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Helicopters and Airports: Can We Land Anywhere?

Posted 6 years 228 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

I was talking to a local helicopter pilot that had recently obtained his private pilot helicopter certificate. We were chatting about his experience during his checkride. He said, “I was surprised that the DPE asked so many questions on airport signage when we’re able to land just about anywhere on the airport.” That comment caused me to  to pause and consider: Is his perception of helicopter operations at airports accurate?

It is very common for a helicopter to takeoff and land directly from the ramp or taxiway. For many student pilots, this is confusing as the guidance for this activity is obscure. Additionally, the ability to operate with such freedom is not standard among controlled airports. Depending upon the frequency and familiarity of helicopter operations at an airport, the level of helicopter operational restrictions will vary.

One such instance is conducting helicopter operations on closed areas of an airport. Let’s say your airport has a closed runway. It is clearly marked as closed with the placement of a large yellow X at each end of the runway. In this situation, we are taught that the runway is closed for operations. At many airports, closed runways are designated as helicopter training areas. An example of this can be found at the airport I frequent in Fort Worth, Texas. Meacham Airport has a closed runway, previously designated Runway 9/27. The runway has been closed for several years with two Xs located at the center point between the parallel north/south runways. The closed runway is used often enough by helicopter traffic that it now holds its own designation: “Dos Equis.”   

Continuous helicopter operations or takeoffs and landings in non-movement areas on an airport, when authorized, are often given a conditional phrase “proceed at your own risk.” This is air traffic control (ATC) placing responsibility for helicopter operation back on the pilot. This directive should not be taken lightly. When accepting responsibility for non-standard procedures, the pilot may be liable for those activities. A letter of agreement (LoA) with airport management and/or ATC would be prudent when conducting helicopter operations within non-movement or closed areas of an airport. In the event the FAA is contacted and your operations in these areas are questioned, having an LoA in place would be beneficial.

How does this work at non-towered airports? As a helicopter operator, we often plan our takeoffs and landings clear of the runway avoiding any potential conflict with fixed-wing traffic. This is a directive clearly identified within 14 CFR Part 91.126(b)(2). How far can we take this directive? Is landing on a closed runway or taxiway at a non-towered airport an acceptable procedure? The short answer is NO! You may be able to obtain approval to operate within a closed area of an airport, however approval should be obtained by the airport authority prior to doing so. Additionally, obtaining an LoA for such operations would be prudent to prevent any misunderstanding.

As Instructors, we must teach students when it is appropriate to operate directly into or from non-movement areas or closed portions of an airport. As safety is our primary consideration, operating in an area that has been deemed unsafe or inappropriate for aircraft operations requires heightened situational awareness. A yellow X on a runway doesn’t mean it’s a target to land!    

About Randy:  Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award.  Randy is currently  Director of Training at Epic Helicopters in Ft. Worth, Texas.