The Confidence Cliff

When Experience Really Matters! By Randy Rowles

Within the dynamic realm of helicopter flight, exuberance and sometimes overconfidence fills the cockpit in the form of eager aviator; they are called helicopter pilots. Each day, helicopters perform missions that serve the public in a variety of ways: air medical, law enforcement, firefighting, and even tourism, just to name a few. Rotorcraft provide the ability to go places not usually accessible to the average person. Helicopter pilots often spend years learning their craft and gaining the experience required to conduct more complex, and often better paying, helicopter pilot jobs. However, the experience gained in hours may not accurately reflect the experience required in proficiency.

Most helicopter pilot jobs within mission segments outside of flight training require 1,500 flight hours or more. There are many reasons for this that include insurance minimums and/or contract requirements of operators, and regulatory or accreditation minimums for some special authorizations. Over the years, this standard wasn’t a detriment to the industry because of the extensive pilot pool that was available. Today’s helicopter market is feeling the double pressure of retiring helicopter pilots coupled with the airlines’ intensive recruiting efforts to fill their increasing shortages of pilots. As a result, hiring requirements are changing.

Many helicopter operators find themselves challenged to find qualified pilots experienced for the mission and have reduced minimum hour levels to open the hiring process to less experienced pilots than previously desired. This looks like a great situation for employers to fill voids and for those pilots looking to move into more complex positions. However, it may have a negative impact on safety.

Randy Rowles has been an FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is currently the owner of the Helicopter Institute. He can be reached at

The immediate pool of pilots often sought for early recruitment is within the flight instructor cadre. In many cases, they have the hour requirements, however their experience may only reflect conducting the same hour over-and-over again in right traffic patterns while someone else (the student) does all the flying! Is it possible for this experience to provide the instructor with the skills needed for more complex jobs? Absolutely! Proper training matched with an attitude for safety, yields the ability to make good decisions and function safely.

The challenge may be greatest within the flight training market itself. As flight instructors move on to other jobs at lower hour levels, the average experience of the remaining instructor pilot pool is reduced. This requires either improving the skillsets of the remaining instructor pool, or instead minimizing flight instructor experience requirements of pilot training programs with less complex maneuvers. I’m sorry to say that the latter is often the chosen option.

The challenge to having minimal experience, when experience is the required tool of safety, is having the ability to make GOOD decisions. The confidence a pilot gains throughout their flying career enables them to make good decisions to get the job done. However, often the very best decision is one where the job doesn’t get done! Many factors drive the decision-making process and having previous experience when faced with any one of many factors aids in making good decisions.

Simply stated, the confidence cliff is climbed by an individual’s experience, and their ability to know what maneuvers and/or missions they are or are not proficient in conducting. The cliff is easy to identify but may be costly when reached. You’ll recognize it by that funny little feeling you get to know as overconfidence, which often comes right before you know you’re wrong! It’s at this point the depth of one’s overconfidence defines the height of the confidence cliff. The more overconfident you are, the higher the fall!

Maintaining higher thresholds of airspeed, altitude, or other mechanisms that allow for recovery time when the confidence cliff is reached is key to a safe, long, and prosperous helicopter pilot career. The alternative? Well, they say it’s not the fall that kills you.

If you have any comments or questions, please let me know at

84 Nov/Dec 2018

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