A helicopter is an amazing thing. It enables us to carry out tasks and jobs like no other machine in the world. Not only can we fly passengers from one place to another without the need for a runway but we can lift heavy equipment in remote areas, make films and even save lives. Regardless of the task our helicopters perform, the goal is to have a safe flight – from the first twist of the screwdriver from the engineer preparing the flight through the pilot’s or Flight Crew’s pre-flight planning and take-off right through to a safe landing and flight debriefing.
The purpose of this part of the website is to consider the main risks that we might face at different phases of our operations and what actions we can take to maximize our chances of coming home safely at the end of the day. For now, we start small with just a few of the key lessons that we have observed from our accident and incident analysis – over time this can hopefully provide a valuable resource all on its own.
Flight planning and preparation
A safe flight begins with good planning. Many Obstacle or Terrain Collision accidents start with the planning. Similarly, it is important to plan a flight effectively to prevent airspace infringements that may lead to an Airborne Collision and there are also some Aircraft Upset accidents that have their foundations in the planning phase, for instance by failing to properly assess weather, Instrument Flight Conditions (IMC) and Downgraded Visual Environment (DVE) and their expected evolution during the flight. Check the NOTAMS and contact the Flight Information Service (IFS) and/or Air Traffic Control, as relevant.
It is important to plan the route carefully using the relevant planning tools, applications or software. Understand the different types of airspace you will be flying in. Particularly, make sure to identify in advance any specific parts of the route that might cause a challenge when you are airborne. Does the route go near controlled airspace or danger areas. Is there anywhere on the flight that might lead you to come across gliders that might be hard to see or parachutists. The better prepared you are to anticipate hazards before the flight the better. For General Aviation (GA) recreational flights, the GASCo checklist Two Two recommends staying 2nm from the edge of Controlled Airspace and staying 200ft above or below Controlled Airspace.
Decision making, weather and other flight conditions
A common factor in accidents is what is known as “Press on itis” or “Get there it is” – the desire to try and reach your destination no matter what the circumstances and the resistance to adapt plan when the conditions would require so. Beware of business, mission and passenger related pressures including from Very Important Persons (VIPs), company bosses, customers and by the pilot himself. Self-induced pressure includes trying to complete a contracted flight, land before the airfield closes, retrieve a car in the airfields’ parking or reach the hotel in due time.
It is important to check reputable weather information sources covering all locations from take-off to landing, as well as any potential diversion sites. Remember that weather radar doesn’t have full coverage. Know that there are limitations in the weather information that you receive, for example that Terminal Air Forecasts (TAFs) are designed for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flights only and have a degree of error built in. Think about light levels as well. Know your personal minimums or the operational limitations of your company and never break them, even if you are tempted to hope that everything will be fine.
Check also the helicopter performance factors such as mass, center of gravity and atmosphere density and secure loads. Passengers must always wear seatbelts.
An airworthy helicopter
Before any flight, ensure the helicopter is airworthy by inspecting it according to the rotorcraft flight manual (RFM) and the Flight Crew Operating Manual (FCOM) or the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH). The pilot is responsible for ensuring that the helicopter is in airworthy condition. Make sure to use the relevant checklists so that you don’t miss anything, both inside and outside the helicopter. If there are supplemental equipment that has been added to the helicopter, make sure to check these as well. When it comes to fuels, oils and other fluid – make sure you read the label if you are filling things up yourself and never fill above the maximum!
Start up and take-off
There have been situations where people have been injured or even killed during the start-up and take-off phase of flight. It is vital to make sure that passengers are briefed on the proper methods of boarding and deplaning, stay away from running rotors and beware of down and side washes. You also need to ensure that everyone involved in the operations of the helicopter has been made aware of all possible hazards and told how to avoid them. During the take-off itself, once you lift off – make sure to check for obstacles in the flight path as well as other aircraft and helicopters that might be in the flight path. Never leave the helicopter with the engine(s) running!
The flying part – Cruise and doing other things
After take-off there are many risks to be faced, such as colliding with terrain, obstacles including cables, towers and buildings, other aircraft and birds. Low Altitude Operations (LALT) are more risky as there may be obstacles and aircraft on your way that aren’t easy to spot and avoid. Terrain and conflict detection technology can help. The number one risk is Loss of control In flight, which often result from the failure to avoid or properly recover from stall and/or upset. Loss of control often occurs when VFR rated pilots enter and get disorientated in IMC and DVE conditions. Technical failures are another risk and have to be properly managed, which proper training and suitable procedures. Failure to adapt the plan defined at flight preparation stage poses another threat. You should be flexible enough to modify your plan when the conditions so require: there is no shame in landing the aircraft, diverting or returning to your base airfield! Helicopters and VTOL have that unique characteristic to be able to vertically land. When the situation seriously deteriorates, don’t take chances: Land & LIVE, using the famous formula by the International Helicopter Association (HAI).
Approach and landing
It is important to select the landing site with care, make sure that the landing area is clear of obstacles etc. Refer in particular to guidance provided in the EHEST Leaflets HE12 Helicopter Performance, HE8 Threat and Error Management, HE3 Helicopter Off Airfield Landing Sites Operations, HE2 Helicopter Airmanship and HE1 Safety Considerations – we will post these soon on this website. The EHEST Flight Instructor Guide, issue 2.2., Part 2 Air Exercises explains how to perform Approach and Landing. Manufacturer guidance and operator’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are references for action.
After landing and securing
At the end of the flight, park the helicopter where it does not interfere with other aircraft and is not a hazard to people during shutdown. For many helicopters, it is advantageous to land with the wind coming from the right over the tail boom. This tends to lift the blades over the tail boom but lowers the blades in front of the helicopter. This action decreases the likelihood of a main rotor strike to the tail boom due to gusty winds. Rotor downwash can cause damage to other aircraft in close proximity, and spectators may not realize the danger or see the rotors turning. Passengers should remain in the helicopter with their seats belts secured until the rotors have stopped turning. During the shutdown and postflight inspection, follow the manufacturer’s checklist. Any problems should be reported to the engineers or written down in the relevant paperwork so it is not missed before the next flight.
Debriefing is important to identify things that went wrong or not as planned during the flight: any issues or emergencies, as well as planned and unplanned decisions. Debriefing also includes reviewing performance, competences and things that went particularly well or that you are particularly content about or pride of. Replay, review and debrief your flight, share your experience with others and report any incident. Flight recorders allow better debriefed of the flight and detect possible issues. A Flight Recorder is any system dedicated for recording data and/or audio or images, installed on board the helicopter (not portable) and continuously recording from take-off to landing. Flight Recorders are mandatory for heavier aircraft and recommended for lighter aircraft. Refer to the Flight Recorders for Light Helicopters article published in this Portal’s A-Z section.