Recently, I read an article regarding helicopter autorotations from the perspective of a new helicopter student pilot. Although the article was merely an overview of the author’s pre-solo training experience, it was titled “Advanced Autorotations.” Why such a title?
A quick review of autorotations on the internet will introduce you to a plethora of videos on the topic. You’ll see helicopters conducting autorotations with no flare landings, sideward landings, and in some instances, landing backwards. The narration included with these videos will say that these various autorotative landing skills are often needed during an engine failure. But does the accident data support this claim?
The U.S. Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team (JHSAT) conducted a review of helicopter accidents during the years of 2000, 2001, and 2006. Each year shows that training continues to be one of the top operational categories of helicopter accidents in the United States, representing 17.9% of all accidents. Of the 523 helicopter accidents reviewed, failures in autorotation training were noted in 68 accidents. In response to the high accident rate during autorotation training, the FAA issued Advisory Circular 61-140A, which provides recommendations and industry best practices on the subject.
Most helicopter accidents occur where the success or failure of executing an autorotation was not a factor, such as with inadvertent IMC and wire strikes to name a couple. Why then the focus on training for autorotations? When reviewing the many videos on the subject, my first thought was the number of helicopter malfunctions that must have occurred providing the real-life experiences each of these helicopter pilots reference in their video. However, when asked if they had been involved in an event where an autorotation was required, the majority said they had not.
It is within reason to assume the meaning and definition of an advanced autorotation may be skewed by the adaptation an individual pilot may place on the topic. The purpose of the advanced autorotation is to learn how to safely make changes to airspeed and rotor RPM, manipulate the aircraft, such as changing direction, and how this can vary the distance covered over the ground to a landing spot.
The key to any autorotation is stability. The ability to stabilize the autorotation early in the maneuver will make the outcome more predictable. It’s far safer to have a stable aircraft in a well-defined autorotative profile landing in a not-so-perfect spot, than an unstable aircraft crashing in an open field because the pilot mismanaged the autorotation.
Advanced autorotations are merely those maneuvers where the pilot manipulates the energy and position of the helicopter to adapt to a selected landing area. The issue that may create the greatest hazard when training advanced autorotations is the instructor’s palette for risk at the entry to the maneuver. High risk doesn’t always lead to high reward, but it does lead to fewer options.
Teaching advanced autorotations from the instructor’s perspective should consistently focus on the ability of the student to complete the maneuver with minimal to no assistance from the instructor. If you are teaching advanced autorotations and find yourself consistently manipulating or requiring hands-on assistance to keep the helicopter in an airworthy condition, you may be teaching beyond the student’s ability. Although this is the essence of training, autorotations require sub-level skill sets that must be proficient prior to more advanced elements being achieved. Go back to basics!
Remember, never allow instructional boredom to decide the timing of an advanced autorotation training maneuver!
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.