Instructor pilots give guidance on autorotation training

 - February 13, 2012, 11:40 PM

FOCUS on…AUTOROTATION TRAINING

“Infrequent autorotation training is dangerous,” said Chad Oakley, chief pilot at the Bell Academy, yesterday at a Heli-Expo training session called, “Autorotations, Reality Exposed.” Other participants at the one-hour session–pilots, instructors, and representatives from the FAA, NTSB, OEMs, and several fleet operators–agreed.

Oakley said that about one-third of all his landings in the course of his instructing are full autorotations. “You need to have a program that goes over these emergency procedures on a regular basis.” He said that he does not pre-announce to his students the simulated engine failures he initiates under a variety of situations, including takeoff, landing and crosswind conditions. Students begin their autorotation training from a low hover.

Students commit numerous errors while practicing autos, Oakley said, but the key one, regardless of pilot experience, is failure to immediately lower the collective the second power loss is detected. Following close behind is failure to establish proper pitch attitude.

He said the academy teaches minimum-rate-of-descent autos. “It’s important to have the ability to slow things down and be able to have the time to evaluate a landing area,” he said. He also stressed the importance of having the helicopter skids aligned in the direction of the landing to prevent rollovers. Airspeed and rotor rpm must be constantly monitored, and pilots must always be aware of wind direction.

“Do these things and odds are good you will walk away,” Oakley concluded.

“Obviously it costs a lot of money to do the training we are talking about,” said Jon Prater of the Denver FSDO, the FAA’s principal operations inspector for Air Methods. “As a regulator, I am telling you, you will spend a lot more in the wake of a crash as opposed to spending [training] money up front. The long-term benefits of proper training are unbelievable.” Prater added that many autorotation accidents occur when an instructor is overzealous.

NTSB investigator Jim Sillman said that of the 308 autorotation accidents that occurred between 2005 and 2011, 19 were fatal and almost all of them listed low altitude as a contributing factor. Many of these occurred during the course of flight training.

Prater said that advanced simulator training could sharpen autorotation skills by cutting the inherent risk in doing a “live” maneuver. “If you train properly, it breeds standardization and safety.” He said that Air Methods has 1,200 pilots, 450 of them who fly the Eurocopter AS350 series.

“We certainly don’t want to take an aircraft full of aeromedical equipment, that costs $3 million to $10 million” and do ground-contact autorotations. “But they’re important,” Prater said. Air Methods solved this dilemma by signing a three-year, 1,000-hour-per-year, contract with American Eurocopter for training in its new AS350 simulator. The company plans to send all its AS350 pilots there.

The FAA’s John Gordon, rotorcraft directorate test pilot, presented several simulator videos that showed a variety of entries to survivable and unsurvivable autorotations in both rural and urban environments. The videos demonstrated the benefits of entering autorotations from higher altitudes and slowing the rate of descent.

In one fatal simulation, an AS350 flying low over Los Angeles crashed just 3.2 seconds after power failure. “When you are flying over a city, give yourself some options by climbing higher or going around,” Gordon advised.

Shawn Wildman, with the FAA’s AFS 60 of the flight standards division, the office that sets the policies for the pilots who fly for flight standards, strongly advocated that everyone involved in practicing autorotations have a risk management program or safety management system, no matter how informal, to govern the conduct of these practice maneuvers.

“At the FAA,” he said, “before anyone does an autorotation, we require that they have a specific plan. What’s the objective, standard, the actual conditions they are going to fly in, and what are the actual procedures, step-by-step, that they are going to do?”

Wildman explained the FAA’s internal standards require that practice autorotations only been done to an airport, with crash rescue, and in daylight. “We all know this is a high-risk maneuver,” he said, noting the importance to mitigate risk through recognition, identification, and assessment prior to entry.

Nick Mayhew, general manager of the Bristow Academy, believes that autorotation training should start at higher altitudes, beyond the normal 700 feet agl, at perhaps 2,000 feet. When initially teaching the maneuver, he said, it should be broken into its component parts: entry, start, rotor rpms, turn, stop, and controls.

“If you haven’t done one in a while, a CFI should not be asking you to start it at 700 feet. That’s when the accident is going to happen. You are going to get out of control.” Mayhew helped construct a draft advisory circular on teaching autorotations that the training community is promoting as a revision to the helicopter practical test standards for helicopter CFIs.