat… But, with wide safety margins such as a very high initial altitude, the only result was some startled air traffic controllers and nearby jetliners.

The pilots definitely appreciated the time to come together and share their experiences, especially apparent in their enthusiasm for learning the differences in the technologies and systems and procedures for navigation and automation capabilities amongst the helicopters they fly, for example in Mathieu Belanger’s civilian S-92, vs. Jack Wesselo’s Royal Canadian Air Force Chinook.

The possibility for pilot’s jobs changing in the future was raised. They do think that big changes will come, but slowly as regulations and technology evolve together to unlock the potential of, for instance, electric propulsion. With the demand for helicopter pilots still very high, it may be a difficult career to get into, but it will continue to be a rewarding one.

Prepared by Matthew Gruber