Commercial, Training

Use of the Instrument Rating for Helicopter Pilots

By By Ed Van Winkle | February 1, 2010
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Training| Instruments

For helicopter pilots and CFIIs, the use and maintenance of our instrument ratings in the helicopter world is very different than for fixed-wing pilots. It is common for helicopter pilots to obtain their commercial rating without obtaining an instrument rating first, and those of use who have an instrument, ATP or CFII rating do not always have the same opportunities to fly in actual instrument conditions as most fixed-wing pilots. Instrument-rated fixed-wing pilots are much more likely to actually use their ratings, since even small single-engine planes available for rent at the local FBO are rated for instrument flight and equipped for it.

The most common helicopters used for flight training and available for rental are single-engine piston models. Though these helicopters can be equipped for instrument instruction and used for check rides, they are not certified for flight in actual instrument conditions. Furthermore, many experienced helicopter pilots with instrument, ATP or CFII ratings do not work in instrument-certified twin-engine helicopters. So, the result is that the helicopter industry has a large number of instrument-rated pilots who never have the opportunity to fly in actual instrument conditions and who do not maintain instrument currency.


This situation is simple for most helicopter pilots—accept the fact that you will never fly in actual instrument conditions and instead use your instrument rating as a resumé-builder. Your next boss will appreciate the sacrifice you made and might pay you a bit more than the other person who doesn’t have an instrument rating. Since you knew that you would likely never use your instrument rating anyway, this won’t cause too much grief.

But what about all of that stuff your early flight instructors told you about how an instrument rating will make you a better VFR pilot? Should you abandon everything you learned and just “move on?”

Nonsense! Even though most helicopters used as instrument trainers are not instrument certified, most single engine turbine helicopters used in commercial operations are equipped with a six-pack of instruments and a GPS that can be used to enhance the pilot’s ability to fly any type of mission. Some are even equipped with modern glass cockpit displays to replace the familiar six-pack of instruments. Though there aren’t any single-engine helicopters rated for single-pilot instrument flight, that doesn’t minimize the importance of maintaining instrument proficiency. Since it is possible for any helicopter pilot to get into inadvertent IMC, it could be your (unused) instrument rating that is the difference between life and death in an emergency.

Maintaining instrument flying proficiency, even for those who don’t often fly in actual instrument conditions, could be a lifesaver. Combining actual flight training and simulation is a cost-effective solution for most. FAA Chart/Not for Navigational Use

So how can helicopter pilots maintain instrument currency and increase their instrument flying prowess? The easy answer is to go down to your local helicopter flight school, rent an instrument trainer and a CFII, and fly six instrument approaches, one holding pattern and track to a fix every six months (you already knew this!). However, paying for a few flight hours every six months can get expensive real fast, even for well-paid helicopter pilots. A less expensive option is to rent the flight school’s instrument simulator and a CFII and do instrument approaches at the airports of your choice in simulated instrument conditions without starting an engine.

Another option is to mix the previous solutions and fly for an hour in the instrument trainer, while completing the remaining requirements in the flight simulator. Combining actual flying and simulation may be the ideal mix that won’t break the budget of most pilots who want to maintain instrument currency.

All of these methods will keep you legally current to fly in actual instrument conditions or to respond to the emergency created by flying into inadvertent IMC (though we all know that meeting minimum requirements does not necessarily make us instrument proficient).

If you fly for an operation that gives you the freedom to practice instrument approaches with a safety pilot or instructor, then there is no reason to lose your instrument currency. But most helicopter operators are in business to make money, which prevents pilots from doing this type of “training” on the company’s dime.

However, most of us fly into and out of airports on a daily basis, and most of these airports have multiple instrument approaches. When coming into the airport (with a safety pilot or instructor present), make an instrument approach to the runway instead of directly to your landing pad. Fly one of these approaches every other week or once a month, and work in some tracking and a hold, and you’ll stay legally current in case of an emergency.

A six-pack of instruments and a GPS can be used to enhance a pilot’s ability to fly any type of mission.

What if you fly a helicopter that doesn’t have a six-pack of instruments or a GPS? How can you maintain some level of instrument skill that can save you in an emergency? Get a CFII buddy to work with you on basic instrument flying skills—maintaining heading, altitude and airspeed. Fly some standard rate turns (if you have a turn coordinator) and also practice recovering from a few unusual attitudes.

More advanced avionics make for a technological dream when flying IFR.

Another skill that doesn’t require a GPS or other helicopter equipment for instrument approaches is the ability to follow ATC instructions to set you up for an ASR (airport surveillance radar) or PAR (precision approach radar) approach. If you get into inadvertent IMC conditions, having practiced declaring an emergency and having ATC (your safety pilot or CFII) talk you through a simulated approach can help prepare you for “the big one” if it ever happens. Just keep in mind that not all ATC controllers are certified or current in talking you through an ASR or PAR approach.

Helicopter pilots don’t need a lot of simulated instrument flying or a lot of money to maintain a basic level of proficiency on instruments. We all learned early in our flight training to trust our instruments. If we ever experience spatial disorientation or inadvertent IMC, the work we do to prepare for these emergencies will eliminate surprises and help us work to a successful resolution. Can any of us afford not to maintain our instrument flying capabilities?

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