A Day In The Life… Helicopter Flight Instructor!

Helicopter CFI at Southern Utah University

“If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way, if you don’t, you’ll find an excuse”. Clearly, after an unfortunate twist of fate, Chris Cox found a way into the helicopter industry, or maybe the helicopter industry found him. Either way, if you’ve considered becoming a Helicopter Instructor, Chris’ story and description of his “Day In The Life…” has the right mix of both inspiration and information to help you decide if it’s something you’re interested in.

The Rotor Break

May 11, 2016, my life would change forever. At about 3:30 p.m. my phone began to ring, my mother-in-law was calling. Why on earth would she be calling? She and my wife had gone to the doctors for a check-up for my five-day-old son. It was my wife. Unable to speak she handed the phone to my mother-in-law. With tears in her eyes and a cracked voice she uttered the words, “ Porter is very sick and has to be flown to Murray.” My heart sank. I immediately left work and began my 15-minute trek to the hospital. 

The Agusta A109, operated by Intermountain Life Flight that transported my son Porter and I to the Neonatal ICU

Once I arrived at the hospital I learned that Porter’s bilirubin was way too high and he was potentially suffering from liver failure. A feeling that some may understand, but no parent should ever have to deal with. No words can describe the feeling of helplessness and despair when you hear a doctor say that your son may not make it. As aforementioned, the best option for our sweet five-day-old baby was to be flown to a hospital about two hours north of our home, to a neonatal ICU. At this point, we had a decision to make, who was going to fly with him, and who was going to drive to the hospital? Having been intrigued by helicopters my entire life, I badly wanted it to be me; however, I also wanted my wife to be able to be with her baby, so I offered her to take the flight with him. She informed me that she is incredibly frightened by helicopters and insisted that I go. I found myself sitting next to a pilot in an Agusta 109, asking a million questions regarding the operation of a helicopter. I inquired about his path to becoming a helicopter pilot, and I was hooked. We arrived at the hospital and a team of doctors and nurses surrounded us. After days of tests and care being provided,0 Porter started to turn around. Thankfully, he made a full recovery. 

 I remember thinking numerous times throughout that flight, “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” And so, the rest of my life began. 

Fast forward to August 2018. I left my job as a coal miner, my wife and I sold our house, packed our things, and away we went. I would soon be starting a collegiate flight program. I instantly fell in love with helicopters and their capabilities. As a father of two, I was anxious to get through the program and back to the workforce. I studied hard and trained harder. Each semester I would receive a new instructor, and I admired so many of them. I was inspired by their dedication to their students, so inspired that I aspired to be like them one day. 

June 2020. I had finished my certificates and ratings in March and was patiently waiting for my opportunity. Unfortunately, covid-19 struck and delayed the process. June came and my opportunity arose, a couple of positions opened. I was poised and prepared for the opportunity to interview and hopefully be hired as a full-time flight instructor. I got the job! 

0430- the alarm clock rings, and so our day begins…

I reluctantly hop out of bed and head for the gym. If I don’t take care of myself, how can I take care of my students? I learned very quickly to take the time necessary for self-care, even if that means gym sessions at 5 a.m. On my way to the gym, I call for weather. I’m looking for current conditions and how they are fitting the forecast. After the gym, I race home. Time to get ready for the 0700 block. This morning I am working with a private student. I head to the airport and brief my student. We discuss the goals for the day and what our objectives are. Now that we are both on the same page, I send them to preflight and finish up my weather briefing. Almost time for take-off!

I grab the can for the aircraft and my headset, and head for the aircraft. I check the fuel sample, walk through a preflight with my student and push the helicopter out. We start up and away we go. Starting with normal approaches it is easy to tell where this student is and what we need to work on. As we continue to work through approaches , I am consistently evaluating the students attentiveness to instruments, traffic, and aircraft control. Personally, I love instructing private-level students. Most of the time, they know just enough to maintain proper control, but still have a ways to go. It is so rewarding to see them advance from the solo stage to a well-rounded private pilot.

After the flight, and onto groundschool. This is one of the most important parts of my day. Would I rather be flying? Probably, but if the student(s) is not proficient on the ground, they will not perform well in the air. It is imperative to provide adequate ground instruction for the success of my students. As part of a collegiate program, the student(s) take a ground class on campus that provides an in-depth overview of the material required for the certificate they are seeking. This is a great starting place, however, more often than not they don’t quite grasp it all after hearing it all just one time. A job as a flight instructor does become quite repetitive, often teaching the same thing or repeating yourself multiple times throughout the day.

1200 rolls around. I slam a quick lunch, it’s time to fly again. This time I get to fly with an instrument student! I absolutely love instrument flight. I know, weird. A helicopter pilot that enjoys instrument flight. Instrument instruction is even more rewarding than taking a private student from zero to successfully flying solo. Taking a freshly minted private student from making huge corrections and various altitude deviations to perfectly flying an ILS or a hold is incredibly satisfying. 

1430 it’s time to finish. Today I get to finish the day early. This will be the last flight. As a flight instructor, the schedule changes daily. Some days I work until 1700 and others are started a little later and flown into the night. It all comes down to what the student needs to fulfill certificate or rating requirements. 

As the day winds down, I spend time with my wife and kids. I enjoy dinner with them and hopefully get to play a bit before it’s time for bed. Before my head hits the pillow I look at the forecast and prepare myself for the day ahead. Each day provides new opportunities and challenges. Let’s make the best of it!

A Day In The Life of a Helicopter CFI – Photo Credit, SUU Aviation

Flight instruction, in all honesty, is the most fulfilling position I have ever had. On the contrary, it is also one of the most challenging positions I have ever had. Many can attest that the student that works hard and flies well makes the job of a flight instructor fairly simple and much more enjoyable. Unfortunately, some students make the job more arduous than others. Their dream is to fly, but they are often reluctant to put in the time necessary to study while outside the aircraft. Although these students may be more difficult, they just need a bit more TLC. With the aforementioned students, I insist on doing more ground in an attempt to help them succeed. Unfortunately, there is a harsh reality to accept with some students. As instructors, we can’t want it more than the student does. However, as an instructor, it is my responsibility not to give up on these students. I was fortunate enough to have some of the best instructors and mentors and I owe it to my students to pay it forward.

As for Porter, he’s doing well. Soon we will be celebrating his fifth birthday. Throughout my schooling and now instructor life he, too, has gained a love for helicopters. He doesn’t know it yet, but I plan on taking him up for his birthday. I can’t wait to see the excitement as we lift off!

 Chris Cox is currently a CFI at Southern Utah University. Clearly, it was fate that led him to a Helicopter career and he’s determined to give every student the best possible chance of following in his footsteps.

 

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Helicopter CFI at Southern Utah University

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