I have just read your Rotor & Wing article, “Stay Proficient” in the Editor’s Notebook section of the February 2010 issue, page 4. Thank you for writing it. I have been flying helicopters, both military and commercial, for the better part of 35 years and I’m astonished at how little IFR proficiency exists in the helicopter industry. The reasons for this, though, are not hard to realize once you understand the environment most commercial helicopter pilots work in, especially those that fly at night.
Rotor & Wing mistakenly identified the photo at the top as an exterior view of a CAE Eurocopter AS350B2 flight training device on page 4 of our Show Day edition from Heli-Expo. The correct photo is at the bottom. We regret the error.
When I started flying in the Army, the regulations clearly directed IFR training and regular IFR filing; yet the reality was the aircraft were seldom properly equipped for serious IFR use. Tactical multi-ship training missions, both in the U.S. and overseas, were regularly conducted VFR in weather as low as 200- to 300-foot ceilings and 1/2 to 1/4 mile visibility—in rain, snow, fog, etc., even at night—this was before NVGs. For many military trained pilots; this “VFR at all costs” approach carried over to the commercial world—it is all they had known.
Additionally, to properly equip an IFR-capable aircraft that is to be flown single-pilot, it needs an autopilot. Helicopters are inherently not as stable as airplanes—with few exceptions you can never “trim up” a helicopter to fly straight and level—hands off, even in the smoothest of air. You take your hands off of one or more controls or divert your attention away from the immediate task of flying, and away the aircraft will go. For a pilot to fly alone (single-pilot) in a non-autopilot-equipped “IFR capable” helicopter in IMC, especially at night, is quite daunting.
Thirdly, airplanes always fly from airfields to airfields that almost always have weather reporting of some degree—at least ASOS. This presents a relatively black or white level of information on whether to go or not. The vast majority of helicopter EMS (HEMS) flights are to/from open areas; away from airports, without point weather reporting capability. You can call all the weather briefers you want; but when your destination is 20-plus miles (or more) from a weather reporting facility, their ability to interpret conditions at the scene, at the surface are iffy. These are among some of the reasons that the only helicopter flying done regularly at night or in marginal weather (outside the military) is by the HEMS or police aviation communities.
The police aviation community is mostly centered on lighted, urban areas and seldom fly if the weather is truly IFR. This leaves the HEMS community, which is often required to fly outside of urban environments, at night, to locations with no real-time weather information. To be flying an inherently unstable aircraft, single-pilot, at night, without autopilots, at relatively low altitudes, in areas with little to no external visual reference—where it is all but impossible to see anything past the windshield; and yet state they are legally “VFR” because an area weather report says so, is absolute insanity. The HEMS accident record of the past several years supports this.
It was very interesting to read your comments—the vast difference in mindset between the commercial airplane world and the commercial helicopter world is accurate. Yet to simply state that ‘staying instrument proficient’ is key to accident reduction, and ultimately survival, is far removed from the reality. Because of the inadequate nature of much of the equipment and flight environment, EMS flying at night requires a level of instrument proficiency that equals or surpasses what the airlines train to. Yet, with very few exceptions, most commercial helicopter operators do not require or support anywhere near the instrument training levels that equal proficiency; or, do not have the training properly directed from above to ensure proficiency compliance.
The Europeans are way ahead of the U.S. in this area. It is now or will soon be directed that night HEMS will be conducted in twin engine, autopilot equipped, seriously IFR-capable aircraft, flown by IFR-proficient pilots—period. Canada already has required a similar approach for EMS operators, and their safety record reflects the difference. There will be those in our helicopter community who will argue with what I say; but I have been flying a very long time and am fundamentally correct.
The EMS industry in the U.S. needs a complete re-thinking of what they are about. Yet, until the FAA mandates many of the more expensive and time-consuming requirements, nothing will change. The HEMS industry in the U.S. is, in many ways, capitalism at its worst.