Understanding Helicopter Ratings: the Instrument Rating

Welcome to the second installment of our May series on understanding the ratings and certificates that make up helicopter pilot education under FAA rules. This week's focus is the Helicopter Instrument Rating, and we begin with the question that we get asked most frequently: is the instrument rating necessary in order to have a career as a helicopter pilot?
Our airplane pilot career students would find this question rather unusual: after all, airplane pilots fly in instrument conditions constantly -- every time they ascend through a cloud layer to reach a cruising altitude, for instance. But it's different for helicopter pilots -- they don't ascend to that cloud layer, and depending on the type of helicopter pilot career you pursue, you might never find yourself in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Some helicopter employers don't even have IMC-certified helicopters in their fleet.
But that is by no means the complete picture. The reality is that the instrument rating is absolutely necessary for helicopter pilots to have the full and rewarding they seek in exchange for the hard work and expense of their training, and that's why it's an integral part of a complete helicopter pilot education in our Pro Pilot Program.
In a competitive hiring scenario, all helicopter employers are going to give preference to an instrument-rated pilot, because that pilot will be more experienced, more versatile, and will have the ability to fly safely if IMC conditions do crop up. Those employers will look less favorably on a candidate whose flying ability is limited to Visual Flight Restrictions (VFR), because, well, weather happens. And for the helicopter careers that have the highest growth potential right now -- Helicopter Emergency Management Services (HEMS) and oil & gas exploration -- the rating is a must-have.
So then with an understanding that you're going to want your instrument rating, let's talk about what it actually entails. The training combines ground school, simulator time, and flight time in an R22 or R44 Robinson trainer equipped with an instrument panel. Like all flight schools, we rely on the instrument panel because, while the R22 is the absolute best helicopter for training, it is not equipped with the stabilization system that makes a helicopter IMC-certified. Instead, the instrument panel allows you to experience the low visibility conditions of a real instrument-flying scenario while allowing you to safely fly the right aircraft for your skill level.
The ground school portion of your Instrument rating is focused on learning the instruments themselves and how navigation systems allow a helicopter pilot to fly without direct reference to the ground. You'll learn about various weather conditions, how to conduct flight planning for those conditions, and the concepts behind the instrument approaches that you'll practice directly in the simulator and in the R22.
The simulator and flight training are broken into two stages. In the first stage, you'll learn how to use instruments alone to maintain a given altitude, airspeed and direction. Simulator time will also give you practice doing emergency procedures in simulated IMC, and you'll even learn what do to if an instrument fails during the process.
In stage two, you practice taking off and landing your R22 while only referencing your instruments. The FAA requires one cross-country flight with an instructor for 100+ miles, as well as three instrument landings in different airports. Thanks to our many local airports, you'll have plenty of different scenarios to choose from to fulfill this requirement. And finally, you will of course complete your rating with an instrument checkride with an FAA examiner.
Ready to make the Instrument rating part of your helicopter pilot education? Reach out to us at info@flyhaa.com to get started.

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