The best grounding for ATPL(H) theory

To become a great helicopter pilot, it’s not just what you learn in the air, it’s also about what you learn on the ground. That’s why Ben Vanhentenrijk founded Helicopter Groundschool in 2019, specialising in the ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) theory. Still a serving Senior Captain in the Belgian Air Force, he also trains the French Navy and the Belgian and Dutch Police. Outside of that, he has trained over 500 military, commercial and civil pilots during the course of his career.

On the subject of ATPL, Ben Vanhentenrijk is the specialists’ specialist. His love and understanding of theory have brought him to the highest level in the industry. Ben is now included as one of the elite experts, writing questions for EASA and the ECQB (European Central Question Bank). We asked him how he reached such heady heights.

Teaching ATPL to the Belgian Air Force
“My story begins in 2003. I studied for five years at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels. Soon after, I was trained as a technical officer on the Sea King helicopter. Then I actually went back to the academy to train ATPL courses to the student pilots. I started with one course, gradually adding more.”

Technical officer? So, you weren’t a pilot?

“I was in the Air Force, but I wasn’t a pilot. And still today, I have a CPL, but I’m not a military pilot. I started with one course which was instrumentation and then gradually built up the curriculum of courses. Quite soon I was giving lessons on seven of the 14 subjects. While the pilots were flying a few hundred hours per year, I was doing a few hundred hours of theory. I should have kept a logbook!”

CPL on steroids
The ATPL has been described as CPL on steroids. It’s the most demanding pilot’s licence. It gives you the authority to conduct commercial operations. In addition to private and commercial pilot licence privileges, you can be the pilot-in-command of a multi-crew operation.

“The ATPL theory covers all the subjects you expect, like meteorology, psychology, air law and how a helicopter exactly works but the study is seriously in-depth and demanding. It’s the best way to fully prepare the future aviator for the highest level of piloting.”

How did you make the step to Helicopter Groundschool?

“From 2009 to 2019 I was in Brussels, still in the military, teaching ATPL by day and then the rest of the time a civil guy teaching PPL theory in private. That’s how I funded my CPL flying, my hour building, my ATPL theory and eventually the flight instructor rating. I started preparing in 2018, it easily took one year to write all the ATO manuals, find the necessary books and collect all the information. Quite some time.”

No books about flying theory
Learning and theory books for flying in Europe are not published by EASA. What they do publish: a very long list of what should be in those books. In other words, the learning objectives. There are some commercial providers, who provide books around the subject, but most of them focused on fixed-wing aircraft. Then there’s Helicopter Groundschool… Creating these study books is a big thing.

So, I was writing the manuals, writing the idea, the course structure. I got the approval I needed in September 2019 and became an ATO, an approved training organisation. I then had my first five students that autumn, another one in January, then February 2020, we all know what happened… COVID-19.”

For most people, the coronavirus was a complete business catastrophe, however Ben had other ideas.

Making the transition to online training
“Course structures were not applicable anymore. I had to move to video sessions. We had to learn fast, and we did. By the summer of 2020 I had already amended the training manuals and received the necessary certificate of approval. I got quite a few students and the Dutch police, who I’d trained before. Online teaching helped us offer our training anywhere anytime. The furthest away was a Croatian pilot living in Australia. He wanted to have a European helicopter licence to fly for the Croatian Police. In the other direction, there was a Greek guy flying in Brazil, now flying for our LHA partner, Superior Air. I also have Dutch, French and Belgian students. And I help train the French Navy.”

For the top jobs, you need ATPL
It’s often been said, that to get the top jobs in the helicopter business you must have high level ATPL training. You need a specialist for that, where do you find them?

“In the mid 80s helicopters got bigger, from larger operations to offshore platforms, for example. In a multi-pilot cockpit, where you have two pilots, the captain must have an ATPL. However, in the helicopter community, you have many smaller operators, operators with just a few helicopters. A high level ATPL is a big step to incorporate in a smaller operation or smaller flight school. Most schools have found an excellent solution. To continue being good at what you do but work with an external partner, like Helicopter Groundschool, specialised in the ATPL(H) theoretical knowledge training.

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