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180-Degree Autorotation: Stop the Carnage!

Posted 5 years 16 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

During the last quarter of 2017 (October 2017 – December 2017), there were three (3) helicopter accidents within the Instructional/Training segment. This represented 16% of the total accidents that occurred during that timeframe. Of those accidents, 1 was fatal. Although there has been a reduction in the number of helicopter training accidents, the maneuvers in which many of our accidents occur remain steady. Of those maneuvers, the 180-degree autorotation remains near the top of the list. 

A few months ago, during a conversation with an NTSB Investigator, this topic came up and he pointed me to a startling fact. The NTSB rarely investigates these types of accidents. Why? He stated, “the NTSB considers a high vertical velocity accident in a helicopter during training as most likely contributable to pilot error”. He then pointed out that the NTSB will utilize data provided by the FAA or other sources to prepare their accident report. Having researched several helicopter training accidents to see if I could validate his comments, I found the following excerpt within several actual NTSB reports associated with helicopter training accidents: 

NTSB investigators will use data provided by various entities, including, but not limited to, the Federal Aviation Administration and/or the operator, and will not travel in support of this investigation to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The 180-degree autorotation is nothing more than an autorotation with a turn. Why the high accident rate? We can debate the many facets of the maneuver such as altitude, airspeed, rotor rpm, etc., however the fault rests clearly on the Flight Instructor.

Maintaining a safe learning environment is the primary goal of flight training! At all times, the instructor must consider the factors associated with teaching safely while effectively transferring the information within the lesson. The 180-degree autorotation has many factors that may affect a safe outcome. Many of these factors are dynamic and change with the conditions in which the flight will be conducted. 

The instructor must ensure they are qualified to conduct training in the environment and conditions of the specific flight. An instructor only familiar with sea level conditions may not be prepared for a 180-degree autorotation within a high-density altitude environment. This assumption could easily lead to a high vertical velocity accident. Training-the-Trainer is a novel concept; however, few instructors like to have their skills evaluated. In my years of training Flight Instructors, rarely have I had an instructor request to have their skills and methods of teaching reviewed. 

The 180-degree autorotation should be introduced as a high-altitude entry with a coordinated autorotative decent to an opposite heading from that of the entry. This initial introduction to the maneuver should be conducted during Basic Airwork at altitudes of 3000 – 4000’ above the ground. After the student has a good grasp on the coordination of the maneuver, lower altitudes may be introduced. Once the student has developed a smooth entry to the maneuver and an appropriate scan of the instruments, only then should the 180-degree autorotation be conducted within the airport environment. 

At all times, assume the engine will fail during the training of an autorotation. Have a smooth firm surface available in the event of an actual power failure.  

As a Flight Instructor, the repetitive nature of the job can allow boredom to facilitate complacency. This is all too often a link in the error chain in a 180-degree autorotation accident. An attempt to heighten the intensity by attempting a new variation of the maneuver may have a similar negative effect or outcome. 

Remember…NEVER let your next maneuver be dictated by instructional boredom!

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.