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Question for helicopter pilots: Why not fly higher?

Posted 5 years 238 days ago ago by Admin

Question for helicopter pilots: Why not fly higher?

Every few years, I use this platform to push for change. One of my pet peeves and favorite topics to kick around involves the altitudes at which we fly our helicopters.

The fiction writer, Tamara Cohen, once wrote: “People don't change. The world carries on spinning inexorably around but people don't spin with it. They dig their heels into the shifting sand and cling on for dear life.”

I feel like we as an industry are sometimes incapable of changing our behavior. We continue to do the same things over and over that cause us problems. This really applies to helicopter altitudes. I travel monthly to South Florida to fly an AW109E as a contract helicopter pilot. I stay at the home of a family member. Almost daily, helicopters fly over the house at 500 feet or below. The culprits range from light single-engine training helicopters to medium-twin engine IFR helicopters. Because I am a helicopter pilot, many of the neighbors ask me, “Do they have to fly over us that low?” My answer is always a resounding NO!

I visit and fly with a lot of operations. In my estimation about 90 percent of them are flying at 500 feet or less. I’ve started asking people: Why 500 feet? Here are some common responses:

  • If I catch fire or have a transmission problem, I can be on the ground quickly.
  • That is how I was taught and I don’t feel comfortable flying higher.
  • I am avoiding the fixed-wing traffic that’s mostly at 1,000 feet.

Please don’t get me wrong. Putting aside airspace and obstacles, I understand certain types of operations must be done in low-altitude environments—but there aren’t that many.

Here are the minimum altitudes suggested by HAI’s “Fly Neighborly” program.

  • Light/small helicopters should fly at altitudes no less than 1,000 feet AGL. 
  • For medium helicopters, the recommended height is 2,000 feet. 
  • Heavy/large helicopters, stay up at least 4,000 feet.

At the operation I fly, our routes are flown between 1,500 feet and 2,500 feet. The only exceptions are for takeoffs, landings, and offshore flying. The benefits of flying higher include less noise for the mere mortals on the ground, less bird encounters, smoother/cooler air, and more glide time to choose a landing spot in the event of an engine failure.

Another benefit of which you may not be aware: Jobs. In many places across the country, pilots and mechanics are being laid off due to operators being legislated into fewer flights—sometimes 50 percent fewer!

I have said this before, but will keep preaching it: We need a movement that promotes neighborly flying, beginning in the initial flight training level and continuing all the way up to the most mature operators. Here are a couple of catchy slogans to get the program started:

Be Cool, Fly Higher!

Or to spin off HAI President Matt Zuccaro’s line:

Just Fly the Damn Helicopter—Higher!