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IIMC | Darwin’s Tangled Web

Posted 2 years 119 days ago ago by Admin

Too often we hear of a family on a helicopter departing with a loved one at the controls. Somewhere along the route, they encounter poor weather conditions. A decision to press on into the deteriorating weather conditions is made. The flight ends with a family perishing in what has become a predictable outcome. 

The intended consequences of this flight were far different than reality. The pilot did not wake up and decide to to kill his or her family today in a helicopter crash. Something else happened that outweighed the most basic human trait  to protect your family at all costs. How could such a simple decision not to fly outweigh saving your family from such a predictable outcome? This example is a private flight however, commercial operations are equally at risk.

Such decisions are made not in a singular thought or activity, but in a series of decisions that play out like a video game where the pilot is the avatar. Each of these critical decision points represent levels of play, and the farther you go into the game, the more challenging and mortally defined the ending.

Having spent many years teaching IIMC and having my share of encounters that worked out successfully, I’ve developed a tiered approach of engagement levels that define an IIMC decision tree. There are three levels of engagement: behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. It’s the actions before and leading up to the event that determine survival of an IIMC encounter. 

A Level One  IIMC encounter is intriguing to me. It’s the cliff where the danger exists; however, since the pilot has no intention of proceeding into worsening conditions, the perception of safety exists. In fact, it’s a Level One weather encounter that has proven to be the most dangerous to your survival. This is where the fatal decision tree begins. Since learning is defined as a change in behavior due to experience, maintaining a healthy IIMC training regimen followed by strict personal minimums would make a sensible solution. 

Once the behavior of the individual has been compromised and a continued flight decision is made (Level One), the cognitive phase begins (Level Two). The cognitive phase, to be successful, relies on a thought-based approach gained through experience and use of your senses. This is where pilots reach the point of no return. Many helicopter pilots have no actual experience dealing with such weather conditions and their senses begin to fail them. It is during this Level Two encounter where the pilot begins to question their decisions and confusion sets in. In many cases, it’s this period of confusion and denial that delays the decision to land.

Once a pilot is fully engaged in weather conditions where visual flight is no longer an option (Level Three), the emotional onset of guilt, denial, and fear often overshadow the pilot’s ability to cope with the conditions. Once engaged with a Level Three IIMC encounter, the data shows you have approximately 56-seconds to live! 

 The FAA and US Helicopter Safety Team released a video titled “56 Seconds.” This video accurately reflects upon each level within the IIMC decision tree and should be viewed by everyone. Additionally, as a company, we decided to enhance our IIMC training to include heavy use of simulation and in-aircraft IIMC devices such as the ICARUS electronic view-limiting system.

Strong instrument skills are key to safe instrument flight, but IIMC isn’t just another instrument flight. A strong ability to say NO to continued flight in Level One flight conditions will eliminate your entry into the realms of previous Darwin Award recipients. 

The data is clear. The information is available. Just don’t do it! 

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.

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