Helo Safety Experts Stress IIMC Avoidance Over Recovery

 - June 1, 2021, 8:15 AM
The debris field from the Jan. 26, 2020 crash of a Sikorsky S76B helicopter near Calabasas, California, that killed nine people including basketball star Kobe Bryant. (Photo: James Anderson, NTSB)

A diverse team of helicopter industry safety experts discounted the effectiveness of inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) recovery training in favor of an emphasis on avoidance during a recent Helicopter Association International (HAI) webinar. 

Tim Tucker, the longtime head of Robinson Helicopter’s safety program, summarized the effectiveness of IIMC recovery training in stark terms: "[If] you end up in the clouds, my suggestion is that you take your hands off the controls and put your palms together underneath your chin because you now have 56 seconds to discuss things with your creator and maybe say goodbye to your family.” The mention of 56 seconds was a reference to the average amount of time that elapses between helicopter entry into IIMC and crashing. (A new U.S. Helicopter Safety Team video on the topic is entitled, “Fifty-six Seconds To Live.”) 

Tim Tucker
Tim Tucker, longtime head of Robinson Helicopter’s safety program.

Tucker’s avoidance strategy consists of three main elements: the takeoff decision, flight decisions at en route points, and ultimately the decision to land before entering clouds. He added that having an instrument rating after a VFR entry into IIMC doesn’t do much good. “If you think an instrument rating is going to protect you from an IIMC condition, nine times out of 10 that is not going to be the case," he said. "Don’t for a second think that this instrument rating is going to help if you inadvertently go IFR.

“What we have done in the helicopter world is bastardized instrument flying," Tucker continued. "Instrument flying is like what happens in the airplane world. You plan, you get a clearance, you fly, you shoot an approach at the end. What we have done in the helicopter world is get all this training on instruments and then try and stay VFR as long as we possibly can. And when we can no longer maintain VMC conditions, we hope all these instrument skills will come rushing back to us. It is not going to happen. It is not the way it works.” 

Tucker said one of the main reasons it doesn’t work is the lack of IFR proficiency in the helicopter world. “Just getting the rating and not doing any instrument flying for the last X number of months is not going to help at all. There is a big difference between being legally current and being proficient flying instruments.”

Other IIMC recovery strategies are equally flawed, according to Tucker, including making a 180-degree standard rate turn, climbing, or autorotating. While each of these strategies has its own unique set of problems in common they typically don’t work because they rely on the pilot’s ability to control the helicopter without outside visual reference, he said. The typical strategy of control, climb, course, and communicate—taken from the fixed-wing world—doesn’t work, Tucker said. “The helicopter pilot has a hard time getting by the first ‘c’—control.” 

Several other panelists echoed Tucker’s stark assessment of IIMC survival prospects. 

Bruce Webb, director of aviation education for Airbus Helicopters, said, “We’re trying to fly helicopters VFR in weather an airplane can’t fly IFR in. And the results are predictable.” Webb said the solution requires a heavy dose of education that centers on avoidance, starting with ab initio training. 

Bruce Webb
Bruce Webb, director of aviation education for Airbus Helicopters.

Rather than canceling lessons due to weather, instructors should “allow the student to come in and prepare a flight plan and determine whether the weather is sufficient. Then, as an instructor, you respond to that. Allow the student to make a decision.” Webb said this conditions students to make “a decision that errs on the side of safety.”

That means getting pilots comfortable with canceling flights even when the weather holds VFR, Webb said. “That is a learning point. On occasion, those decisions are going to be wrong and we as pilots need to be comfortable with that. Otherwise, we are going to repeatedly make the more aggressive choice, the less conservative decision, and we are going to continue to crash helicopters.” 

Webb also advocated the use of en route firewalls to prevent IIMC entry. “We have to examine why we behave the way we behave, and we have to put barriers in place to that. You should make more conservative decisions before the flight and have en route decision points.” By way of example, Webb suggested a simple metric. “If you make a flight-path adjustment more than three times [due to weather], you need to stop flying. You have to be comfortable and confident 100 percent of the time. In IIMC you are under an inordinate amount of pressure and your ability to make good decisions is diminished. When you are in a helicopter and something goes wrong, the place to make good decisions is on the ground. Don’t be blasting through space at 120, 150 knots and be trying to troubleshoot something. Land the helicopter. When you are in marginal weather, stop.” 

Gordon Jiroux, CEO of Universal Helicopters, counseled against using the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) to determine what are and aren't helicopter VFR conditions in favor of advocating higher fixed individual/organizational minimums for ceilings and visibility. “The Part 91 weather minimums as written for helicopters—daytime one-half mile visibility and clear of clouds—allows the pilot to slowly create an environment that he might not be able to live through, and that is part of the problem when it comes to IIMC penetrations. In my company, we don’t allow SPVFR [special VFR] outside the pattern, period. We don’t allow flight at or below 1,000 feet unless you are taking off or landing. If you eliminate those two things you eliminate potential tragedies. But the problem with making these kinds of rules is that you have to enforce them, and it starts at the top. You need someone to enforce them besides the chief pilot or the assistant chief pilot. A lot of [IIMC] crashes are the [fault of the] chief pilot.” 

While the panelists praised a new generation of stability augmentation systems and autopilots coming online for light helicopters, they expressed concerns that pilots may be reluctant to use them as often as they should in cases of marginal VFR conditions, or conversely might use them as a justification to penetrate IIMC. Webb said he has observed students in simulators actually decouple from autopilots as weather conditions deteriorate. “It’s a fascinating human behavior. I believe what happens when they get very low near the surface, the autopilot will not allow the aircraft to maneuver as quickly as they desire. Many of these AFCS [automatic flight control systems] or autopilots are limited to 30 degrees of roll. So they may slew in a heading change, but the ship is not changing heading as aggressively as they desire, or as aggressively as they are used to, so they decouple and hand fly.” 

Webb said the other problem is a simple lack of familiarity with the onboard systems, which makes pilots reluctant to use them in a high-stress situation. “We must use automation even when we don’t need it to be comfortable with it and feel secure and confident in it. You have a two-axis autopilot (pitch and roll) onboard a helicopter—or maybe even a three-axis one—and you are not using it in normal flight. Then you find yourself in a situation where you need it to save your life, but your senses are telling you something different than the flight-control system is telling the helicopter to do. You are going to have difficulty with that. You might decouple and override it. I feel that we must use these systems and be comfortable with them and have confidence with them at all times.” 

But concurrently Webb counseled against overreliance on such systems to the point where they would contribute to a deterioration in hand flying skills or encourage increased weather risk tolerance. “If people believe, because they have an AFCS, they can delve deeper into bad weather, that this automation will save them, that is wrong. Do not do that. If you are going to fly IFR, file IFR. Don’t go traipsing off VFR thinking your autopilot will save you.”