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Helicopter Flight Below VFR Minimums…A Very Slippery Slope?

Posted 4 years 158 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

On January 26th, 2020, an S76 helicopter collided with terrain killing all nine (9) passengers onboard. The weather at the time of the accident supported a theory that weather may have been a causal factor. All aircraft accidents are bad for the industry; however, this accident helicopter was carrying a high-profile passenger which brought international attention to the situation. The immediate question is why an extremely weather capable helicopter wasn’t transitioned to IFR in lieu of continued flight in less-than-VFR conditions.

Helicopters operate safely in less-than-VFR conditions daily doing a variety of tasks. Since helicopters often operate at lower altitudes for normal flight operations, conducting those operations in less-than-VFR conditions is often limited to low ceilings, not lowering visibility.

Inadvertent Instrument Meteorological Conditions or IIMC is rarely attributed to a singular condition of a low ceiling. It is the accompanying low visibility that places the aircraft and crew in jeopardy. 14 CFR Part 135 regulations permit helicopter operations where a pilot may have to operate at lower altitudes while transporting passengers. Contained within FAR 135.203, a helicopter while carrying passengers for hire may fly at an altitude of 300’AGL over congested areas. This is not in any way connected to 14 CFR Part 91.119(d).

Operating a helicopter with lower than VFR ceilings and visibility may be permissible, however is it safe? Many helicopters operate safely in low ceilings and visibility performing tasks to include firefighting, external load, etc. During these flight profiles, the operational area is small and known to the pilot. Would departures for long distance flights be equally acceptable during low ceiling and visibility conditions?

Many years ago, I was taught valuable lessons regarding accepting flights when the ceiling is less than VFR. I was taught to add 1 NM in visibility for each one-hundred feet of ceiling below VFR. If the ceiling is 800AGL, my required visibility for the flight would be 5 NM minimum. An additional rule that I learned was to determine your lowest acceptable altitude for a flight leg. Based on this rule, descending due to weather and [lowering ceilings] would be permissible down to the lower acceptable altitude. Once reached, you MUST have the increased visibility to support the first rule and divert, or land! In my years of using these rules, I have landed many times!

Our passengers depend on us to make good decisions. If you are a pilot in any field within the helicopter industry, you will be in a situation requiring you to say “NO” to a passenger. This will occur for many reasons, but rarely will the situation be as dire as a weather decision. Emotions may rise to the surface and the pressure to fly immense, however you are the gatekeeper. You are the only mechanism between living to fly another day, or death by IIMC. Choose wisely!

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. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.