I’m not going to discuss how to avoid going IIMC. The focus of this article is not how you should be conservative when deciding whether to push on into the crappy weather. It isn’t about how you shouldn’t have taken the flight, flown lower, flown slower, turned around, followed the major highway, or landed prior to going IIMC. I’m not going to discuss prevention for IIMC, even though you can gather some of those prevention techniques in the previous sentence.
I would like to discuss what your actions should be when you can’t see out the windscreen. Many pilots have killed themselves by making the wrong choice when presented with this situation. I can only speak of my initial helicopter experience, but most of us are brainwashed from day one that if we go IIMC, we are in for major trouble and might die. Even if pilots gain the skill and experience of flying helicopters or airplanes IFR, we are still taught that if you are not fully prepared for IFR flight, then that is illegal and you will still be in major trouble. IIMC is a stressful and dangerous situation. Instilling these doom scenarios into the pilots’ mind just makes the situation worse and really affects the ability to handle the situation. These considerations, combined with the overall shock and denial of having gone IIMC, can quickly lead to pilots unsuccessfully trying to fly visually out the window when the visual cues just aren’t there. Your helicopter may not be certified for IFR flight. Once the white stuff fills the windscreen all rules go out the window because we are operating under 91.3 from that point forward. Essentially, screw the rules. So the real question becomes: Can I fly my non-IFR certified helicopter in IMC conditions? Sure you can. The helicopter doesn’t know you can’t see out the windscreen, it really doesn’t care. On training flights and checkrides, you go out and fly the ILS into the local airport without a lick of problem. So yes, you can fly in IMC conditions if you immediately commit to flying on the instruments. The next question is: How much trouble will I be in? Answer: Who cares? I can’t speak for your chief pilot but if a company hammers a pilot for taking the correct action to get out of a potentially fatal situation, then why are we performing instrument procedures on VFR checkrides? I personally would pat you on the back and say “good decision.” So you’re out on a mission and the weather isn’t anything like the forecast (what’s new?) and suddenly (does it happen any other way?) you find yourself at 500 feet AGL and IIMC. The first rule of business is to commit to the gauges, specifically the attitude indicator, and climb. Get away from the ground. In much of the midwest, 5,500 feet MSL will get you above any obstructions and at an altitude that won’t conflict with IFR traffic. Do not try to do a level 180-degree turn, do not try to talk on the radio or put any new squawk code or frequency in until you have climbed away from terra firma. Don’t try and descend lower, don’t worry about the medcrew or dispatch—just fly the aircraft. Once safely away from the ground and comfortably flying, then do all the special pilot tasks to get back down. Everyone’s comfort level in IMC is different but if you are still uncomfortable after climbing, try the following:
• Get to on top conditions. Many times when there are low clouds near the surface you can reach on top conditions 90 percent of the time as low as 5,000 feet.
• Shoot an ASR approach. An ASR is even easier to shoot than an ILS. Better yet, ask for a No-Gyro ASR.
• Get vectors to a long final for any approach you are going to fly and have ATC read the appropriate information for the approach to you.
• Spend as little time as possible heads-down. Don’t rely on the medcrew to read the approach plate information to you, ask ATC.
Winter flying note: Aircraft might ice up in short order while IMC in the winter. The only things on your side are that you might be able to climb to on top conditions (especially true for snow squalls), and that your time in the clouds will hopefully be short-lived. Additionally it might be too darned cold and you might not get any ice. The icing consideration and the fact you might ice up like the state of Alaska if you accidentally punch in is just another reason to not be overly aggressive in the winter.