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Maximum Performance Takeoff — Into IMC?

Posted 7 years 344 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

A few months ago I was visiting a large helicopter flight school. While touring the school, I had the opportunity to sit in on a ground school class. The students were training toward their helicopter instrument rating, so the material being presented was on that topic. My initial impression was very positive. I thought: Wow, these young aviators are getting a great education in a highly standardized, quality-based training environment.

The portion of the course I was observing was covering takeoff considerations during IMC conditions and the regulatory requirements identified in Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 91.175. All was going well ... and then I heard these words: “An instrument takeoff (ITO) is nothing more than a maximum performance takeoff into IMC.” Initially I thought I misheard the instructor, but it became quickly apparent that I had indeed heard correctly.

Understand, this wasn’t a course on situations where you may encounter a white-out or brown-out condition on takeoff, nor a morning of light fog that is only a 100 feet thick with CAVU weather above. Instead, the instructor was teaching that when a helicopter has planned for an IFR departure, the pilot will line up on the departure runway, remain light on the skids, and then conduct an altitude over airspeed climb using the attitude indicator to maintain a level attitude while accelerating to normal climb airspeed. (I do believe that my heart skipped a beat!)

I looked at the assistant chief instructor that was escorting my tour for a response. He was smiling as though the instructor was his own prodigy giving a comparative teaching to that of The Sermon on the Mount. I asked my tour guide for a break in the class to meet the instructor. When it was given, I spoke with the instructor about what I had just observed. I told him I was interested in the subject matter as I had never heard the ITO method he had described to the class. He kindly provided an overview of the maneuver and how maximum performance takeoff into IMC was designed to allow the helicopter to climb above obstacles, in the least amount of distance, that may be obscured by IMC weather. 

After carefully listening, I asked a few questions. My first query: “In the method you describe for departing into IMC, wouldn’t the aircraft be operating within IMC below the aircraft’s minimum IFR airspeed—Vmini?” 

The answer: “What is Vmini?” 

My second question: “Where did you learn this method of an ITO?” 

His response: “I was taught this way.” 

The reference cited was the FAA Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Practical Test Standards, Area of Operations(A/O) III, Task B. The thought was that A/O III, Task B was exclusive to A/O III, Task A. It is not. Each task in this case is mutually advantageous with A/O III, Task B being a continuation of A/O III, Task A when IMC exists. 

It’s important to note only the FAA ATP helicopter practical test standards reference the instrument takeoff for evaluation. This task is not evaluated currently within the FAA instrument rating for helicopter practical test standards.  

Standardized training curriculum, processes, and procedures provide a significant benefit to a student during a course of study. However, standardized perpetuation of bad or incorrect subject matter is just plain wrong—and dangerous! 

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.