Learning to Fly Near Busy Airports: an Instructor's Perspective

When considering a career as a helicopter pilot, where you fly matters. While all career pilots must complete the FAA-required or EASA-required courses through their Commercial Pilot License (CPL), they won’t necessarily gather all the experience that employers truly value. Hillsboro Heli Academy’s Troutdale campus location between a major urban center and a major wilderness provides opportunities to gather those valuable experiences.

Our proximity to Portland International Airport (KPDX) allows us to deliver training that isn’t mandated by the FAA’s Private Pilot License (PPL) requirements. PDX airspace consists of “Tower” and “Approach,” with Tower being right over the actual runways and Approach being higher and farther outward. Picture an inverted wedding cake or a right side up funnel. A flight through PDX can be a nice break from maneuver training or an option if it is too windy to safely practice something locally but calmer a few miles away.

Learning how to operate in larger, busier classes of airspace is something some PPL applicants never get to experience due to the location of the airport where they receive their flight training. If a student finds themselves at a location hundreds of miles from a city large enough to warrant a Bravo or Charlie class airport, it may not be feasible to experience it first hand, so they are left with hearing about it second hand from instructors or chiefs or listening to LiveATC (still a helpful endeavor).

PDX, being a C or charlie-class airport (identified on our maps by thick magenta lines) comes with more strict protocols, procedures, requirements for flight than lesser airspace classes such as D/delta or E/echo or G/golf. The regulations found in Part 61 or Appendix B to Part 141 in the FAR/AIM stipulate only classroom training for various airspaces, but a certificated private pilot is legally entitled to utilize charlie and bravo airports. This presents an obvious dilemma for some, but not if your training takes place at Hillsboro Heli Academy.

A direct flight from Troutdale [KTTD] to Pearson [KVUO] airport (roughly 12 miles west) takes you through Portland Tower airspace and can be an excellent training or merely just an eye-opening learning experience for the private student. This experience, even if the student is not on the radio at all, coupled with timely instruction during and a detailed debrief afterward can really help a student better understand the nature of (and the expectations that come with) the license they are pursuing. We train our students to think proactively and remain ‘ahead of the helicopter’; therefore a general understanding of charlie procedure serves to more adequately prepare them for ops at bigger airports. It is also pretty cool to be on the same frequency as the large airliners (called “Heavies”). Of course, those familiar with the training environment know that Private training precedes Instrument training, and Instrument involves much in-flight correspondence with Charlie Approach/Tower. So additional radio familiarity looms on the horizon for the PPL student seeking to continue their training.

PDX requires two-way radio communication and an aircraft specific altitude transmitting transponder and four-digit code to enter and operate within; as with delta, you also need to hear them say your tail number to confirm you are allowed inside. I picture airspace like going to someone’s house; it’s polite to call them for permission before I come over and not just go walking into their master bedroom, as they may only want me hanging out in certain rooms. The same principle applies to airports and the ‘homeowners’ that oversee the operations within their boundaries.

Leaving KTTD for KVUO our helicopter would normally be coded 1200 (for VFR) having requested a north bank transition to Pearson where Troutdale tower would privately notify Portland tower of our movement in their direction. We maintain about 1000’ MSL westbound, changing radio frequency to PDX tower and receiving a code we plug into our transponder. After getting the weather we figure out the runway to use based on wind direction, receive clearance to enter Pearson and then follow established self-reporting procedures for non-towered airports.

A final note of our use of Pearson airport which some may find quite interesting: as you can see on the sectional chart, KVUO is a special SFRA airport with a dual use CTAF and Advisory frequency and pertinent notes for further information which can be found in Part 93. Another great example of why it is so important to thoroughly research an area prior to flight within it – something that Hillsboro Heli students learn first-hand.