Helicopter Operators and Pilots: Preflight Risk Assessment for a Safety Mindset

(An article from the EASA and the European Safety Promotion Network – Rotorcraft based on an initial concept from Capt. Stefano BURIGANA, Elilombarda Safety Manager, ESPN-R Ops & SMS Team Leader)

We all work hard to keep safe – and this starts with a safety mindset.  Organisations and pilots alike can use Pre-Flight risk assessment to get in the right frame of mind before a flight even starts.   The better prepared we are, the less likely it is that we end up thinking “If I only had done it before!”.  Stop and ask yourself whether every flight starts with a positive and proactive approach to safety.  

If you find yourself in unexpected low visibility, there are suddenly lots of decisions to be made very quickly.  A structured approach to pre-flight planning and risk assessment are vital. We explain:  

  • The importance of a structured pre-flight checklist in understanding and anticipating risks.  
  • Some examples of the hazards that can be reviewed and managed during the planning process.  
  • What tools are available from Airbus Helicopters, Leonardo, Next Generation Flight Training (NGFT) and the former European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST) to support an effective pre-flight risk assessment?  

It’s All About Mindset

There are many ways to avoid accidents.  Training, experience, checklists and planning combine to help us fly safely.  But one thing lays the foundation upon which everything else is built - a safe attitude.  This prepares you to cope with all the potential situations that you may face in-flight, elevating you to a higher level of awareness and professionalism. That mindset could make the difference between life and death.  

The Importance of Pre-Flight Risk Assessment

A pre-risk assessment is not something done only by safety managers and professional safety gurus.  It is a vital task for every pilot and ensures that every flight starts in the right way.  This planning includes meteorological information, preparation of the cabin, briefing of passengers and an understanding of the potential risks.  You have to be sure that your flight will be safe enough before you get airborne.

Once we commit ourselves to take-off, we will face continually changing situations and environments. Some are very well known and easy to handle, others can be challenging and new.  We can even be faced with emergency situations.  The more prepared we are, the better we can handle any situation.  It ensures our own safety and the safety of those who rely on us – both in the helicopter and on the ground.  

Some Examples of the Hazards that can be Better Managed with a Good Pre-Flight Risk Assessment

You may be able to handle marginal VFR conditions well because you have flown in such conditions several times. You might have flown sometimes at dusk.  You might know an area well because you have travelled there by car several times. Taken one by one, you can cope with each of these situations easily.  But are you making such decisions positively with a safe attitude or just accepting the situation and hoping for the best?  

What happens when you are suddenly faced with multiple situations at the same time?  Perhaps marginal VFR, at night and over an area you have never seen from the air before?

The point is, if you put together little problems that can easily be managed in isolation, when they happen together you suddenly end up with a much bigger problem than expected, that could turn dangerous.  A pre-flight risk assessment checklist is a way to make pilots aware of these subtle interactions and show how an easy flight could quickly become a very risky one.

Let’s take the example of a flight in marginal VFR conditions, at night and over an area never seen from the air before.  These are some possible mitigations that could be implemented during the pre-flight risk assessment in order to reduce the risk and the weakness of the barriers:

Marginal VFR
  • Verify all the possible landing places along the route. Mentally plan for a possible diversion.
  • Prepare all the necessary navigation charts and verify the obstacles along the route.
  • Prepare all available electronic maps and apparatus (Moving maps, navigators, EGPWS, etc.).
  • IFR rating and IFR recency.
  • Plan for a possible change to an IFR flight and review approach procedures to the available airports.
  • Set all the communication and navigation frequencies before take-off.


  • Review the navigation landmarks by cultural lighting (cities, towns, busy highways and roads).
  • Consider NVIS usage, if available and trained.
  • Consider reducing the cabin lights to have a better night vision.
Area never seen from the air before
  • Prepare all the necessary navigation charts and verify the obstacles along the route.
  • Study all the relevant landmarks.
  • Prepare all available electronic maps and apparatus (Moving maps, navigators, EGPWS, etc.).

How The Tools Work?   

There are a number of Helicopter Pre-Flight Risk Assessment tools, either in paper or electronic format that help to assess a range of different hazards.  The tools walk you through a number of simple questions and the risk is then assessed against the final score at the end of the checklist.  If the score/risk is considered unsatisfactory or, in safety terms, the planned flight has an unacceptable level of risk, the tools enable you to go back and include mitigation so as to reduce some of the most risky elements of the flight.  Once the correct mitigations are in place you should receive a satisfactory/acceptable score/risk and the flight can be safely performed. 

There are 2 very important points to remember:  

  1. This is not just a paper exercise, you actually have to apply the mitigations during the flight itself.  
  2. Cancelling the flight is always an option.

Where Can I Find the Pre-Flight Risk Assessment Tools?

There are a range of different tools and pre-flight risk assessment checklists available.  
The ones described here have been developed by key industry stakeholders together with EASA through the European Safety Promotion Network – Rotorcraft (ESPN-R).  

The European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST) Excel Tool.  The pilot can choose from several different types of flights that he might perform and then needs to fill in all the related questions. The tool will give  a value shown in a graph, assessing how risky that flight could be. It then provides some mitigations before scoring the flight again in a second column. The initial result can then be compared with the mitigated one to decide whether it is then safe enough to be undertaken.  Remember though, including the mitigations in the tool also means you have to actually do them – it is not just a paper exercise.  If the specific type of flight is not covered by the options, there is the possibility to prepare a customised set of questions.

EHEST Pre-departure Risk Assessment Checklist

Airbus Helicopters has developed a Flight Risk Assessment App available free of charge to anyone, customers and non-customers. Sustaining and update services are also provided free of charge through the Apple and Android stores.  (Contact: contact.aviationsafety.ah [at] airbus.com (contact[dot]aviationsafety[dot]ah[at]airbus[dot]com)).

Leonardo Helicopters has developed a mobile solution called SkyFlight, which is available for free on the Apple App Store, which is ideal for use on iPads. A SkyFlight App compatible with Android is also available, but is limited to Risk Assessment (only).  (Contact:  Skyflight.support [at] leonardocompany.com (Skyflight[dot]support[at]leonardocompany[dot]com)).

Next Generation Flight Training (NGFT) Consulting Switzerland has developed a Safety App geared to the needs of small operators and General Aviation (https://ngft.com).

For more information on the different Apps, check out our previous article 'Help Prepare for the Safest Possible Flight - Get Your Safety App Today!'.