Read More: File IFR and Fly TK Routes
December 10, 2019

IFR helicopter-only routes are available now in some areas.

The rate of fatal helicopter accidents usually rises in the fall each year, according to the US Helicopter Safety Team. This is typically because of visibility issues that increase the risk of accidents such as controlled flight into terrain or running into a tower or power line while diverting around weather (bit.ly/BumpInRoad).

Today’s technologically advanced aircraft are increasingly being equipped and certificated to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR). When pilots have their IFR rating and are competent and confident in their IFR skills, filing and flying IFR allows them to safely operate in lower weather minimums.

The resulting increased number of completed flights will also deliver financial benefits to helicopter operators. For example, a September 2000 review by the National Library of Medicine reported that a helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operator missed an average of 24% of flights during a six-year period because of poor visibility and low clouds, conditions in which IFR-capable helicopters could fly. Analysis of that operator’s expenses and revenue suggested that converting a helicopter from visual flight rules (VFR) to IFR, which would require equipment purchases and additional pilot training, would have been “economically feasible given the potential revenue gained by the number of flights completed during marginal weather conditions” (bit.ly/WhyIFRAir).  

In the days before electronic flight bags (EFB), pilots were required to lay out IFR charts and approach plates in the FBO. They would sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone talking with the FAA in order to receive a weather brief and file an IFR flight plan. The ease of filing IFR has increased exponentially since the inception of EFBs, enabling pilots to use any number of sources, such as FlyQ, Garmin Pilot, or ForeFlight, to quickly obtain weather and file.

Operating helicopters under IFR decreases risk and increases safety for many reasons, but issues still remain. Because IFR flights have higher minimum altitudes than VFR ones, operators and pilots must mitigate some additional risks. Most helicopters lack de-icing capability and pressurized cabins, and the aerodynamics of rotary-wing flight result in decreased performance as altitude increases. Helicopters also have to compete for airspace with fixed-wing traffic at higher altitudes.

For these reasons, the FAA and ICAO are designing and implementing IFR routes for helicopters that start as low as 1,200 feet above ground level (agl). These routes, labeled as TK on IFR sectionals, are intended to enhance safety and improve the efficient use of the navigable airspace for en route IFR helicopter operations (bit.ly/RNAVNortheast).

In March 2006, HAI requested that the FAA develop and chart IFR-required navigation (RNAV) airways for use by helicopters with IFR-approved GPS equipment. This included the use of RNAV to assist IFR helicopter pilots transiting through busy terminal airspace areas while providing routes separate from fixed-wing traffic.

The FAA defines the use of TK routes where the RNAV specification is 2 nautical miles (nm), but it has also determined that helicopter-only routes with a required navigation performance (RNP) of 0.3 nm may be developed to support en route point-based navigation helicopter operations. For example, a performance value of RNP 0.3 ensures that the aircraft has the capability of remaining within 0.3 nm of the right or left side of the centerline 95% of the time (bit.ly/PBNInstrument).

Most people are unaware of the fact that two helicopter TK routes now exist in the northeast United States, between Washington, D.C., and New York City. They’re used mostly by HAA operators using IFR-equipped and certificated helicopters. Unfortunately, the number of daily helicopter operations is low, with the FAA estimating fewer than 50 helicopter operations on the routes per month.

Advances in helicopter GPS and Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) avionics technology are enabling instrument approach procedures (IAP) to US heliports, and operating helicopters under IFR increases their utility and safety. Per the FAA, “helicopter IFR operators have an excellent safety record due to the investment in IFR-equipped helicopters, development of IAPs, and IFR-trained flight crews” (bit.ly/FAAInstrument). 

Read More: Is Technology Killing Us?
May 20, 2019

Pilots need to maintain basic stick-and-rudder skills.

When I was a brand-new US Navy officer and pilot in the SH-60B Seahawk, one of my first commanding officers was a guy feared among the newbies for being extremely demanding during training flights.

If you flew with him, it was almost guaranteed that he would secure the hydraulic boost in the aircraft at some inopportune time during the sortie. There were times when he would go hydraulic “boost-off” almost immediately after lifting into a hover, and then leave it off for nearly the entire flight. For this reason, he earned the “affectionate” nickname Boost-Off among the wardroom pilots. I’m sure that, like me, some pilots still think back to the dreadful flights they had with him.

I now realize that those training flights with Boost-Off were not so dreadful. The skill he forced me to practice made me into a proficient instrument pilot. In fact, that earned skill could have been responsible for saving my life more than once.

As I advanced through the ranks and became an instructor pilot and pilot examiner myself, I continued to shoot many an instrument approach with the stability augmentation system and trim secured (and yes, even the hydraulic boost), and I frequently required my students to do the same. It was that adherence to basic stick-and-rudder skills that kept me right side up on many a dark and stormy night when, after essential stabilization equipment failed in flight, I had to depend on my instrument skills to get the crew home safely. This was typically at the worst possible moment (think dark nights over the water with no visible horizon, or flights through driving rainstorms).

Advancements in aircraft stabilization have created stability augmentation systems, autopilot, flight directors, coupled flight, and now the ability to fly from point A to point B completely hands-off. Some commercial airliners are now equipped and certified to fly required navigation performance (RNP) radius-to-fix (RF) terminal arrivals, and then descend on a glide slope to a landing—all without a human hand on the controls.

This all sounds wonderful—but not at the expense of basic flying skills. Many of the younger pilots today have never experienced flying an older generation aircraft equipped with steam gauges and “the basic six,” arranged for viewing in a circular scan pattern during instrument flight.

Yes, pilots have benefited from safety technology such as HTAWS or ADS-B In. And there’s no question that electronic flight bags, GPS, and other flight aids have made our lives easier.

But according to the US Department of Transportation and the FAA, pilots are becoming dependent on technology to the point of losing their stick-and-rudder skills. Overreliance on onboard computers and cockpit complacency has been named by the National Transportation Safety Board as a contributing factor in some recent high-visibility international mishaps.

In the world of helicopters, could pilot overreliance on technology be causing deterioration and breakdown of pilot instrument skills and scan habits? This could be a causal factor in the all-too-common accidents involving loss of control and controlled flight into terrain that plague our industry.

Read More: Questioning Single-Engine Helicopter Performance
February 26, 2019

Let’s focus on what causes most accidents (hint: it’s not engine failures).

While the US helicopter industry enjoys relatively nonrestrictive single­engine regulations, the rest of the world is experiencing increasingly prescriptive standards and recommended practices issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that are aimed directly at limiting the operation of single-engine helicopters.

ICAO’s reasoning: if an engine failure occurs at any time during the flight, a single-engine aircraft will be forced to land. Governments that participate in ICAO are offered two choices. Either (1) restrict the operation of single-engine aircraft over congested areas (ICAO defines these as any used for residential, commercial, or recreational purposes, which ends up eliminating a lot of land, particularly in densely populated countries) or (2) implement their own performance standards for helicopter operations (which the United States, among others, has done). The result is that single-engine aircraft are being regulated out of the civil fleet in many of the 192 nations that are ICAO members.

In fact, there is no justifiable reason to portray single-­engine helicopters as being inherently more dangerous. Companies that work regularly in mountainous and high-terrain areas often use single-engine helicopters because of their superior performance under those conditions. And just like single-engine helicopters, those with twin engines have only one tail rotor, one main rotor gear box, one tail rotor gearbox, and one tail rotor drive shaft. The failure of any one of these critical components means that aircraft is going down—regardless of the number of engines.

The sad truth is that the majority of helicopter mishaps result from pilots making judgment errors, losing control of the aircraft, and flying perfectly good machines into terrain. According to the US Helicopter Safety Team, the top three types of helicopter mishaps (loss of control, unintended flight in instrument meteorological conditions, and low-altitude operations) accounted for more than 50 percent of the helicopter fatalities (104), more than the remaining 15 types combined (96).

Accident data from other ICAO-participating states support the safety of single-engine helicopters. The Australian Transportation Safety Board classified accidents over a five-year period as either mechanical or operational. Of the 749 accidents recorded during the period, just over a quarter (197) were attributed to mechanical problems. In other words, close to 75 percent of those accidents were not mechanical (that is, pilot error).

Japan, a country with a relatively small land mass and numerous mountains, is an ICAO-participating state that employs over 300 single-engine helicopters. According to Japanese aviation records, there are presently 814 registered helicopters operating in the country, with a ratio of 42.1 percent single-engine and 57.9 percent twin. Over the last 20 years, the numbers of single­engine helicopters have decreased, but the country still has many single-engine helicopters that regularly fly over Japanese airspace.

According to statistics obtained from its Transport Safety Board, Japan has not experienced a single accident or incident caused by an engine failure in the last 10 years. Once again, pilot error is the leading cause of accidents or incidents—in singles and twins. Although mechanical issues did contribute to mishaps, they were caused by detachment of the tail rotor (immune from the number of engines) and a fire in the cargo compartment.

These mishap statistics tell the same story as those from the United States: the clear majority of helicopter accidents are caused by pilot error, not by system malfunction. Wouldn’t our attention, time, and money be better spent on training pilots instead of banning single­-engine helicopters?

Instead of focusing an inordinate amount of time, energy, and resources to paint single-engine helicopters as potential high-risk operations, ICAO and its member states should instead invest in improved pilot training, risk assessment and mitigation, and crew resource ­management.

Read More: The Power of Procedure
November 13, 2018

Procedures exist so that you avoid repeating the accidents of others.

The high rate of helicopter flight–related mishaps in recent years is alarming. Yet, despite endless preaching and PowerPoint presentations, pilots continue to power perfectly good helicopters into the dirt.

Instead of telling you about why it’s important to fly safe, I’m going to ask you to focus on how to be safe. Here’s the secret: stop letting external factors influence your actions, properly weigh the risks before starting the engine(s), and most importantly—follow procedures!

It seems pilots and maintainers often fail to follow procedures, sometimes intentionally. This is referred to as procedural (intentional) noncompliance, or PiNC.

You can begin to see the severity of the problem when you consider the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group’s analysis of commercial jet airplane hull loss statistics from 1982–91.(1) “Boeing claimed that flying pilot adherence to procedures could have prevented 50 percent of the 232 fatal hull losses in that ten-year period.” Boeing further concluded that this figure would have been higher if the nonflying pilot’s failure to comply with procedures was included.

Procedures for checking aviation weather and filing flight plans are clearly delineated in FAA regulations. Yet, according to 2016 research, weather was a cause or contributing factor in 35 percent of fatal GA accidents, of which 60 percent occurred while instrument meteorological conditions were present.(2) How many of these mishaps could have been avoided if pilots had simply followed procedures?

In 2006, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) went so far as to write letters to all Australian pilots about their lack of adherence to mandatory procedures. The Australian regulator stated that flight crews “may also attempt non-standard procedures because they mistakenly believe they are safer than the approved, and legally mandatory, procedures.”(3) Ignoring procedures so that you can be safer runs counter to the common maxim that aviation regulations are written in blood—the regulations and the procedures they mandate exist precisely to prevent or avoid unsafe conditions.

This ROTOR features the debut appearance of a regular department: Recent Accidents & Incidents. In this issue, we list 43 rotary-wing accidents and incidents that have occurred between July 1, 2018, and September 30, 2018. Forty-three—in only three months! And that list draws mostly from the United States (although we will add coverage of other countries in the future).

In future columns, I and other writers will discuss additional ways to fly safe. But in the meantime, do yourself (and those you fly with) a favor: follow procedures!  

Endnotes:

1. Graeber and Moodi, “Understanding flight crew adherence to procedures: The procedural event analysis too (PEAT);” 1998.

2. Andrew J. Fultz & Walker S. Ashley. Physical Geography, 2016. “Fatal weather-related general aviation accidents in the United States.” http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02723646.2016.1211854.

3. CASA warns pilots: It’s deadly to ignore procedures; 26 June 2006; CASA.