I’m taking the time to visit all of my local flight schools. Choosing which school to go with is a pretty big decision and I want to be sure I get this right. It seemed prudent to check them all out to get a feel for what they offer.

First stop was Helipistas, a family run company set up by a father and his two sons, all of whom fly. They used to be based at Sabadell airport, but set up their very own heliport in the rather picturesque hills around Ullastrell.

As a business they offer tourist flights, aerial filming for news stations and sporting events, aerial inspections, construction work, air advertising and of course a flight school. Fingers in many pies one might say although I was surprised to learn that they don’t offer self hire, but will hire helicopters out to ex students at their discretion. They have their own maintenance facilities and are one of only four certified Robinson service centres in the country.

Vincenç, one of the owners, first showed me round and told me all about their business and then handed me over to their cheif (ex military) instructor Luís who explained in great detail how the course works and how they teach it. They can be completely flexible on the hours, both for the theory as well as the practical, which certainly works well for me. As an added bonus, they will be opening a heliport in Valencia next year. Definitely a novel way to visiting the in laws.

The only negative I could think of was the fact that as a private heliport there would be very little interaction with other traffic, traffic control or at least the tower, as you would get at an airport of a reasonable size.


Course Books * €590
Theory Classes €2,124
45 hours flight time €17,523
Total €20,237

* They are happy for me to purchase my own course books in English.

Getting Started

I’ve just moved to Spain, which has cut down my choice of flight schools considerably. Not aided by very poor SEO on Spanish flight school websites it has taken me a long time to find out about any of the options open to me. At one point I’d begun to think that there were no helicopter flight schools near Barcelona. Slowly I started finding more useful info, and as a result, decided to created a page listing all of the schools I did find. Hopefully this may one day save someone the effort I went through: Flight Schools in Spain.

Contrary to my initial thoughts, it would appear that I’ve picked the right area to move to. There are seemingly more flight schools in Catalunya than anywhere else in the country, with three based in Sabadell. The very same town I live in! Coincidence? Yeah, pretty much.

Some schools only seem to offer the commercial licence rather than the private one that I’m after. Time to make some proper enquiries and visit the following schools to see what they can offer me:


Aero Link Air Services

Top Fly

Aero Club Barcelona Sabadell

Which Flight School?

Given the amount of money involved, picking the right flight school is a pretty important decision. So what needs to be considered?

Is it close by? How much time does it take to get there? Making a lot of trips, the time soon adds up, and what if the lesson is cancelled due to weather or any other reason? You’ll be pretty hacked off if you’ve driven an hour only to find you can’t fly and have to turn home again. You also want to be fresh, and alert for the lessons, which is something you wont be after sitting in traffic for 40 minutes.

Do you get on with the staff and the instructors at the flight school? Make a point of meeting them before signing up. You’ll be spending a lot of time with them, so if there are personality clashes, it might be worth looking elsewhere.

Busy Airport?
The busier the airport, the more time you’ll have to spend waiting around for other traffic to get out of your way. Landing taxes will probably be more expensive too. That said, if you go somewhere too quiet, you won’t get the benefit of controlled air space and interacting with other air traffic.

Can you refuel at the flight school, or do you have to taxi over to the airports fuel pumps to get fuel, thus using up valuable lesson time? What about maintenance? Does the school have  a maintenance hanger, how many helicopters do they have? Will you have to put your classes on hold while the school’s only helicopter is off somewhere else being serviced? Does the school have a simulator? Learning on a simulator can save on costly hours in the air.

This is of course a big one, but don’t just go on the hourly rate. What about landing taxes, accommodation (if required), transport getting there, your time? Do the school charge for the theory lessons? Weight it all up before making a decision based on cost.

One option for bringing the cost down is to learn abroad where it can be a lot cheaper. In the US you could do an intensive course in four weeks, pay for you accommodation and return flights for less than it costs just to get the PPL(H) in the UK.

Personally, I’ll be avoiding this route, as cramming so much into such a short period of time is tiring and not efficient. It took me over a week to absorb everything I was shown in my first 2 hours flying. On an intensive, you don’t have the time to absorb fully what you’ve learnt one day, before more is thrown at you the next.

Besides, the cheap hours in the US can be saved for hour building once you’ve got your PPL.

where am I going to sign up? By having just moved to Spain the choice of flight schools available to me has just been drastically reduced. Time to do some research to see what my options are.

The Discovery Day

Wow… What an incredible day! Pretty hard to express in written form just how great it was but I’ll start with an alliteration by saying it was exciting, exhilarating and exhausting…

Arriving at Rise Helicopters at Gloucester Airport I was introduced to my instructor Dave who, over a cup of tea, explained what the day was about while determining from me what I wanted to get out of it.

After a tour of the facilities, and some map perving (I can loose myself in maps four hours and this was the first time I’d seen the aviation variety), we made our way to G-WIRL, the Robinson R22 that was to be our Helicopter for the day. Before getting going I was shown around the helicopter and got to do my techy nerdy thing learning as much about the mechanical side as possible.

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Soon after, we were into the R22’s somewhat small cockpit, as Dave showed me the start up sequence before we set off for the first flight. Once in the air, I was given a demo of each control at a time, before trying it for myself. I was then given two controls at a time, and then three, which saw me have full control of the helicopter.  With all three controls I had a go at straight and level flight (or in my case straightish and levelish flight), turns and climbs and decents. Initially it was quite surreal, actually being there and having the controls. Previous pleasure flights have seen me get past the nervous stage, although several times when the helicopter went in directions that I didn’t really intend it to did see me on edge.

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Returning to the airport Dave demonstrated the descent and bringing the helicopter into a hover after which he proceeded to show me, one control at a time, how to hover. After which I had a go on each control while Dave kept hold of the other controls.

I’ve read a lot about helicopters and hovering, and read many a time how difficult hovering is and how unlikely it is to get a go on all three controls simultaneously on a first trial flight. I was therefore pretty surprised when Dave then started giving me two controls at a time, and before I knew it all three. In fact, I remember thinking previously that I would be satisfied if by the end of the day I’d been able to get a go on all three controls for a few seconds.

Once again, having read so much, I wasn’t expecting to be able to hover more than a few seconds before Dave had to take control, saying the magic words  ‘I have control’ and bringing the helicopter back to a perfect hover from the mad out of control movements it had got itself into while under my ‘control’. I was therefore surprised and elated to hold the helicopter in a hover for over 30 seconds on only my second attempt! Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a steady hover by any stretch of the imagination, but it was reasonably controlled.

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A large part of an instructor’s job is to encourage and give confidence to their students, but imagine the ego boost I got after the flight when Dave told me that he’d never had a student that had been able to hover like that within the first flight!

I was helped by several factors. Firstly I had a good understanding of the controls, their effects on the helicopter and each other before I got there. Secondly, everything I’d read emphasised small, delicate inputs on the controls. Thirdly there was little to no wind to throw the little R22 around. The fourth and possibly most significant reason, which I admitted to Dave, was that I’d been practicing on Microsoft Flight Simulator with a Helicopter Realism add on (more on that on a later post). He commented how that clearly helped, and could well save me a lot of money.

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After a break and bit more theory, we went out for a second flight of 50 minutes. I ran through the start up sequence prompted by Dave then we headed out east into the Cotswolds, with me being talked through a rather wobbly take off. I actually flew 90% of the trip with Dave only taking control to allow me to take photos, do some low level flying in a friends farm and giving me a demonstration of entering autorotation (flying the helicopter with no power from the engine). We finished with some more hovering (yup, to all those who say it is addictive, I get it) but this time with me being shown and practicing a touch down and take off.

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My final flight, which was a shorter 35 minutes, gave us time for a quick ‘circuit’ around the airfield, once again with me doing the wobbly departure and climb with Dave performing a full autorotation including skidding along the ground as we landed.

For the final 10 – 15 minutes I was able to practice more hovering, including landing and taking off. Once again, I found it surprisingly easy… It is just a question of coordination, understanding of the controls and practise. Normally, it is the cyclic control that people struggle with most, but I found the pedals to be my weak point, constantly getting them confused and turning left instead of right and vice versa. We finished off with me hover taxiing back to the hanger, once again surprised at how long Dave let my fly for. He only took control for the last 30 metres or so as he parked it in between several other very expensive pieces of kit.

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I absorbed a huge amount of information during these flights, but one key thing that I picked up thanks to Dave’s input, is that there is plenty of time when flying a helicopter. You don’t need to rush anything. Correct whatever control is most in need of it first, then correct the rest, all in a relaxed manor. And that appears to be the key to getting to grips with it.

A few minor details brought a smile to my face during the day too. At the end of the second flight when Dave talked me through the shutdown procedure he challenged me to stop the rotor postioned exactly forward aft with the rotor brake, saying that most students struggle with it. I was pleased with myself when I got it almost perfectly stopped with Dave’s input, but not as much as when on the final flight without any prompting I parked it perfectly. That, along with the hovering, general grasp of the concepts, interest in maps are all further proof to me that this is definitely my thing… All I need to do now is find the money to start my Private Pilots License course.

We’d been blessed with a beautiful sunny day, and upon leaving Rise Helicopters I stopped for a pint and a late lunch at The Aviator pub overlooking the runway. An ideal place to sit, relax and reflect on the best day I’ve had in a very long time.

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View photos from the day.

Flight Time: 2.5 hours
Total Flight Time: 2.5 hours

British Weather

I was warned about this… ‘British weather is unpredictable’. I know that! ‘Always call the flight school before leaving for the lesson’.  Pretty sound advice, so I actually checked the forecast the day before only to see the worst rain forecast for the whole month. I called and the receptionist said she’d get my planned instructor to call me back.

When she called she confirmed that conditions definitely would not be suitable for a trial flight so we postponed for the following day. Checking once more, the following evening we ended up postponing one again, but not before I had aa long chat with another pilot who told me a fair bit about his career so far and how the ‘discovery day’ was much better way to get insight into flying than the standard one hour trial flight. More excited than ever, I’ve not got another week to wait until I can get my hands on that cyclic!

Which Trial Flight?

Once I started looking into booking my trial flight, I discovered plenty of choice both in locations and time in the air. Prices don’t vary that much between one place and the other, so it generally makes sense to go for the closest place that offers what you want. Prices do, of course, vary depending of the amount of time you spend in the air.

Most schools offer trial flights of 20 mins, 30 mins, 40 minds and 1 hour. I’m taking this pretty seriously, and I know how quickly the time will fly (excuse the pun), so for me it made no sense to book a 20 minute flight. Furthermore, time on the trial flight counts towards the minimum hours required for the PPL(H), so I had my mind set on the 1 hour flight.

I spoke to Bristol based Rotorflight first, but I have to say I didn’t have a great feeling speaking to the chap there (although the mention of an autorotation demo had me grinning away on the end of the phone). I can’t really put my finger on it, but I can’t say I wanted to rush up and sign up with them immediately.

I decided to hold back and inquire with some flight schools around Valencia in Spain, given I was going to be spending a couple of weeks there. As it happened my visit coincided with the Festival Aéreo Valencia hosted by the Real Aeroclub Valencia that not only allowed me to gawp and admire the maneuvers by various aircraft (shame I didn’t have my SLR), but also speak to some members of the club about learning to fly. Unfortunately the company based in Requena that I was trying to get in contact had gone under, and all other schools in the area only teach fixed wing. The Real Aeroclub Valencia were looking to introduce the PPL(H) to their offerings but are apparently struggling to get permission for the required helipad…

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A few tight months financially saw me put the booking on the back burner for a while. In July I was down at Goodwood Motor Racing Circuit for the 2010 Mongol Rally launch. After a long day I wandered over to watch a Robinson R22 being flown around the aerodrome by, judging from how much it was moving around, a PPL(H) student. Unable to help myself, I wandered into Pheonix Helicopters’ office for a chat, and was greeting by a very friendly chap who worked there. He was not an instructor, but a holder of the PPL(H). We probably spoke for about 20 minutes, and I learned how this chap took his time taking over three years to get his license and spreading the cost at the same time. He didn’t start until after his 50th birthday, which is sureley encouragement to anyone who might be thinking, I’m too old for this.

Later in the evening I received a called from the instructor at Pheonix. Once again I had a good chat, and was informed about what trial flight options were as well as the PPL(H) course itself.  He also introduced me to the ‘discovery day’ which is a whole day with them with two hours flight time. A good option for those seriously considering the PPL(H)… i.e. Me.

I got completely the opposite feeling from this guy than the one from Rotorflight, and ultimately if Goodwood wasn’t so far away, I’d have signed up with Pheonix.

Enthusiasm fully restored, once back in Bristol I did some more research and found both Tiger Helicopters’ Introductory Day near Hereford and Rise Helicopters’ Discovery  Day close to Cheltenham.  Tiger offer more air time, at three hours, than Rise do, with 2.5 hours. Prices seemed to reflect this at £763 and £675 respectively.

After much deliberation, read faffing,  I decided to go with Rise Helicopters at Gloucester Airport as it is much easier to get to. In fact I can get to Cheltenham for £7 return on the train (which is actually cheaper than getting to Rotorflight at Bristol airport!), and from the station I’ll cycle to the airfield.

Yup, that’s right, cycle. Ride a bicycle and then fly a helicopter. I could hire a car, but that would be a bit wasteful given it would sit in a car park for most of the day, besides, every penny counts when saving up for the PPL(H).

Festival Aéreo Valencia

Feeding the obsession

After reading over several documents regarding principles of helicopter flight, it is amazing what Google will uncover, I decided to spend a voucher given to me by my sister some kind of Helicopter flight book. Looking at the various offerings on Amazon I settled with ‘The Helicopter Pilots Companion’ by Helen Krasner, as it seemed a pretty light introduction as opposed to a course book.

I have to say, what a great purchase it was. I spent every free moment reading it, and learned a hell of a lot about the helicopter world including some of the dangers and limits of flying helicopters. Take the ‘vortex ring state’, for example, where it is possible for the helicopter to enter it’s own down draft and head earthward rather rapidly or ‘ground resonance’ which if not handled correctly could result in the helicopter shaking itself to bits.

Beyond this the book covered the principles of flight, what learning to fly involves, beyond the PPL(H) and ‘Going commercial’. All written in a very accessibly manor, sparing on the physics (which in my case was actually a negative, as this is something that fascinates me).

I’ve got little to compare it to, but I can’t imagine a book that could better introduce you to the world of helicopter pilots. If you’re thinking about learning to fly helicopters, I’d thoroughly recommend starting with this book…

Here goes…

I’ve only just gone and done it… Booked my helicopter trial flight! Possibly the most expensive mistake I’ll ever make, as they say once you’ve had a go you’ll be addicted. That said, I think I’m already an addict, with an unhealthy obsession for all things helicopter growing noticeably over the last couple of years, fueled by a few pleasure flights, some flight sim action and reading a fair bit of technical info about helicopters and flying them.

After a lot of deliberation and some encouragement from my loving girlfriend, I’ve decided to go for it and try to get my Private Pilots License for Helicopters, often abbreviated to PPL(H). Ultimately the final decision to go for the license or not will come after the trial flight, but I think the chances of being discouraged by my first taste of flying a helicopter are pretty slim. Time, and the entries on this blog, will tell.