Longline work is a special niche of the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) industry, one that requires precision and intricate teamwork.

1 DON’T rely on the horizon for reference when flying longline.

In most helicopter flights, the pilot faces forward, looking out the windscreen at the nose of the aircraft to determine spatial positioning. But in external-load operations, which typically use lines of 100 to 250 feet that hang below the ship, it’s critical to look out the door of the helicopter and down—a practice even experienced pilots find challenging, says Cody Barton, chief pilot for Columbia Helicopters. “Using vertical reference is the toughest thing about longline to get used to,” he says. “It can frustrate a pilot who’s new to the sector. It really gives you humility.”

2 DO practice, practice, practice.

The key to becoming adept at longline work, say experts, isn’t so much the aircraft you train in but the amount of time you put into it. “It takes about 20 hours of flight time for a pilot with no longline experience to get to a point where you can safely fly a basic longline op,” says Andre Hutchings, director of operations at external-load training company Volo Mission (VM). In VM’s in-person classes, participants practice with various line lengths—50 feet versus 200 feet, for example—to solidify their skills. And in the ground portion of the course, they learn to appreciate the perspective of the ground crew, who must complete their work with helicopters hovering over their heads.

3 DO obtain class training.

Don’t rely on on-the-job training to perfect your longline skills. Instead, get formal instruction led by professional teachers. In this sector, “everyone starts as an SIC [second-in-command pilot],” Barton says. “Learning longline is like learning to fly a helicopter all over again.” Acquiring the basics in a setting that allows you to concentrate without the demands, pressures, and time constraints of a job is essential, adds Kim Hutchings, VM’s CEO. “In a course, you’re fully immersed in and focused on the training, and you aren’t interrupted by business concerns,” she says. Class training also enables students to learn the intricacies of longline ops—what it’s like, for instance, working with steel lines instead of the now more-common, lighter synthetic lines, or graduating to heavier, more-unwieldy two-part load work after beginning with one-part loads.

4 DON’T assume longline recruiters look only at a job applicant’s previous experience.

Humility, a good attitude, and a strong work ethic are just as critical, Barton notes. Columbia has been known to hire someone who’s a great fit for the job and then send the person to longline training. Sami Challburg, who’s in her first year conducting firefighting missions with Helicopter Express (HE), worked her way up from flight instructor. Dedication and commitment earned her a Whirly-Girls scholarship that afforded Challburg 20 hours of longline training, which eventually helped her secure her position with HE.

5 DON’T join the longline sector unless you enjoy working on a team.

The sector is very team oriented, and for good reason: ground coordinators, riggers, pilots—all must rely on one another to safely execute what are often hazardous procedures. Performing precise load placements depends not only on the aeronautical skills and experience of the pilot but also on the preflight equipment preparation, rigging, and staging proficiency of ground personnel, and the communications skills of every crew member, in the air and on land.

Thanks to Chris Hill, HAI director of safety, and the panelists on the Aug. 20, 2020, HAI@Work webinar, “Longline Operations: Training and Discussion”: Cody Barton, chief pilot, Columbia Helicopters; Sami Challburg, pilot, Helicopter Express; and Andre Hutchings, director of operations, and Kim Hutchings, CEO, Volo Mission. Listen to the recorded webinar to learn more about this fascinating field.