Special feature

'From good to great' with Robinson’s heli pilot safety course

Teaching pilots how to go from ‘good to great’ is the essence of the pilot safety course run by Robinson Helicopter Company. Rachel Ramsay takes a trip to Robbo HQ in Torrance, California to find out for herself…

Half past seven on a Monday morning seems awfully early to be going back to helicopter school, but it helps that I’m still jet lagged after arriving in Los Angeles only a couple of days previously. I’m at Torrance Airport in California, about to embark on the two-and-a-half-day pilot safety course run by the Robinson Helicopter Company, and I’ve been awake since 4am.

Bleary eyed, I pick up my name badge, which I’m thrilled to discover has a little R44 lapel badge stuck to it, and head to the classroom. I’d envisaged a small conference room with maybe a dozen participants, so my first surprise is the scale on which the course is evidently being conducted.

On walking into the classroom, I’m met by the sight of around 50 individual desks – the ones with the chairs built in, giving off distinct ‘back to school’ vibes.

The walls are adorned with canvas prints of inspiring shots of Robinson helicopters, with a large image of Frank Robinson taking centre stage at the front.

On each desk is an exciting selection of Robinson merchandise, including a branded chocolate bar, a mug and a huge training manual in the classic branded navy blue file that any Robbo pilot will recognise from the Pilot’s Operating Handbooks. Puzzlingly, there’s also a pair of safety goggles.

The familiar Robinson blue folio, together with Robbo branded mug, badge etc

I glance around the room at my fellow course participants, counting around 40 people – and only one other woman!

Everyone sits in nervous silence, not quite knowing what to expect, and even those who’ve travelled together to attend the course aren’t talking to each other.

The day begins with an introduction from none other than Kurt Robinson, Frank’s son and now CEO of the company, who starts by summarising the aims of the course: “We just want you to know what we know.”

And it’s not just a quick five-minute hello from Kurt – he talks to us for a good hour. I’m pleasantly surprised by this personal touch. We’re later told that Frank used to run all the courses himself, rarely missing any since their inception in the 1980s – and since Kurt took over in 2010, he’s missed only a handful.

Kurt urges us to take the name and email address of our flight instructors at the end of the course, so that we always have a point of contact at Robinson should we need any advice in the future.

With an estimated 35,000 pilots having taken the course over the years, and 50 to 100 still taking the course each month, that’s a lot of people with personal contacts at Torrance. Around 30% fly in from other countries.

Getting ready for the start of the course – in the classroom…

Kurt’s introduction doesn’t beat about the bush: “Flying helicopters is dangerous,” he says. “No matter how many hours you have, each flight is different, unique.”

As an air accident investigator, he’s well placed to remark on the number of accidents caused by pilots ‘just doing what they always do’ – a complacency which he admits sometimes makes him worry more about pilots with 5,000 hours than those with 50.

Indeed, pilot error is responsible for the overwhelming majority of Robinson accidents: 89% for the R22 and 85% for the R44 (private flying accounts for the largest proportion of these).

Of the remaining percentage, several further causes can ultimately also be traced back to human error, such as carb icing or dodgy maintenance.

“As the pilot, you have the ability to prevent accidents,” says Kurt, who’s seen many accidents in which the pilot knew that something wasn’t right, but continued anyway.

He makes the point that pilots tend to have a certain personality type – flying is ‘not something that normal people do’, he observes – and how overconfidence plays a part in numerous accidents. That’s despite the fact that one thing we can all do in a helicopter is land if there’s a problem!

Inadvertent or even intentional flight into instrument meteorological conditions is a major cause of accidents, and Kurt can’t stress enough that Robinsons aren’t built for this.

“If you get into those conditions, you will kill yourself,” he warns us in no uncertain terms, adding not to think you can get away with it even if you have HeliSAS (autopilot).

Robinson, he tells us, has deliberately avoided going down the route of IFR-capable machines. That said, he describes it as ‘an engineering company’ with a love of continual improvement.

And with that, he hands over to our leader for the rest of the course, Bob Muse.

Rachel and course leader, Bob Muse


It’s soon clear that we’re in good hands with Bob, who’s Robinson’s Chief Flying Instructor and Director of Flight Safety. With more than three decades of flying and 24,000 hours under his belt, there aren’t many with as much experience as him, and across as many types of flying, including law enforcement.

Then comes the moment every Brit dreads: the introductions. We go around the room and we’re each asked to say who we are, where we’re from, what we fly, how many hours we have, and things like that.

Notwithstanding the horror I feel at having to speak in front of everyone, it’s nonetheless interesting to hear the range of different experience levels represented in the room.

At the bottom end, with just 68 hours under his belt, is a chap who’s just completed his PPL(H) and bought his own Robinson. At the other end, there’s someone with 8,500 hours, along with flying school owners, and an airline pilot who also flies helicopters.

As Bob says, ‘some of the most experienced pilots in the world come on this course’ – even if they fly Robinsons all the time. Then there are hobbyists like me, and a handful of owners or soon-to-be owners. There are only about four of us who also fly fixed-wing, and Bob jokes that we’re ‘the losers in the room’.

In between, there are a fair few younger folk with a couple of hundred hours who are training to be instructors. I’m initially puzzled when they refer to themselves as ‘CFI’, thinking they mean Chief Flying Instructor, but I later discover that in America, the abbreviation means ‘Certified Flying Instructor’.

More puzzling still, some refer to training to become a ‘CF double I’, which apparently means they’ll be able to teach instrument ratings.

Introductions over, we get stuck into the theme for the day: accident analysis.

Like Frank and Kurt, Bob also works in air accident investigation, and his insights are fascinating. He observes that fatal accidents often result from the accumulation of a series of relatively minor mistakes, and that careful study can reveal where these sequences can be broken – often with minimal effort.

He breaks flight safety into five pillars: education, training, standardisation, regulatory oversight and team work. Going through each in turn, he brings them to life with reference to the development of the R22 – never, he points out, intended as a training aircraft, though that’s the context in which most of us know it these days.

It’s interesting to hear Bob addressing Robinson’s early safety record and what the company has done to bring it in line with industry-wide statistics.

It’s something it has achieved through studying the causes of accidents and introducing some rules to address them, such as 20 hours before first solo, which was put in place after a number of accidents involving students going solo after five or six hours.

There’s a lot of laughter when he asks what we all think our chances of survival were had anything gone wrong on our first solo. He’s making the point that ‘overconfidence’ doesn’t necessarily mean arrogance – it’s almost a necessary state of mind to fly helicopters in the first place.

What distinguishes a good pilot from a great pilot, he says, is your approach – often to the little things like using a checklist, keeping up with safety alerts or simply slowing down. Indeed, ‘slow down’ is the one key takeaway Bob sees as most important from the course.

Throughout the morning we look at a number of photos and videos of accidents, and it’s sobering stuff. The majority of accidents don’t involve ‘accident-prone pilots’. They’re just normal people like you or I, who think we’d ‘never do that’.

“Be an aviator, not just someone who can manipulate the controls,” Bob summarises. “Take pride in what you do.”

Time to grab some food at lunchtime!

Touring the Robinson factory

We break for lunch and I’m happy to find that this is laid on in the immaculate adjoining hangar, the doors of which are opened to reveal a snowy mountain backdrop.

Tables are set out right alongside a large selection of Robinsons, and a barrier has been put up to protect the helicopters from any food and drink-related mishaps.

Bob makes numerous references to how good the lunches used to be before covid, but I’m highly satisfied with what we’re given – individual boxes filled with delicious doorstep sandwiches, a pot of fresh fruit and a freshly baked cookie.

Over lunch I get chatting to a couple of my fellow course participants. One’s a private owner from Texas, and the other flies in Colorado. It’s a reminder of the fact that even though Robinson is Californian, where the weather is (nearly) always good, Robinsons are flown in a huge range of different climates and conditions, even in America.

The chap from Colorado tells us he’s too heavy to fly the R22 because he’s at such a high density altitude. The chap from Texas uses helicopters to round up animals on ranches, which sounds awfully exciting.

Fed and watered, the afternoon gets underway with Monica Campos – whom you’ll know if you’ve watched Robinson’s safety notice videos – who takes us on a fascinating tour of the vast and gleaming factory.

We see helicopters at all stages of production, from the raw aluminium tubes that will become drive shafts, right the way through to machines having their final polish before going to their proud new owners.

One R44 about to leave the factory is fitted with Robinson’s impressive new impact-resistant windshield, apparently tested for its ability to withstand bird strikes with a ‘pigeon gun’ and a sledgehammer. Reassuring.

For the rest of the day, we’re back in the classroom with Bob, who tells us that there are three components to going up and coming back down safely: education, training and luck. Placing more emphasis on the former two reduces one’s reliance on the latter.

The afternoon focuses on how we can do that, and how we can reduce the risk of adding ourselves to the statistics on leading accident causes, such as wire strikes and inadvertent flight into IMC. Bob also shares his ‘three golden rules’ for helicopter flying:

  1. Rotor rpms are your life. Lose them, and you lose your life.
  2. No plan for failure is a planned failure.
  3. Always fly the helicopter!

The course adjourns for the day at 4.30pm, so there’s plenty of time for me to drive 10 minutes down to the coast for a stroll along the seafront.

After a day spent in a windowless classroom, some fresh air and exercise is a welcome diversion, and I’m enthralled to spot a pod of dolphins swimming along not far off the shore. As the sun sets, a beautiful silhouette of a Robinson helicopter flies past – the perfect end to my first day in Torrance.

Sun begins to set on the Pacific Ocean

Pilot’s Operating Handbook

On Tuesday morning, I arrive bright and early, suitably fortified by coffee and a doughnut from the nearby Sidecar Doughnuts (a superb find that must do a roaring trade from Robinson course participants, judging by the small gathering – collective? – of helicopter pilots I encounter when I walk in).

I’m glad I’ve had a good breakfast, as things are about to get technical – the broad theme for today is the Pilot’s Operating Handbook. The POH is something every Robinson pilot refamiliarises themselves with in the run-up to the annual Proficiency Check (biennial, in the US), but many of us are guilty of not flicking through it much beyond that.

We go through different parts of the handbook, including into some detail on the powerplant and why Robinson engines are derated (in short: to prolong the engine life, and to increase performance when operating in high altitudes).

Interestingly, we learn that the stated VNE is actually to do with prolonging component life, not safe airspeed or retreating blade stall.

We learn all about how the helicopter performance and limitations are tested, watching videos of all kinds of autorotation testing, including some on water.

We go into depth on the height-velocity diagram – what we all know colloquially as the ‘avoid curve’ – and learn the conditions under which it’s tested (and therefore, the potential margins for real-life error in comparison – a decent headwind makes a big difference, for example).

We refresh our memories about various different piloting-related causes of accidents, such as low rpm rotor stall and low-G mast bumping, and the (counterintuitive) techniques for avoiding them.

The morning concludes with the observation that much of the accident data shows that problems arise when pilots do things they know they shouldn’t be doing, such as flying in severe turbulence.

Taking to the skies

After all this groundschool, I’m longing to escape the classroom and get airborne. The course includes an hour’s flying with a Robinson instructor, and these normally take place on Wednesday and Thursday, after the groundschool element of the course is finished.

However, the schedule has had to be rearranged due to some incoming bad weather, and I’m pulled out of class on Tuesday afternoon to go flying. No complaints from me!

I’m lucky enough to fly with Guillaume Maillet, Robinson’s most senior instructor. Prior to the course, I’d imagined this would be some sort of scenic flight and had visions of getting a brilliant photo of myself flying over the Hollywood sign.

The fact that the course letter had stated that flying suits were preferable for the flight should, of course, have been a clue that the flight was to have a less frivolous tone. But as it turns out, I end up having much more fun, and learning a lot more, than I would’ve done on a sightseeing jolly.

My aircraft is a brand new gold R44 Raven II, with just 48 hours clocked. I’d been preparing myself for it to be hot in the cockpit, but I needn’t have worried… this immaculate machine is fitted with air conditioning, so I’ll be able to hover about in complete comfort.

Take-off in the immaculate gold R44 Raven II

Guillaume does the start-up and radio before lifting us up and out of Torrance. Like seemingly all American airfields, it’s an impressive set-up, with long, parallel runways, one of which has the name of the airfield on it in big letters.

We cross the airfield boundary and Guillaume hands me control, asking me to head towards the coast. We end up over the Port of Los Angeles, where the docks are crammed full of shipping containers.

We set up a circuit that takes us around the harbour wall, on the other side of which there are various light fixed-wing aircraft having fun by swooping about alarmingly low over the sea.

We fly round and round this incredibly scenic circuit, each time doing something different. We do a practice recovery from the symptoms of vortex ring, and then from a low rpm state.

Aerial view of the California coastline

And then we start on the autorotations (engine out practice forced landings in fixed-wing speak). The first thing Guillaume teaches me is to set the aircraft up in a stable autorotation and then not to touch the collective at all, controlling the rpm by attitude only.

On one circuit, he has me establish the aircraft in an autorotation and makes me take my left hand off the collective and rest it on my leg, which feels somewhat counterintuitive. At the same time, he covers up the tachs so that my only frame of reference is the sound the aircraft is making.

Guillaume’s point is that this is all you really need to be thinking about to keep the aircraft stable. When you’re not fixated on the instruments, you free up some mental capacity to look around you and concentrate on where you’re going to land. It’s incredibly effective.

Torrance Airport
Torrance Airport, where Robinson Helicopter is based, is a busy place with two runways and full tower service

Next, we look at different techniques for making sure we make a specific landing point. We revise maximum range and zero speed autos, practise some S-turns, and then he teaches me something I’ve only ever done in fixed-wing before: side slipping.

To our right, a yellow R44 with another course participant is doing the same thing in a circuit of their own, and I marvel at how well organised Robinson is at getting so many course participants flown.

Having covered so much in a short space of time, we head back to the airfield and put it all into practice. Guillaume informs me that he’ll be giving me an engine failure, that we’ll be doing the auto to the ground, and that I have no other option but to land on the runway numbers using whatever means I see fit.

I’m convinced I’ll never make it, but with a bit of side slipping and some S-turns, we land bang on the numbers!

Pleased as Punch with all this, I’m put through my paces in the hover to finish my flight. First I’m hovering into wind, crosswind and downwind, and then Guillaume’s inflicting some engine failures in the hover for good measure.

I must be beaming by the time we shut down – it’s really been a brilliant flight, and I’ve learned so much. As I step out of the helicopter, Kurt Robinson comes over to say hello (I later kick myself for not having thought to ask for a photo with him), and then I head back to the classroom to finish up the day learning even more about dealing with emergency procedures.


Rachel is beaming during her R44 flight!

Safety begins in the hangar

We’d already been told that safety begins in the hangar, so our final morning is devoted to the subject of maintenance, and more specifically to the Check A. Our instructor is Daniel Huesca, an experienced Robinson tech rep, and he takes us through each part of the check refreshing our memories on what to look out for.

By the end of the morning, I feel my pre-flight inspections will be going up a gear from now on. We’re also shown some photos of nasty hangar-based accidents that elicit a sharp intake of breath from most of the room. All I can say is, be careful how you move your helicopter on the ground!

Daniel’s session over, all that remains is the bit I hadn’t been expecting: the end-of-course test. Monday morning’s nervous silence descends once more, and we have what feels like a handful of minutes to answer 40 questions.

Like seemingly all pilot exams, it’s multiple-choice, but turning my paper over I find it’s not always as straightforward as we’ve been led to believe. Many of the questions cover things we haven’t touched on during the course, while several are centred on things only FAA-trained pilots would know.

There’s a bit of a US/UK language barrier in places, too (who knew vortex ring is also known as ‘settling with power’? I certainly did not!). Still, I give it my best shot and I am relieved I’ve got the majority correct as we go through the answers.

With that ordeal over, all that remains is for those of us who’ve already flown to receive our course completion certificates. Those who haven’t are summoned by their flight suit-clad instructors for their turn at autorotating into shipping containers.


A proud Rachel looks at the well-deserved Robinson helicopter pilot safety course certificate of completion!

I feel a sense of achievement not just at having completed the course, but at having travelled solo all this way to do so. I’m told there is a similar course held in the UK, but nothing beats a trip to California!

Some of my fellow course participants have completed it several times previously, and I can see why. As with the excellent GASCo Safety Evenings in the UK, it would stand up to semi-regular attendance from the point of view of keeping important safety issues and practices fresh in the mind.

This year is Robinson’s 50th anniversary, and with an instructor-specific course also in the making, it’s great to see a manufacturer so dedicated to helping us all fly its machines safely.

During the course, there have been a few hints about the development of an ‘R88’, although I’m unable to extract anything concrete as to what this might entail.

I do, however, receive assurance from Bob that he’ll keep me in the loop. Any excuse for a return trip to Torrance…

Robinson Safety Course information here


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