Commercial, Military, Training

Safety & Training: IFR for the VFR Pilot

By By Andrew Parker, Managing Editor | August 1, 2010
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Left to right Scott Tish, Randy Sharp, Fred Brisbois and Mark Mestre. Photo by Andrew D. Parker

Speakers at “IFR for the VFR Pilot” during the Rotor & Wing 2010 Safety and Training Summit hammered home that helicopter operators should emphasize prevention in training pilots to avoid inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC). But when VFR pilots suddenly find themselves in the clouds, they must quickly admit the mistake, maintain control of the aircraft and climb, while following any ATC instructions, according to a panel consisting of Fred Brisbois, director of aviation and product safety for Sikorsky Aircraft; Randy Sharp, flight training department manager for California Shock Trauma Air Rescue (Calstar); and Scott Tish, Air Methods aviation training manager for the northeast region. Mark Mestre, aviation safety manager and pilot for the U.S. Army, moderated the discussion.

“If we take five pilots and put them in a room and ask for an opinion, we’re going to get six different opinions,” said Brisbois, a director for the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) Executive Committee. “It happens all the time. But in the end, it’s about bringing people home,” he continued.


“There is no reason, with the probability of success on helicopter missions, to be any different in terms of everybody coming home, than with a Boeing 747 taking off from La Guardia flying to Chicago. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do [with IHST].”

Tish said the first step is “you have to admit to yourself that you’ve made this error and you’re in the clouds. Control the aircraft, climb, stay on course, communicate with ATC and comply with any of their instructions.” He spelled out key points regarding situational awareness. “Watch and accept the weather. When it gets bad, turn around. Avoid overconfidence and any social pressures. Organize, organize, organize. Sloppy pilots do not do well in double IMC conditions, or in IMC conditions, or even in VMC conditions. If you’re scrounging around the aircraft trying to find a chart, you’re not flying the aircraft.”

Sharp pointed out that in EMS, “inadvertent entry into IMC is probably the most common factor we have. That’s why we put a lot of stress and training in that area.” He identified prevention as the most important element. “If you can prevent it from happening, you’re probably going to have a lot better outcomes.”

Calstar “really wants to prevent inadvertent IMC. A circle of visibility will help with prevention, which is our priority. During that [training] process, you want to acquire all the knowledge and conditions that would lead to inadvertent. If you know the things that can get you there, you can probably figure out pretty quick that you don’t want to take that flight. And then if it does happen, we teach all our pilots on how to safely recover.”

Mestre noted that “maintaining aircraft control is by far the most important thing.” He related a story when flying in Alaska where his co-pilot went into the clouds. “The rest of the crew knew what was happening and I knew that, based on the weather, we were going to have to go VFR at some point to actually get to this village,” Mestre said.

“What surprised me most was watching the look on her face, in that she never even recognized that she had gone inadvertent IMC,” he continued. “She didn’t get nervous until I told her, ‘just level the wings and climb,’ and then she started getting nervous. And I said, ‘You shouldn’t be nervous, we’re in the clouds and have been for about 20 seconds now.’ So if you’re prepared for [IIMC] and you have procedures in place, it’s not that critical and it’s something that everybody should survive.”

Tish noted that sound decision-making skills are paramount. “Train to survive. If you have an opportunity to train, go out and take it. And staying on the field is an acceptable alternative. It all rests on good training and good decision-making.”

According to Sharp, pilots “must factor in all the sources together and ask yourself: Can we really accomplish this mission? Am I going to put our crew in harm’s way to go out and do that two in the morning flight to pick up somebody that could be transported via an ambulance?”

Brisbois concluded: “My experience shows that when we lose a crew because of weather, the weather’s gone and we usually bury them on a sunny day.”

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