This article on landing in unfamiliar locations was originally published by Helicopter Association International and was written by Chris Hill and Rex Alexander. It is reproduced with their permission and highlights the importance of global and regional collaboration in our safety efforts. Hopefully we can help this excellent material reach new audiences here in Europe.
Most helicopter pilots are excellent planners, but we remain vulnerable to dangerous assumptions when landing at a heliport or any high-risk or unfamiliar location, whether it’s the first time or the 100th time. When asked or directed to land—at any location—we must obsessively plan to protect lives, our company, and our careers.
In HAI's first Spotlight on Safety video of 2021, Rex Alexander, president of Five-Alpha LLC, reminds all operators to do their homework before landing at any place marked with an “H.” Click on the image above to view the video on the HAI website.
A key point for all of us to understand is that even landing sites with markings that appear legitimate, or even those with legitimate location identifiers, can be extremely hazardous or off-limits.
“Know Before You Go!” is also the focus of our latest Spotlight on Safety poster, which underscores several checklist items to consider before landing at a new or unfamiliar location—or even somewhere we’ve been before. These items include some of the following:
- Permission: Do you have permission to land at the location? Many of these sites are identified as “PPR,” or prior permission required, and are not open for public use, or they may be off-limits during the time you intend to land. Is a radio call required before landing or takeoff? Is there a requirement for a letter of agreement or minimum insurance? Exception: If you encounter an in-flight emergency that requires an immediate landing and the only available safe landing spot is an unfamiliar heliport, Land & LIVE!
- Obstacles: Identify all obstacles in the vicinity of the heliport. Consider everything that could affect your flight path from any quadrant as you commence your approach to landing. Also identify and have in place an avoidance plan for obstacles during anticipated ground operations. While many obstacles may be properly lighted and marked, many are not, and many obstacles aren’t listed in any database.
- Markings: If they’re properly marked, do you know what the numbers on the helipad are supposed to indicate? What’s the maximum gross weight? Is it an older pad that indicates maximum rotor diameter, or a newer pad that uses the symbol “D” to indicate the maximum overall length instead? And is it correct? In what direction is the “H” oriented, and is that the preferred approach/departure path? Is the TLOF and/or FATO properly marked, and do you know the difference?
- Hazards: The potential hazards are seemingly endless, but here are just a few to consider: Is there concentrated bird activity in the area? Bird guano coupled with recent rain showers make for very slick conditions! What sort of surface can you expect? Asphalt can be hazardous, especially in hot weather, and has been known to precipitate dynamic rollover. Are loose rocks or other FOD an issue? Is there a slope to consider? Does the area require preparation before landing (for example, water spray, lighting activation, vehicle removal, and so on)? Will air quality or airflow affect performance? Are there snag hazards such as nonstandard lighting, elevated safety nets, or unsecured fencing in proximity to the landing area?
- Flight Paths: Based on obstacles, known winds, and anticipated wind flow and turbulence effects, what will be your primary and backup approach, departure, go-around, continue flight, and land back paths? Is the recommended flight path straight in or curved? Where would you go to find out? Are there any standard noise-abatement procedures or minimum aircraft performance or equipment requirements that must be followed?
This list admittedly only scratches the surface as you consider your next trip to a new or unfamiliar site. Use every flight planning resource available. Unconventional methods can be useful when balanced with official data. Consider supplementing your preflight efforts with a free landing-zone database such as LZControl to help you prepare.
Other Items to Check before Takeoff and Landing
Are live cameras available at the site? What have other pilots experienced at that location?
Remember what we said earlier about assumptions. Just because a site has a location identifier doesn’t mean it’s a safe site or that it’s been checked recently. Many heliports haven’t been evaluated since their construction, which in some cases can be as long as 30 to 40 years.
Be aware of the fact that, in some cases, a private heliport may not meet standards and may be deemed unsafe by the aviation authority. It may be listed as “objectionable” but, due to oversight restrictions, can’t be shut down. The fact that another pilot might have landed there this morning doesn’t make it legal, safe, or smart for you to land there this afternoon—nor should you feel pressure to do so if you feel it’s unsafe.
Before commencing your final approach, complete a thorough high reconnaissance identifying and verifying all hazards. Continue to analyze risk exposures throughout your approach, confirming and reconfirming that everything remains safe.
In closing, do your own homework every time, know before you go, confirm before you land, and fly to a higher standard of safety! Comply with applicable laws, regulations, policies, and procedures.
For additional information, see FAA Advisory Circular 150/5390-2C - Heliport Design or EASA CS-HPT-DSN, Heliport Design.
EHEST Reference (Not in the original HAI article)
This leaflet covers the main topics related to off field landing site operations:
- Planning and Preparation,
- Landing Site Identification,
- Landing Site Recce,
- Types of Approach,
- Manoeuvring in the landing site,
- Departure, and
- Pilot errors.
Helicopters are versatile machines. They can perform approaches, manoeuver, land and taker-off from airfields and helipads but also from off airfield, unprepared landing sites such as as hotels, golf courses, sporting venues, roads, hills and mountainous terrains to perform various types of missions.
Off airfield landing sites vary in dimensions, approaches, hazards, elevation and location and present various challenges to the pilots and flight crew. Off airfield operations are intrinsically more risky and have resulted in a significant number of accidents.
Unlike at an airfield there is generally little or no assistance in the assessment of wind, guidance on appropriate approach directions or information on other traffic. Hazards not normally experienced at an airfield such as wires, obstructions, uneven landing ground, trees, foreign objects propitious to Foreign Object Damage (FOD), livestock and pedestrians are quite likely to be found and require a heightened degree of situational awareness and control by the pilot.
Expect the unexpected and know how to address it!
This EHEST Leaflet HE 13 provides information and tips on how to successfully operate in, over and out off airfield sites and reduce landing, manoeuvring and departure risks.