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Learning at Boundary Bay

July 4, 2007  By Blair Watson

As I drove to CZBB, I reminisced about my own pilot training.

On a clear summer’s day in late July, I drove to Boundary Bay Airport
(CZBB) south of Vancouver to interview Keith McMillan, chief flight
instructor of Professional Flight Centre’s helicopter training
division. As an aviation writer who has flown only fixed-wing aircraft,
I didn’t know much about what is involved in becoming a helicopter
pilot. Keith filled in my knowledge gaps, and I also interviewed one of
his students, Harley, to find out what it’s like to be a novice pilot
learning to fly a helicopter.

I drove to CZBB, I reminisced about my own pilot training. During one
of my flights, my instructor and I saw a Canadian Forces Kiowa
helicopter at Toronto Downsview Airport descending rapidly toward the
ground, like a hovering kestrel diving to catch a fieldmouse. I’d never
seen a helicopter do such a manoeuvre before, and for a few moments, I
thought it was going to crash. At the last instant, the aircraft pulled
out of the dive. My instructor, who was in the Air Reserve training on
the Kiowa, told me that the pilot was practicing a simulated engine
failure and autorotation.

Although engine failures are uncommon
in aircraft, it’s crucial that helicopter pilots know how to deal with
them effectively. Keith makes sure that flying skills such as
autorotations are performed by his students with increasing proficiency
as they progress through their training. During his 30-year aviation
career, he has taught about 200 students to fly helicopters.

history of Professional Flight Centre (PFC) begins in 1986; the company
was founded by John Montgomery, a flight-training industry icon in
Western Canada. In the past 20 years, PFC (and Professional IFR, which
is a part of PFC) has become one of Canada's best-known flight training
schools. Pilots from countries as far away as India have trained with
PFC/Pro IFR and gone on to have rewarding flying careers. In 1990, John
recognized the need for helicopter IFR training and formed a working
relationship with John Morris of Omega Aviation. PFC did all the
theoretical training via ground schools, seminars and simulators, and
once ready, the student transferred to Omega for helicopter flight


In 2000, the two Johns founded Professional Helicopter
Training Ltd. and bought an IFR/VFR Robinson R22. The aircraft is
equipped with a modern avionics package including an HSI and RMI. The
R22 is used by many flight training schools around the world, and
Robinson has manufactured more than 3,600 units, delivering them to
more than 60 countries. The R22 is an excellent trainer because of its
responsiveness, reliability, and relatively simple maintenance and low
operating cost. Many experienced helicopter pilots regard the R22 as
the most fun of all the rotary-wing machines they’ve flown. For turbine
helicopter training, Omega Aviation’s Bell 206 JetRanger is used. The
206 is operated throughout Canada and in other countries for passenger
transport, reconnaissance, exploration support and other roles.

schools are an important part of the pilot training provided by PFC.
Topics covered include airframes and engines, meteorology, navigation,
pilot decision-making and the other subjects needed to get a Private,
Commercial, and Airline Transport Pilot’s Licence, and IFR rating. Crew
Resource Management and Career Planning and Interviewing are some of
the many topics covered in PFC’s seminars, and students are provided
with manuals that are comprehensive without being excessively verbose.
The instruction provided by Professional Helicopter Training not only
meets industry standards, it exceeds them. Mountain and operational
training provide students with an ‘edge’ as they begin their helicopter
flying careers.

Training for a commercial helicopter pilot’s
licence includes 100 hours in an R22, five dual hours in the ATC
simulator, 80 hours of ground school, and manuals and other materials.
Based on the information provided by Professional Helicopter Training
at the time of writing, the total cost is $45,120 (plus applicable
taxes), including incidental costs (the cost of the aviation medical,
examiner’s fee, Transport Canada licensing fee, etc.). If a student
requires additional hours and/or the price of fuel goes up, the cost of
getting the licence increases.

Converting from fixed-wing
aircraft to helicopters is also offered by Professional Helicopter
Training (fixed-wing pilots must have a commercial licence). The
conversion includes 60 hours in an R22, and pilots who already have an
instrument rating can obtain their helicopter IFR rating with five
hours of helicopter instrument flight training. The 60 hours is
comprised of 37 hours dual and 23 hours solo. The conversion training
also includes 20 hours of ground school. To convert a fixed-wing night
rating to the helicopter licence, one hour of dual instruction and one
hour of solo practice is required. The current total cost, including
incidental fees, is $27,610. Professional Helicopter Training also has
a licence conversion program for helicopter pilots with foreign
licences who want to convert to a Canadian licence.

located in a huge area of flat land south of Vancouver. The airport is
1 km north of Boundary Bay and about 10 km north of the Canada/US
border. Helicopter training is done east of the airport, by Pitt Lake
(about 50 km northeast of CZBB), and in other local training areas.
Professional Helicopter Training has a well-equipped office and
classroom in the CZBB terminal building, across the hall from PFC.

visit included a close look at the R22 operated by Professional
Helicopter Training. Harley answered my questions about the machine and
what’s involved in flying it, which was impressive considering that he
was a novice pilot with less than 10 flight hours. His knowledge
reflected his strong commitment to becoming a commercial helicopter
pilot and Keith’s proficiency as an instructor. Harley had driven cars,
motorcycles, snowmobiles, Bobcats (used in construction) and other
machines, so sorting out a helicopter’s controls and how each one
affected the aircraft’s movement and performance involved new
‘brain-wiring’ for him. Keith commented that Harley was progressing
nicely in his training.

When I asked Harley what it’s like
learning to fly a helicopter, he replied that it was the hardest thing
he had ever done. He also said that he had researched various
helicopter schools, and was very pleased with his decision to go with
Professional Helicopter Training. I could tell from the smile on his
face that he was having the time of his life! It was also clear during
our interview that even after many years of being an instructor, Keith
still loves to teach people to fly helicopters. Friendly, dedicated
instructors and students who feel that they’re getting excellent
training for their money are two of the many reasons why Professional
Flight Centre is regarded as one of the best flight training schools in


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