I feel I have to respond to your editorial in the February 2010 issue of Rotor & Wing magazine. You admit to having difficulty understanding how inadvertent IMC is such an issue in helicopters, so perhaps you’re not the only one. Let’s examine what we really mean by IIMC.
You’re probably used to operating from prepared airfields. You’re probably used to operating at altitudes where IMC doesn’t sneak up on you so easily. You’re probably used to having ready access to current in-flight weather reports. You’re probably used to relatively high minima for VFR operations, as they are not your norm. Unplanned IFR is what most people tend to call inadvertent IMC. When you think of IIMC, you probably imagine that you’ll see it coming. You expect to have time to make a clear-cut decision that VFR is no longer practical, followed by an orderly transition to IFR in an aircraft that, if properly trimmed and not disturbed, will continue to plod along quite happily with little intervention on the part of the pilot. Really, what’s the big deal?
There are a number of aspects of helicopter operations that you may not yet fully appreciate. First off, while the IFR system in the U.S. is probably the best in the world, it is still ill-suited to many helicopter operations. Certainly, there are those operators which use IFR very effectively, but the reality is that in most cases they must take advantage of deviations, exemptions and other work-arounds in order to make the system function—square peg, round hole.
Helicopters earn their keep by going where airplanes can’t. This generally means at least one end of the trip will entail operations without benefit of normal ATC services. For example, it can be downright frustrating simply trying to receive an IFR clearance. Where most IFR-capable airplanes enjoy the relative luxury of a surplus of fuel, for helicopters it’s nearly always a major issue. The helicopter’s flexibility is the key to its utility, and operation within the IFR system impedes this. For these reasons and many more few helicopter operators can justify the extra time, expense, and restrictions required to operate IFR. They may advertise IFR capability, but in most cases it’s only used as a last resort.
The conventional wisdom for many years has been that the solution to inadvertent IMC is IFR currency. But there are two problems with this approach. First, despite being adopted as policy by some operators, it almost invariably degenerates to lip service. In the real world of administrative and fiscal considerations it’s almost impossible to maintain true IFR currency (much less proficiency) in an operation where most flights are conducted under VFR. For one reason or another, it just doesn’t happen. We delude our customers, our insurers, even ourselves that 15 minutes under a hood every three months (or six months, or even a year) is sufficient.
But secondly, and more importantly, there is a huge difference between unplanned IFR and truly inadvertent (unexpected) IMC in helicopters. You may well ask how any pilot who considers him/herself a professional could possibly not see the situation developing and take timely appropriate action. The answer is that there are many factors involved, and the combination can be pretty insidious. It begins long before the pilot ever climbs into the helicopter.
We receive dispensation from the FAA to operate under lower weather minima than airplanes because we supposedly have the ability to hover and land virtually anywhere. In the interest of generating revenue we’re encouraged (sometimes coerced) to operate at those minima routinely. A sense of urgency or the perceived need to complete the mission may deter us from aborting. The fact that we’ve gotten away with scud-running before emboldens us. We become complacent, if not comfortable walking close to the edge.
For those pilots flying aircraft without autopilots that provide attitude retention (the vast majority of helicopters in this country) no matter how much IFR experience they may have, it’s highly unlikely that they won’t experience spatial disorientation to some degree in an unexpected IMC encounter. As demonstrated time and again, if the situation progresses to this point, the odds of a successful outcome are decidedly not in our favor.
Now imagine we’re flying an A-Star or a Bell 407. We’ve been forced down close to the ground either by a low ceiling or in order to maintain better ground reference in deteriorating visibility. We don’t feel comfortable trying to land because there are no really suitable landing areas that won’t require lots of explanation or paperwork. Or perhaps we’ve committed ourselves to transporting a seriously ill or critically injured patient to vital medical care. We’re not supposed to know the nature of the patient’s condition, but invariably, when it’s bad, we do. The weather behind us is no better than what we’re currently dealing with and we don’t have a lot of fuel to play with, so we stay the course. We’re too low or too far away for radio communication with ATC. We’re too busy to try to receive weather reports (which would probably just tell us what we already know). We cling desperately to any shred of VFR we can find. And then the world suddenly goes white.
Perhaps we get one more brief glimpse of the ground, just enough to encourage us to continue trying to regain visual contact. We are mentally unprepared to make the transition to IFR because we have yet to accept the fact that VFR is no longer possible. When we look at the instrument panel it doesn’t make sense, so we look back outside at … white, nothing but white. And just that quickly, we’re in more trouble than we even realize.
I file and fly IFR in helicopters on a regular basis, and I can tell you from personal experience that even recent currency may not be of much help when you unexpectedly find yourself without outside visual reference. While sufficient instrument practice can make almost anyone a good instrument pilot, virtually no amount of instrument practice will make one a good unexpected IMC pilot.
The key for operators is to create a climate that doesn’t routinely place the pilot in the untenable position of having to decide to abort a flight in progress due to weather. Either equip the aircraft such that IIMC is a non-event, or set conservative minima for VFR operations and reward pilots for making prudent weather decisions.
For us pilots it’s a matter of establishing and adhering to firm, realistic criteria for launching and continuing flight under VFR, and for ensuring there’s always a viable alternative. When push comes to shove, it’s a matter of making the decision to transition to IFR before that decision is unexpectedly made for us.
Stanley L. Grossman
Line Pilot, Gulf of Mexico
I was somewhat surprised that your Editor’s Notebook column in February did not consider that most light single engine (piston and turbine) helicopters are not certified for IFR operation and, as a result, under FAA regulations, may not legally file in the IFR system, even for flight in VMC. As both a fixed-wing and helicopter pilot, I understand that staying current is a good idea, but is easier said than done in single-engine helicopters. Most of us are not rated in and do not have access to multi-engine helicopters with the required autopilot system. I suspect the fact that it isn’t legal to fly IFR in most helicopters discourages pilots from recurrent training, as this would be of value only for an inadvertent encounter, which is thought to be very unlikely.
Fredric R. (Rick) Boswell, PhD
The March issue of Rotor & Wing was great. I particularly enjoyed the article on Richard Kirkland (“Angel Came Down to Get Me”, page 44). He is a hero to all of us.
John Taylor, CW4 (Ret.)
Brandywine Airport, West Chester, Pa.
There’s nobody with whom I’d rather share a cockpit with than Gerry Ventrella (“From Mozart to Huey”, March 2010, page 52). I’ve had the pleasure of flying with him numerous times and learned something every time. My reward flying with Gerry was not only learning from his expertise but also learning of great restaurants near airports where we had to refuel. He and Jim Jenke set the standard in the brigade I had the honor of commanding.
U.S. Army Col. (Ret.)
I’m one of the lucky ones to have known Gerry [Ventrella] personally. He is everything the article states and more! His standards have never waivered, and his skills are exemplary! Thanks good friend, for making me, and many others, a lot better!
U.S. Army (Ret.), Chicago, Ill.
â–¶ R&W’s Question of the Month What should FAA do to improve situational awareness for IMC and night flight over water?