Helicopter Airmanship

Michel MASSON • 10 June 2020
in community Rotorcraft

Helicopter Airmanship tips that you can put into practice every day. 

Principles of Airmanship

Airmanship is defined by EASA Part FCL as: “The consistent use of good judgement and well-developed knowledge, skills and attitudes to accomplish flight objective”.  This article was written to give you some practical tips on Helicopter airmanship that you can put into practice every day.  It is based on the EHEST Leaflet HE 2 Airmanship that you can find in the attachment at the bottom of the article.  

What you need to know about the role of Airmanship in accidents

Analysis of accident causes and contributor, particularly in General Aviation (GA) recreational flying, highlighted the following factors that all pilots should be aware of and try to put into practice:

  • Perform a risk assessment of things that you might expect to face during the flight.
  • Carefully plan the flight and any mission activities - pay particular attention to the weather. 
  • Take your own experience and capabilities into account - never be overconfident.
  • Make sure you follow the relevant rules, procedures and SOPs.  
  • Pay particular attention to flight control and handling.  
  • Look out for cues to help your decision making in flight.  

In short, build your knowledge, prepare flights carefully, practice manual flying and avoid complacency - these are all powerful accident prevention measures!

Read on to learn more detail on this important subject.  

Pilot cockpit

Develop and maintain knowledge

It is vital that you learn from the mistakes of others - analysis shows that it is rare that we see new types of helicopter accidents.   

Some of the key areas you can focus on include:  

Recurrent training

  • Study the Rotorcraft Flight Manual (RFM) / Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POM) so that you are thoroughly familiar with performance and limitations, including rotor speeds/power settings and the HV diagram
  • Know the normal, abnormal and emergency procedures, and weight and balance calculations.
  • Whenever possible, particularly if you have not recently flown, sit in the helicopter and re-familiarise yourself with the cockpit layout as well as normal/abnormal/emergency checklist drills.
  • Personal limitations: know and respect your own level of competence and experience and operational limitations, especially when you change aircraft type.

Prepare the flight

The importance of good preparation cannot be understated.  


  • Carry on board a valid licence with credits and experience and valid medical certificate, personal ID containing a photograph
  • Carry on board the required helicopter documentation, including Certificate of Airworthiness, ARC, Maintenance Releases, Certificate of Registration, Aircraft Radio Licence and insurance


  • Ensure you get an aviation weather forecast from an authorised source, heed what it says, (decodes are available on the internet) and make a carefully reasoned GO/NO GO decision
  • Do not let self-induced (for instance get-there-itis bias) or passenger pressure influence your judgement
  • Establish clearly in your mind the en-route conditions, the forecast, and possible diversions in case of deteriorating weather
  • Have a planned detour route if you are likely to fly over high ground which may be cloud covered. Be ready to divert, return to base or Land & Live
  • In wet weather, carry a cloth to demist the windshield and windows prior to take-off and during the flight, when needed

VFR navigation 

  • Use appropriate current aeronautical charts, folded to show the planned track. Other non-aeronautical charts or maps of a more detailed nature maybe useful particularly when landing off airfield
  • Use modern navigation technologies but know their limitations.
  • Use GPS as a back-up for navigation planning
  • Check from an authorised source NOTAMs, AICs, Temporary Navigation Warnings, such as air displays, frequency changes or Emergency Restricted Airspace
  • Prepare a thorough route plan with particular reference to transit altitudes, safety altitudes and suitable diversions. Familiarise yourself with geographical features (terrain, constructions, cables, wind turbines, winds and weather phenomena, for instance when flying in mountainous areas, etc.), way points, airspace and any helicopter special procedures
  • Plan to reach your destination at least one hour before sunset, unless qualified, equipped and prepared for night flying. Comply with local regulations pertaining to low flying and generally fly no lower than is necessary to avoid annoyance to persons on the ground and reach a safe landing site in the event of an emergency


  • Have all necessary radio frequencies to hand, including those for en-route, destination and diversion aerodromes, ATIS, VOLMET, NAV AIDS (including Morse decode), etc.
  • In an emergency, use 121.5 is available
  • Review periodically radio procedures, phraseology, etc.
  • Carry a mobile phone in case you make a precautionary landing or your destination is outside radio coverage

Weight and balance

  • Use the RFM empty weight and centre of gravity of the actual helicopter you are operating. Ensure that the helicopter’s maximum/minimum weights are complied with
  • Recalculate centre of gravity changes when loading or off-loading passengers and or baggage
  • If you have to carry ballast, make sure it is suitable and properly secured


  • Refer to the performance section of the RFM/POM for the relevant information on the helicopter type you are flying, i.e. Hover In Ground Effect (HIGE), Hover Out of Ground Effect (HOGE), etc.
  • Use the recommended take-off and landing profiles
  • Avoid or minimise flight within the avoid areas of the height-velocity diagram

Fuel planning

  • Plan to land with no less than a 1⁄4 tank of fuel or the stated VFR/IFR planning minima for the operation.
  • Do not rely solely on the gauge(s) or low fuel warning light
  • Wherever possible, dip the tanks before take-off
  • Know the hourly fuel consumption of your helicopter; in flight, check that the gauge(s) agree with your calculations
  • Frequent use of carb heat will increase fuel consumption
  • Understand the operation and limitations of the fuel system, gauges, pumps, mixture control (do not lean mixture unless it is permitted) and unusable fuel


  • Check for any special procedures due to activities at your destination, such as parachuting, gliding, micro-lighting etc. and the location of the helicopter operating area
  • If your destination is a private landing site, the surroundings and information available may be very different from the licensed aerodrome at which you learnt to fly
  • In a helicopter, you cannot just land anywhere – prior permission may be required (PPR) from the land owner and also at most aerodromes. Certain States have additional regulations pertaining to off airfield landings. However, if the safety of the flight is at stake, don’t push it: be ready to divert, return to base or Land & Live even without permission!

Practical flying

With the planning done, it's time to head out to the aircraft - here are some great tips that you can think about every day.  


  • Remove and stow blade tie-downs, pitot and engine covers before completing a thorough pre-flight, external and internal inspection in accordance with the manufacturers/operators checklist.
  • Check engine and transmission oil levels
  • Check the surrounding area for loose objects that could blow about in the rotor wash and that the rotor disc will be well clear of obstacles


  • Determine visually, using a dip stick if appropriate to type, that you have enough fuel.
  • Sample the fuel for water and other contamination in accordance with the RFM/POM.
  • Don’t and don’t let anyone confuse AVGAS and JET fuel!
  • Personally supervise refuelling
  • Be aware of the danger of static electricity: make sure the filler caps are properly secured and the earthling cable disconnected
  • Only conduct rotor running refuelling when absolutely necessary and approved to do so!

Passengers and baggage

  • Brief passengers including on the location and use of doors, emergency exits, safety harnesses, and emergency procedures.
  • Check that doors and hatches are secure
  • Do not let passengers step up into the helicopter and then wave to their friends!
  • Beware of passengers’ behaviour, particularly of children!
  • If it is necessary for passengers to be embarked or disembarked with the rotors turning, brief someone to escort passengers to and from the helicopter
  • Caution: Never walk uphill away from a helicopter or downhill towards a helicopter with rotors turning!
  • Caution: Check that passengers do not suffer from any medical conditions that might affect them adversely in flight, i.e. epilepsy, air sickness etc.
  • Properly secure any baggage so that nothing can foul the controls. Beware of loose items, i.e. cameras being carried by passengers
  • Make sure all baggage doors are properly closed and locked


Check the following, particularly if you have picked up passengers or baggage:

  • Center of gravity and power margin: perform a power check in the hover to assess the take-off profiles available.
  • Consider crosswind and downwind limits.

En-route: Beware in particular of mid-air collision!

  • Always keep a good look-out (and listen-out on the radio) for other aircraft, particularly in the vicinity of radio beacons, Visual Reference Points and in the vicinity of aerodromes.
  • The most hazardous conflicts are those aircraft with the least relative movement to your own as these are difficult to see. Scan effectively by moving your head, or the helicopter, to cover all these areas.
  • Remember the Rules of the Air which include flying on the right-hand side of line features and give way to traffic on your right. Although always assume the other aircraft hasn’t seen you.
  • In a busy circuit environment or reduced visibility, use all available lights.
  • Spend as little time as possible with your ‘head down’

Airspace: Beware in particular of airspace infringement!

  • Do not enter controlled airspace unless properly authorised.
  • Anticipate with an early radio call however be prepared to orbit and wait for permission to enter.
  • Keep out of Danger and other Prohibited Areas. If you need to transit, contact the Danger Area /Prohibited Area controlling Air Traffic Services Unit (ATSU)

Radio and transponder

  • Use ATSUs whenever possible which may be available from many military and civil aerodromes. Know what to do in the event of a radio failure.
  • Use transponders should be used at all times as they advise TCAS equipped aircraft of your position.
  • Common assigned transponder codes include; 7000 ICAO standard VFR code, 7500 unlawful interference, 7600 communications failure and 7700 general emergency

En-route diversion

Diversion maybe necessary due to insufficient fuel to reach your destination with an adequate reserve, deteriorating weather or an un-well passenger etc. In such cases

  • Circle around your known position
  • Draw a line on your chart or follow a line feature to your alternate
  • Estimate the distance and time to the alternate and hence the fuel required plus reserve
  • Check the terrain, hazards and airspace along the proposed route
  • Use GPS to supplement your navigation

Control considerations

  • Fly at a safe speed in relation to visibility
  • Stay out of the height velocity avoid curve
  • In most helicopters, particularly two bladed teetering rotor types, avoid a pushover manoeuvre resulting in negative g, which can result in mast bumping / tail strike
  • Beware of retreating blade stall, especially when operating with the 5 highs; airspeed, mass, density altitude, turbulence and manoeuvre. This may cause pitch up and roll.
  • Recover by reducing speed and pitch.
  • Avoid flight in turbulent and windy conditions, especially if your experience is limited
  • Know the recommended airspeed for operating in turbulent conditions.

Wake turbulence and rotor wash

  • Be mindful of the effect the own rotor wash can have on parked aircraft and other surface objects i.e. tables, chairs and tents etc.
  • Stay well clear of the ‘blast’end of powerful aircraft.
  • Beware of wake turbulence behind heavier aircraft on take-off, during the approach or on landing.
  • ATC may impose mandatory separation behind aircraft for wake turbulence reasons: comply with ATC instructions!
  • Wake turbulence and vortices linger when wind conditions are very light. Hover-taxying helicopters, particularly large ones, generate very powerful vortices. Wake turbulence and vortices are invisible. Heed Air Traffic warnings!

Circuit procedures

  • Use the appropriate joining procedures at your destination aerodrome, make your radio call early and keep radio transmissions to the point – ‘cut the chat’
  • If non-radio (or your radio has failed), know the procedures.
  • Check circuit height and altimeter settings and whether
  • If the circuit is flown on QFE or QNH and if landing using QNH, add the site elevation to your planned circuit height.
  • Look out for other aviation activity, i.e. gliding, parachuting.
  • Maintain a listening watch at all times and make radio calls in the circuit at the proper places and listen and look for other traffic.
  • If you have to fly a fixed wing circuit, maintain your speed, do not slow down or hover thus creating a collision hazard from following traffic.
  • Take care at aerodromes where identification of the runways can be confused, i.e. 02 and 20. Make sure you know whether the circuit is left-hand or right-hand, as this will determine the dead side. If in doubt, ask!
  • For private sites or aerodromes with no radio, check the windsock or nearby smoke to ensure you land into wind. Be very sure of the wind direction and strength before committing yourself to an approach direction. The unplanned downwind approach is hazardous and can result in Vortex Ring.
  • Remember pre-landing checks – easily forgotten if you make a straight-in approach.
  • In piston engine helicopters, apply carb heat as appropriate in accordance with the RFM/POM procedures.


  • A good landing is a result of a good approach: monitor your Rate Of Descent (ROD), power margin and closing speed and be prepared, if any get excessive, for a go around
  • Avoid conditions likely to result in Vortex Ring; Power On / Low IAS (below 30 knots) / High Rate Of Descent (over 300 feet per minute)
  • Don’t land in tall dry grass as the hot exhaust could start a fire. In addition the grass maybe hiding tree stumps or sloping ground
  • Remember, the flight isn’t over until the engine(s) are shut-down and all checks completed and the rotors have stopped
  • ‘Book in’ and close any Flight Plan, if necessary by phoning the local Air Traffic Service Unit

The main take-aways for you

Good airmanship starts well before the commencement of the flight. Thoroughly plan your flight, expect the unexpected. Complete a comprehensive pre-flight, external and internal check of the helicopter. Operate well within your, and the helicopters, limits and comply with all State regulations.

Remember a helicopter has the unique ability to land almost anywhere. If you find yourself in difficulty be it related to weather, fuel, navigation or some other difficulty – simply HAI Land & Live and sort out the problem.

In the case of an emergency do not forget your prime task is to continue to fly the helicopter, remember: fly, navigate and communicate.

Don’t do anything stupid – become an old pilot, NOT a bold pilot!



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