At Hillsboro Aero Academy in Troutdale, Oregon, rotorcraft training continues although the number of students and flight hours dropped during the pandemic. “The travel ban hit us hard,” said Jared Friend, general manager of the company’s Troutdale location.

Although Hillsboro Aero moved into its current building at Troutdale Airport in 2008, it wasn’t until 2019 that this facility switched to helicopter-only training. Hillsboro Aero operates combined fixed-wing and helicopter training facilities in Redmond, Oregon, and North Las Vegas, Nevada, and until the move in 2019, its Hillsboro, Oregon facility also offered training in both. Annual flight hours for the whole company were about 64,500 during 2020. “We took a hit of about 25 percent on flight hours [in 2020],” Friend said.

Traffic at Hillsboro was getting too busy for effective helicopter training, however, so the company decided to move all its Portland-area helicopter training activities to Troutdale, where getting airborne is much faster and the proximity to wide-open spaces is better.

About 90 percent of Hillsboro Aero’s students are ab initio, with the remainder already coming with some experience or transitioning from fixed-wing into helicopters. Until the pandemic, many of the academy’s students—both fixed-wing and helicopter—were from China, but Covid halted their ability to travel to the U.S. Hillsboro Aero also hosts students from Europe, and their ranks also thinned during the pandemic but European students have been starting to return.

Most students starting from zero experience can train to become a helicopter flight instructor in about 18 months, flying once a day for six days a week. Some dedicated students can get through the course in a year. In addition to the normal certificates and ratings, Hillsboro Aero also offers mountain flying and external load operations training. The fleet includes 18 Robinson R22s and one R44 as well as two Frasca TruFlite helicopter simulators.

A key part of Hillsboro Aero’s safety program is helping new pilots understand not only how to assess risk but also how to put that assessment into practice in real-life conditions. It’s easy to say on the ground, if such-and-such happens, I’ll turn around or land. But in the reality of subtly worsening weather and the pressure to reach the destination, some pilots might push their luck beyond their skill levels.

Hillsboro Aero subscribes to the HAI Land and Live program. From day one, according to Friend, instructors instill in students the concept of taking advantage of the helicopter’s inherent capabilities to land safely short of the destination instead of trying to fulfill the mission in marginal conditions.

But saying you’re going to do that is no guarantee that in the pressure of the moment, that’s what you will do. Consequently, Hillsboro Aero teaches students the concept of the en-route descent point (EDP), which Friend learned at a “flying into inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions” course.

Before taking off, the student has to specify their particular EDP, and it could vary depending on the experience of the pilot.

For example, a relatively low-time student might create an EDP that says, “If I have to reduce speed by five or more knots twice,” (due to deteriorating weather), “then I will either land or turn around.” Another example is that if the pilot finds himself lowering the collective two times or more and, due to the lower power output, descending 200 feet below the flight-planned altitude, then he would turn around or land.

“It’s all about recognizing these decision points,” Friend explained. “Each student makes that pledge before they get into the helicopter.” Because the student helped define the EDP, which they are comfortable with, it becomes a personal limitation.

“So often we play the ‘I can get there’ game,” he said. “You keep convincing yourself to move forward. If you don’t have an en-route descent point, you push it a little more.”

That the EDP concept works is evident in that Hillsboro Aero pilots do choose the safer outcome and land their helicopters in fields away from the destination. “It’s no problem,” Friend said.

When these students make their way into the wider aviation world and start flying customers, they have to deal with the insidious issue of passenger pressure. Friend used to fly a news helicopter and was given some cogent advice by another news pilot, which he has followed ever since. The advice is that every story is the most important story, but in fact, tomorrow’s story will become another important one with all the attendant pressure on the pilot to take risks to capture the video. “There is a lot of pressure to go fly and get the shots,” he said. Customers need to understand the severity of the situation if they pressure pilots. “That’s when accidents start,” he said.