Slinging IFR

June 30, 2015 by Markus Lavenson

Flying helicopters IFR with a sling load presents unique challenges, requiring specific skills of the pilot.  One must obviously be able to control the helicopter without any outside visual references. Less obvious, one must also be able to correctly interpret the instruments, which reflect both the behavior of the load and the orientation of the helicopter. A Class B external load (sling load) is one that is free of the earth’s surface and is attached to the helicopter by a synthetic or wire line. The pilot is “flying” both the helicopter and the load, which at times can seem to have a mind of its own.

Today slinging IFR is not a common practice, though there was a time on the North Slope of Alaska where it was employed regularly. I thought it might be interesting to look at this operation in some detail.

 

An AW139 lifts off for an external load training flight out of Deadhorse Alaska.  Photo by Dan Adams

An AW139 lifts off for an external load training flight out of Deadhorse Alaska. Photo by Dan Adams

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Controlling the sling load

Normally one can see the external load, and make the necessary corrections. Lateral swinging is more common than a fore-aft motion or a circular motion, so we will focus on that. A quick lateral cyclic input towards the load, just as it reaches its apex, moves the aircraft over the load neutralizing its motion. You are essentially moving the aircraft over the load after it has swung out to the side. This dampens the movement of the load and stabilizes it. However, when flying IFR the instruments must be used to indicate the loads’ position and movement. The best way to learn how the instruments reflect the movements of the load is during VFR flight, when the load and gauges can be seen together.

Flying IFR with a sling it is important not to make corrections reflecting the gauges as one normally would, but instead understand exactly what the load is doing beneath you. The attitude indicator reflects rhythmic changes in bank angle from the load tugging the helicopter laterally side to side, as does the ball in the inclinometer. The inclinometer is used to indicate when and how much lateral cyclic input is necessary for a correction, though there is a natural lag. The load will reach its apex prior to the inclinometer, and the pilot must compensate for this natural lag. When the ball starts to swing out of center to the right and is about half way from its apex, the load is almost at its apex to the left, the pilot then uses left lateral cyclic as a correction. The rhythmic oscillations in the attitude indicator and inclinometer reflect the movements of the load, and the average of these movements are the actual orientation of the aircraft.  The pilot learns to mentally average these oscillations in order to control the pitch, roll, and yaw of the aircraft itself.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, so one learns to make flight control inputs very smoothly so as to not aggravate the load. Turns are initiated slowly, and half standard rate turns are sometimes prudent.

Determining cruise airspeed

Another consideration is determining the target airspeed at which to fly.  This must be greater than Vmini (minimum IFR speed) and less than the loads effective Vne. While the aircraft will have an external load airspeed limitation, this may not be possible if the load is unstable at a lower speed. Many loads cannot be flown at the external load Vne, and the effective Vne must be determined. As the pilot slowly accelerates during takeoff, the load is carefully watched prior to IMC to determine what airspeed above Vmini the load can be flown at. Once that airspeed is determined, it is maintained for the entire flight.

Should the load show signs of instability below Vmini or only slightly above so as to not provide a safe and adequate airspeed window, the takeoff is aborted while still VMC.

One should be sure of a load’s stability and capability at a safe airspeed prior to IMC, and one should only fly known loads in IFR or at night. A known load is one that is similar to one previously flown during the day. The load characteristics are predictable and stable.

Autopilots and external load operations

Autopilots and external loads don’t usually mix, and many Rotorcraft Flight Manuals prohibit autopilot coupling during external load operations. The autopilot can be too abrupt in pitch attitude and roll, particularly when initiating and terminating turns. A pilot can make changes with a more gentle touch; such as slowly entering a half-standard rate turn when necessary. The autopilot can be used for stability augmentation; it just shouldn’t be coupled to the flight director directly controlling the aircraft.

Horizontal and vertical situational awareness

Class B sling loads can be jettisoned, either intentionally or unintentionally. The hook release is typically electric and controlled by the pilot. Under normal operation the load is released once it has been placed gently on the ground; however, in the case of an emergency the pilot may opt to release it in flight. Due to the possibility of the load being released in flight, persons or property are never overflown. This requires horizontal situational awareness; easy enough VFR, but IFR is another matter. Fortunately, the North Slope of Alaska provides assurance due to its desolate nature.

Vertical situational awareness must also be considered, not just for the helicopter but also for the load hanging underneath. With the typical 25 to 50’ line, the altitude of the load isn’t a factor in cruise flight; however, during the instrument approach it must be considered.

The Instrument Approach

As much fun controlling the helicopter and load may be in IFR conditions, eventually we do need to land. For that we need to fly an instrument approach. Let’s stick with the North Slope of Alaska, using the Deadhorse (PASC) ILS 05 as an example, using a little simple math.

A load 5 feet high hanging on a 50 foot line would require a 55 foot adjustment factor to the decision altitude. For the Deadhorse ILS, this means increasing the decision altitude of 267 feet to 322 feet, and ALS conditional altitude of 167 feet to 222 feet. It would also be prudent to include this 55 foot altitude adjustment into your preflight IFR planning.

Final Thoughts

While flying slings IFR is no longer common, the training for IFR slings still occurs. Having the skill and confidence to be able to fly a sling IFR is vital should unforecasted adverse weather be encountered, not unheard of on the Alaskan North Slope where the weather can change quickly. Airports and options are few and far between north of the Brooks Range of Alaska. These skills also translate well and are employed for night sling operations, which are still done on a regular basis.

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Owners, pilots, and owner pilots

June 23, 2015 by Maria Langer

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the goal differences between helicopter owners and pilots. This could be because of my annual involvement in cherry drying work which is one of the few kinds of work that probably appeal more to owners than pilots.

What Owners Want

I think I can safely say that all owners–whether they own and fly for pleasure or own primarily as part of their business–want to keep owning the helicopter. That means keeping costs low and revenue–if any–as high as possible without jacking up costs so they can continue to meet the financial obligations of ownership: insurance, debt service, storage, required maintenance, registration, taxes, etc.

Of course, if a helicopter is owned as part of a business, the owner’s main goal is probably to build that bottom line. That means maximizing revenue while minimizing expenses. While every helicopter has some fixed costs that come into play whether it flies or not–insurance, hangaring, annual maintenance–an owner can minimize costs by focusing on work that pays even if the helicopter doesn’t fly. That’s why you can lease a helicopter with a monthly lease fee that’s independent of hours flown and why certain types of agricultural work–cherry drying and frost control come to mind–pay a standby fee that guarantees revenue even if the helicopter is idle.

As an owner, I can assure you that there’s nothing sweeter than having your helicopter bring in hundreds or even thousands of dollars a day while it’s safely parked at a secure airport or, better yet, in a hangar.

If the helicopter does have to fly, the owner wants the highest rate he can get for every flight hour and the lowest operating cost. How he achieves those goals depends on his business model, the equipment he has, the services he offers, and the pilots who do the flying.

What Pilots Want

What pilots want varies depending on where they are in their career.

  • Student pilots want to learn. Their goal is to learn what they need to and practice it enough so they can take and pass checkrides. Because they’re paying full price for every hour they fly, they’re not necessarily interested in flying unless it enables them to practice the maneuvers they need to get right on a check ride.
  • New pilots want to fly. Period. Their primary interest is building the time they need to get their first “real” flying job: normally 1,000 to 1,500 hours PIC. They’ll do any flying that’s available. And even though commercial pilots and CFI may be able to get paid to fly, some will fly for free or even pay to fly if the price is right. Indeed, I’ve had more than a few pilots offer to fly for me for free, which makes me sad.
  • Semi-experienced pilots want to build skills. Pilots who have had a job or two and have built 2,000 hours or more of flight time are (or should be) interested in doing the kind of flying that will build new skills or get practice in the skills they want to focus on for their careers. So although they still want to fly, they’re more picky about the flying they do. They’ll choose a job with a tour company that also does utility work over a job with a tour company that doesn’t, for example, if they’re interested in learning long-line skills.
  • Experienced pilots want flying jobs doing the kind of work they like to do and/or paying the money they want to receive for their services. Pilots with a good amount of experience and specialized sills are often a lot pickier about the jobs they take. For some of these pilots, flying isn’t nearly as important as pay and lifestyle. A utility pilot friend of mine routinely turned down jobs if he didn’t like the schedule, just because he didn’t like being away from home more than 10 days at a time. But dangle a signing bonus in front of him and there was a good chance he’d take it.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of these generalizations. Few people fall neatly into any one category.

But what you may notice is that most of them need to fly to achieve their goals, whether it’s passing check rides, building time, learning skills, or bringing home a good paycheck.

And that’s how they differ from owners.

Owner Pilots

I’m fortunate–or unfortunate, if you look at my helicopter-related bills–to be both an owner and a pilot.  I’ve owned a helicopter nearly as long as I’ve been flying: 15 years.

The owner side of me is all about the revenue. I love agricultural contracts that let me park the helicopter on standby and collect a daily fee for leaving it idle. Every hour it doesn’t fly is another flight hour I can keep it before I have to pay that big overhaul bill. (I own a Robinson R44 Raven II, which requires an overhaul at 12 years or 2200 hours of flight time, whichever comes first.) It’s also an hour I don’t have to worry about a mishap doing the somewhat dangerous agricultural flying work I do.

The pilot side of me wants to fly. I love to fly. I bought a helicopter because I felt addicted to flying and needed to be able to get a fix any time. (The business came later, when it had to.)

Owning a helicopter means having a safe place to keep it when it's not flying.

Owning a helicopter means having a safe place to keep it when it’s not flying.

And because I’m an owner, with ultimate say over how the helicopter is used, and a pilot, with a real desire to fly, I can pretty much fly where and when I want to. But when the fun is over I’m the one who has to pay the bill.

Being an owner pilot gives me a unique perspective, an insight into how owners and pilots think and what drives them.

Working Together to Achieve Goals

In a perfect world, owners would think more about pilots and work with them to help them achieve their goals. That means helping them learn, offering them variety in their flying work, and paying them properly for their experience and skill levels.

At the same time in that perfect world, pilots would think more about owners and work with them to help them achieve their goals. That means flying safely and professionally, following FAA (or other governing body) regulations, pleasing clients, taking good care of the aircraft to avoid unscheduled maintenance and repair issues, and helping to keep costs down.

What do you think? Are you an owner or pilot or both? How do you see yourself working with others? Got any stories to share? Use the comments here to get a discussion going.

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The K-Max returns

June 18, 2015 by Ian Twombly

There’s good news from Bloomfield, Connecticut-based Kaman Corporation. The company announced recently it plans to restart production of the heavy-lift K-Max. An initial conservative plan includes building 10 helicopters, primarily for international buyers. Deliveries are planned for early 2017.

Known for its unusual twin intermesh rotor system, the K-Max is capable of lifting an external load of 6,000 pounds. That gives it the distinction of also being able to lift more than it weighs. Empty weight is 5,145 pounds and max gross takeoff weight is 12,000 pounds. It’s purpose-built external load roots are clear in the bubble side windows and relatively small, single-seat cockpit.

Fewer than 40 aircraft were built during the production run from the early 90s to when the line was shut down in 2003. Of those the Marines have two they use as unmanned cargo aircraft (photo below). Kaman launched that project in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, and it was nominated for the Collier Trophy.

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Master your environment

June 9, 2015 by Matt Johnson

Helicopter pilots work in an amazing, ever-changing environment. The skills necessary to accomplish the task at hand require a high level of concentration, ability, and finesse. Whether it is flying circles around some of God’s greatest work, air medical operations, or instructing the next generation of helicopter pilots how well you utilize your skills can easily be determined by how aware you are with all components of your flying duties. In other words, you must be fully involved and a master of your environment.

WHAT IS YOUR ENVIRONMENT?

You can’t master what you don’t know. Environment can be defined as “the setting or conditions in which a particular activity is carried on.” The activity is easily defined as flying, however, it is the setting or conditions that can make or break you. It would be impossible to list all of the components that define a particular flying environment but several are common to most, if not all, flight operations. These mainstays include: aircraft, airspace, weather, and regulations.

AIRCRAFT If you really want to get to know your aircraft, its systems, and emergency procedures, make a plan to review the Rotorcraft Flight Manual on a regular basis. Pick a chapter in the RFM each month of the year and review it religiously. Know the RFM inside and out.

AIRSPACE I used to wonder why designated pilot examiners and check airmen were so stringent about airspace during checkrides. After a few years of operational flying and getting the life scared out of me by people that didn’t know understand it, I realized why this was a pet-peeve of many examiners. Not knowing airspace is like driving in a foreign country with road signs in a language you can’t begin to comprehend. If it has been a while since you actually used a sectional chart to navigate the various classes of airspace here is a good way to humble yourself; on one of your next flights turn the GPS off. Use good old fashioned pilotage and dead reckoning to find your way. Ask yourself where you are on the chart, where you came from, and where you are going. What airspace are you travelling through? What are the weather minimums? What equipment is required? Transponder? Who do you need to talk to? On what frequency? You get the idea. If you are going to master your environment you must know everything about the airspace you are transiting in and out of.

I have a rule about avionics and eyeballs that are in any aircraft I am flying. No avionics or eyeballs ride for free. If you got’em use them! As an example, if you have two GPS systems use both of them. Use one for your destination and the other for a nearby airport close to your departure area that has an instrument approach in the event you inadvertently fly in to the clouds shortly after take-off.

WEATHER If you think all you need to know about weather comes from those ridiculous questions on the FAA knowledge exams you are mistaken. Most areas experience some sort of regional microclimate. Get to know the weather patterns in your area and when to expect them. If you are flying in an area unfamiliar to you, reach out to other helicopter pilots and pick their brains on local weather patterns. The accident statistics are full of stories about helicopter pilots that didn’t have a working knowledge of local weather patterns.

REGULATIONS In this day and age of technology the current regulations can easily be placed in electronic format on all of your neat gadgets. Know all of the regulations that apply to your particular operations and know them well. If you don’t understand a particular regulation, seek clarification. Wiggle-room has no place when The Man is ready to take enforcement action against you. A quick survey of NASA reports shows several high-time pilots making mistakes involving regulations. Like the Rotorcraft Flight Manual, the federal regulations pertaining to your certificate privileges and operating activities need a periodic review.

HOW TO STAY SHARP? Whatever you do, don’t lose the awe factor. Not long ago I read a story about a 39-year physician. This fellow was in his late 80’s, and he still went to the office every day. His friends and family tried to get him to retire, but he simply refused. He had invented a procedure that he had performed more than 10,000 times. He was asked in an interview if he ever got tired of doing it, if it ever got old. He said, “No. The reason why is because I act like every operation is my very first one.” If you find yourself losing that awe of spooling up and pulling pitch, it may be time for a break. Taking pride in what you do and doing it with excellence can foster an attitude that enables you to master your environment.

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OSAPs, HEDAs, and ARAs oh my!

June 2, 2015 by Markus Lavenson

Imagine being able to create an instrument approach while en-route, and then fly the approach down a minimum of 200 feet and 3/4sm. Not as crazy as it sounds. Here’s why:

IFR helicopters do this regularly, supporting the offshore petroleum industry in the Gulf of Mexico, flying as far as 200 miles offshore to land on ships, drill rigs, spars, and platforms.  All in accordance with Advisory Circular 90-80B: Approval of Offshore Standard Approach Procedures (OSAP), Airborne Radar Approaches (ARA), and Helicopter En Route Descent Areas (HEDA).  The title is certainly a mouthful, and the 58-page document can also be a little daunting. It helps to look at one in action, in this case the popular Copter Delta 30 OSAP, pronounced as “Oh-Sap.”

Before first light, prior to start-up for an IFR flight offshore, which will incorporate an OSAP approach to the destination rig.  Photo by Alex Geacintov

Before first light, prior to start-up for an IFR flight offshore, which will incorporate an OSAP approach to the destination rig. Photo by Alex Geacintov

The Copter Delta 30 OSAP is one of five charted templates in AC90-80B that a pilot can adapt to almost any location offshore. It requires specific two pilot crew training, GPS, ground mapping capable radar, and radio/radar altimeter. It is a SIAP (special instrument approach procedure), and therefore also requires FAA authorization.

While en-route, destination weather is rechecked via radio or satellite phone. If the destination doesn’t have approved weather reporting, normally required under part 135, some operators have an FAA authorization to use remote reporting stations. Operations Specifications are regulatory and issued by the FAA, with some being more restrictive and some less restrictive than the associated FAR. Think of them as an extension of the FARs for specific operators. In this case the Op Spec is less restrictive, which is a good thing because although there are some AWOSs  offshore, there never seem to be enough.

The OSAP Delta 30

The OSAP Delta 30

Wind condition at the destination is used to determine the approach course, which must be into the wind. A DWFAP (down wind final approach point) is typically created 7nm downwind from the destination, on the final approach course. The DWFAP can be created anywhere on the final approach course, as long as it is between 5 and 10nm from the destination. Depending on the en-route direction, a course reversal may be necessary in order to establish the helicopter inbound on course at the DWFAP. All this is planned and created while en-route, and then programmed into the Flight Management System or GPS. Radar in ground-mapping mode is used to determine there are no obstacles within .5nm of the final approach course. The final approach course can be adjusted for obstacles, just as long as it is within 10 degrees of the wind.

When 40nm or less from the destination, a cruise clearance is requested from ATC. This allows an immediate descent to MEA, an eventual descent to 900 MSL 20nm out, and a clearance to fly the approach and missed approach, if necessary.

Once established inbound at the DWFAP, at or below 70 knots (ground speed), a descent from 900MSL to 500MSL can be initiated.

If there are no obstacles within .5nm of course, and the radar and GPS are in agreement within .2nm for the destination target, a further descent from 500MSL to 200RA (radio altitude) can be made.

Radio altitude, from a radio or radar altimeter, is the actual height of the aircraft above the surface, in this case the ocean. The radio altimeter is used to determine the height, while the radar is used to identify obstructions. It’s a dynamic environment and just because an approach was clear of obstacles the day before doesn’t mean a drill ship wasn’t repositioned overnight.

At 1.1nm out, a right or left 30-degree turn is made to avoid overflying the destination, hence the name “Delta 30”. The heading change still has the aircraft converging with the destination, with the MAP (missed approach point) being .6nm away. At the MAP, one can proceed visually to land or go missed approach.

An OSAP is a great procedural tool for the trained two-pilot IFR crew in the offshore environment, providing precision approach-like minimums.

(These views and opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Era.)

 

The rig looms ahead after shooting an OSAP Delta 30 instrument approach.  Photo by Paul Patrone

The rig looms ahead after shooting an OSAP Delta 30 instrument approach.  Photo by Paul Petrone

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Tips for long cross-country flights

May 26, 2015 by Maria Langer

Because I take my helicopter where the work is, I often do long cross-country flights between my permanent and various temporary bases of operation. (After a lot of careful consideration, I’ve decided that it’s safer and more cost-effective to fly the helicopter from point to point than to buy a custom trailer and tow it.) I’ve been making cross-country flights in excess of 500 miles since 2004 and, for six consecutive years, made an annual round trip between the Phoenix area (where I lived) and north central Washington state (where I now live) for cherry drying work. Nowadays, I make an annual round trip between north central Washington and the Sacramento area for frost control. I flew solo on about half of these long flights; the other half was usually spent with a low-time pilot building PIC time at the controls while I tried not to be bored (or sometimes sick from PIO—long story for another time).

I flew home from California in late April. It was another solo flight, one that I’d been looking forward to mostly because I would be doing all the flying. And, instead of the 5-6 hour direct flight, I planned to fly west and then north up the California and Oregon coasts before turning inland again. Total flight time would be about 6-7 hours.

CA Coast

My first look at the California coast on a recent flight from the Sacramento area to Washington State.

Although the flight wasn’t as pleasant and uneventful as I’d hoped, I’m not complaining. But it did remind me of some tips I could share with other pilots preparing to do long cross-country flights.

Planning the Flight

Whether you plan to file a flight plan (which I recommend doing) or not, it’s important to plan for the flight. This pretty much goes without saying. In addition to the usual things to check in advance–weather, fuel availability, TFRs, route options–consider the following:

  • Make your flight segments shorter than they have to be. Sure, Robinson Helicopter claims I can get 16 gallons per hour in my R44 so I should be able to fly 3 hours (less 20 minutes reserve) between stops. But do I really want to fly that long without a break? Probably not–especially after those first two cups of coffee. Yet I’ve seen more than a few flight plans that had us in the air as long as possible.
  • Don’t just study your route before the trip—study everything around it. How many times have I tried to fly up or down the coast, only to be forced inland by a typical “marine layer” of fog? Too many to count. I’ve learned to study my route and alternate routes that would be easy to get to if I needed to change course.
  • Know where the fuel is along the way. Do you think you could make a planned fuel stop if you hit  30 mph headwinds that weren’t in the forecast (or flight plan)? This happened to me on my April flight. I was lucky that there were several airports with fuel along my planned route so I could stop sooner than expected.

Preparing for the Flight

Once you’ve planned the flight, you can prepare the aircraft for conducting the flight.

  • Gather and prepare your charts. If you use paper charts, mark them up with your intended route and fold them with the route easy to access. Then stack them in the order of use. That’s how I used to do it when I used paper. Sure beats fumbling around one-handed. Fortunately, we’re in the 21st century and have tools like Foreflight to provide accurate, up-to-date charts. Make sure you’ve loaded and updated all the charts you’ll need. Use the flight planning tools to mark your route. Then make sure you’re fully charged up and, if necessary, have backup power available. A backup device is handy, too. I use, in order: Foreflight on my iPad, Foreflight on my iPhone, and a panel mounted Garmin 430 GPS.
  • Make an airport and frequency list. I don’t do this much anymore–Foreflight makes it easy to get this info on the fly–but when I used paper charts, I also made a list of all the airports along the way that included frequencies for CTAF (or tower) and AWOS/ASOS (or ATIS). I could then program all the airport codes into my Garmin 430 as a flight plan and make frequency changes as I flew from one airport to the next.
  • Bring oil. I use W100Plus oil in my helicopter. It’s isn’t exactly easy to find. That’s why I usually bring along a quart for every expected fuel stop. That’s not to say that I’ll use it all, but it’s there when I need it.
  • Pack snacks. I always have a small cooler on board for long flights and do my best to fill it with ice (or frozen water bottles) and good snacks before I go. Even if you planned a meal stop along the way, circumstances might prevent you from making that stop. Maybe you had to change your route. Maybe the restaurant closed 30 minutes before you arrived. Or maybe the restaurant that was supposed to be a quarter-mile south is really more than a mile and a half from the only airport gate on the north end of the field. Bringing beverages like water or Gatorade-like drinks is also important. You don’t want to get dehydrated.
  • Pack an overnight bag. If you weren’t planning an overnight stay, pretend you were. A change of clothes, toothbrush, and credit card can make an unscheduled overnight stop a lot more pleasant. And if you think roughing it might be necessary, consider a sleeping bag or bedroll, either of which can make sleeping in an FBO–or the helicopter–a lot more comfortable.
  • Pack an emergency kit. I’ve spent so much time flying over remote areas that I forget that many pilots don’t. My helicopter has an emergency kit under the pilot seat that includes a first aid kit and equipment like fire starters, a signal mirror, a “space blanket,” energy bars, water, and so on. If weight is a factor–and it certainly is in my R44–you’ll have to limit what you bring. But some essentials can save your life if you’re forced to land in the middle of nowhere.
  • Make sure any required power supplies, cables, or batteries are handy. If you rely on electronic devices for navigation, you’d better make sure you’ve got back up power for them. My iPad’s battery can’t survive a 7-hour flight with the screen turned on and the GPS running. I use USB cables hooked up to a power supply to keep the battery charged. If you have a battery-powered GPS, make sure you have a spare set of batteries.
  • Set up your tunes. I listen to music or podcasts when I fly solo. My aircraft’s intercom system automatically cuts the music sound when a radio transmission comes through. Handy.

During the Flight

It’s during the flight that your preparation will really pay off. If you’ve done everything right, you’ll be prepared for anything.

  • Open your flight plan. I recommend filing and opening a flight plan for each segment of the flight. Again, with a tool like Foreflight this is very easy. I can open and close a flight plan with a few taps on my iPad screen. This beats the frustration of trying to reach Flight Service on the radio in a mountainous area when only 700 feet off the ground.
  • Remember that your flight plan is not carved in stone. I can’t tell you how many flight plans prepared by pilots who were accompanying me that went out the window before the second fuel stop. Stuff happens–usually related to weather–and changes are a fact of cross-country flying life. The only time I’ve ever done a long cross-country flight plan exactly as planned was on one trip from Wenatchee, WA (EAT) to Phoenix, AZ (PHX), and that’s because our straight line route across the Nevada desert didn’t have any other options for fuel stops. We had to do it as planned.
  • Know when to pull the plug and wait it out. Weather an issue? While scud running is something we’ve all probably done at one time or another, it probably isn’t something we should be doing. Tired? Tired pilots make mistakes. When low visibility, severe turbulence, or simple pilot fatigue makes flying dangerous, it’s time to set the ship down and take a break. If you did all your homework before the flight, you should know whether there’s an airport nearby to make the wait a little more comfortable. I remember unplanned overnight stays in Rosamond, CA (not recommended) and Mammoth Lakes, CA (which would have been nicer if I’d been prepared for snow).

Experience Is Everything

Low Clouds

Hard to believe that only a few hours after hitting the coast I was forced inland by low clouds and rainy weather.

My April flight was a mixed bag. It started with a beautiful but slightly hazy dawn just west of Sacramento, a gorgeous morning on the coast, moderate turbulence with strong headwinds, low clouds, hazy coastal weather, drizzly rain, more low clouds, even lower clouds (and scud running), and bumpy air on a cloudy day. If you’re interested in details, you can read about it in my blog. Although it isn’t common, it is possible for me to have a perfectly uneventful cross-country flight of 500 miles or more in a day.

If you do enough long cross-country flights, planning and conducting a flight becomes second nature. I’m always thinking about what’s up ahead and working on ways to get more information about alternative routes when things aren’t looking as good as you want them to. I’ve occasionally used my phone to call AWOS and ATIS systems at airports I think might be along a better route. I use radar in Foreflight to get a feel for how weather is moving and where it might be better or worse than I am. I’ll change altitude to avoid mechanical turbulence. If I have to do any scud running, I do it slowly and carefully, always aware of exactly where I am and where I can go if things get worse.

It’s all about planning and preparing and using your experience to handle unexpected situations as they come up. After a while, there’s very little than can surprise you.

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Hiller returns

May 20, 2015 by Ian Twombly

Few manufacturers are making personal helicopters these days, and those that are have to charge a hefty price to make up for the relatively small volume. (One could argue that Robinson’s R22 is reasonably priced, but the per-hour cost is steep). That’s why United Helicopter‘s work with old Hiller airframes is so enticing.

United is taking Hiller’s ubiquitous UH-12B and C models and completely restoring them from the canopy to tail rotor, a process that takes 1,500 hours of labor. The company restores all components, provides custom paint and interior choices, and sells it for roughly $159,000. Prices vary depending on options, such as doors, aux fuel tank, ground handling wheels, and so on. Donor airframes can be either supplied by the customer or rolled in to the purchase price. An employee at Sun ‘n Fun said they have around half a dozen ready to go, and that many more are in barns and hangars scattered around the country.

Hiller’s UH-12 is one of the great early helicopter designs. First developed in the late 1940s, it went through a number of airframe and engine changes over the years. That it was used as a primary trainer for the Army should speak to its robustness. The B and C models, which United focuses on, are powered by Franklin engines. The employee said they work on those two because parts are easy to find and they offer the best mix of performance and value. Both have a rotor system with an extremely high amount of inertia. Perhaps best of all, the tail rotor is the only time limited component. Only four components are life limited–the tail rotor rod, blade, and yoke assemblies, and the tail rotor tension torsion bar. Each has to be pulled at 2,500 hours. The Franklin engine is a bit of a sticking point in that it has a lower 1,200 hour overhaul interval.

Ignoring the life limited components for a bit, the per hour operating cost is around $150, including insurance and annual. That assumes 100 hours of flying. Throw in those components and the price goes up a bit, but still well below other competitors. And since its able to carry 600 pounds of people with full fuel across three seats, there are lots of cabin options as well. That’s pretty impressive coming from a guy who designed his first helicopter before most kids graduate high school.

Have you flown a Hiller? Give us your impressions in the comment section.

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Why are we surprised?

May 13, 2015 by Matt Johnson

After reading a recent accident report I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Then I got upset and mumbled under my breath “why am I surprised?” In fact, why would anyone be surprised? This blood boiling piece involved the 2013 Alaska Department of Public Safety fatal helicopter accident. It is nearly impossible to recap all of the details of this tragedy in one short article, especially when the NTSB’s final report contained hundreds of pages of facts and circumstances leading to the cause of the accident. However, in general, three lives were lost when an Airbus AS350 crashed near Talkeetna, Alaska, when the helicopter inadvertently flew into instrument conditions during a search and rescue operation.

The NTSB probable cause finding was: “The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s decision to continue flight under visual flight rules into deteriorating weather conditions, which resulted in the pilot’s spatial disorientation and loss of control. Also causal was the Alaska Department of Public Safety’s punitive culture and inadequate safety management, which prevented the organization from identifying and correcting latent deficiencies in risk management and pilot training. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s exceptionally high motivation to complete search and rescue missions, which increased his risk tolerance and adversely affected his decision-making.”

Few pilots like to second-guess an accident situation, especially when it involves an industry colleague who was fatally injured or killed. But many of the facts regarding the Alaska Trooper accident will make you want to pull your hair out. Several of the facts surrounding this accident are worth highlighting to help prevent such an accident from happening again.

The weather at the time of the initial flight request and during the actual operation was less than ideal. The investigation revealed the pilot was likely blinded by heavy snow fall, low-hanging clouds, and near-zero visibility conditions. According to the NTSB, marginal to worsening conditions were to be expected based on forecasts and current observations. In addition, it was night and the pilot was wearing night vision goggles. Like so many other helicopter accidents we read about he was flying an aircraft not certificated nor equipped for flight in IMC. Although the NTSB’s probable cause made no mention of icing as a contributing factor, icing conditions were ideal at the time of the accident. This is just one of the many factors that would have been obvious with a proper preflight weather analysis.

Should this flight have ever occurred? Absolutely not. Did the operator have weather minimums in place? If you want to call it that. The investigation revealed the Alaska DPS had weather minimums of 500 foot ceiling and 2 miles visibility, which is crazy. What is even more alarming is that the investigation revealed the pilot had set his “own minimums” to include a 200 foot ceiling. This is absolutely ridiculous. Why was a culture like this ever allowed to exist? More on this later.

So, we know the pilot found himself flying in the aforementioned conditions and he lacked the “equipment” but did he possess the necessary skills to survive this type of encounter? No, and here’s why. The accident pilot had not flown a helicopter in IMC conditions since 1986, almost three decades before the crash. Furthermore, it was determined the pilot had no recent or proper training on how to recover from inadvertent IMC encounters.

As previously mentioned, the accident pilot was utilizing NVGs. The investigation revealed the pilot had minimal NVG training. In fact, his only recorded training involving the use of NVGs was in 2003 (10 years prior to the accident) from other pilots within the organization who themselves had questionable NVG training. So, armed with this factual information, why would anyone be surprised by the outcome of this flight?

The NTSB did more than finger-pointing at just the pilot in this case. The culture within the Alaska DPS was also put on trial. Numerous findings were made that detailed agency shortcomings, including a lack of organizational policy to ensure that operational risk is appropriately managed, a lack of mission-specific training, and a lack of adequate information about best practices for helicopter inadvertent instrument meteorological training, just to name a few.

This case could very well be a game changer within the helicopter industry. As a result of the investigation the NTSB made three safety recommendations to the FAA and seven safety recommendations not only to the State of Alaska, but also for 44 additional states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. This case may very well be the catalyst that will spark many changes much like those witnessed in the HEMS industry in recent years. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes an accident like this to blaze a new trail.

As always, I may be alone but I’m afraid not. So what say you?

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Flying on coconut time

April 29, 2015 by Markus Lavenson

Fresh coconuts everywhere! We hadn’t had any fresh food in the last couple weeks, unless you count coleslaw; nothing lasts longer at sea than cabbage and carrots. I started up the Bell-Soloy helicopter to begin shuttling crew to a Pacific island atoll. We were going grocery shopping.

 

An uninhabited Pacific atoll

An uninhabited Pacific atoll

 

It was 1988 and we had been at sea almost two months and the holds were far from full. My job was to fly the helicopter in search of tuna, and then help catch them by herding them into the net. We were to fill the Maria Rosana II with about 1,300 tons of tuna. She was a fast 225-foot tuna clipper with a crew of 23, five speedboats, and a helicopter. We used a seine net almost a mile long and 500 feet deep, with one end attached to the skiff and the other to the ship. When setting the net, the skiff was released and the tuna boat would make a huge circle back to the skiff. A cable, which ran through metal rings all along the bottom of the net, was then winched, closing off the bottom of the net. The net was then pulled through a power block until the tuna were packed tight. They were then scooped out and funneled through a chute into a hold for freezing. Simple enough, except tuna are 47 mph fast and lately schools had been hard to find. Holds full or not, we would soon be low on ship fuel and have to return to port. After months of hard work, we could now have a little enjoyment. After all, how many people get to land on uninhabited Pacific atolls?

After shuttling several guys to the island, I shut down the helicopter and started walking around. The birds had never seen humans and were unafraid of us; we had to zigzag to avoid stepping on them. As I walked the oceanside I saw multitudes of fish and some very large and inquisitive moray eels. The lagoon side was full of baby sharks. It was pristine and untouched.

Back at the helicopter, the guys had already accumulated a very large pile of coconuts. The copilot side door had been installed (no dual controls), so we were able to fill that entire side of the cockpit with about 20 coconuts.  I then flew back to the ship, landed and then reached over to pop the door open, watching most the coconuts roll out onto the deck. The mechanic then reached in and got the few remaining stragglers. After many trips we had a few hundred coconuts all over the helideck. The helideck had a metal lip about 4 inches high around the edge and was cambered, which caused the coconuts to roll away from the helicopter. Soon, there was barely enough room to land.

 

Just before start up and flying coconuts to the boat

Just before start up and flying coconuts to the boat

 

Later that day our pleasure was ruined by learning we had to waste a day meeting up with a sister ship to get a needed part. Seems one of the refrigeration solenoid valves was bad. Our mood was quickly restored when some genius figured out gin went really well with coconut milk, likely the helicopter mechanic.

The next day, I flew to the other boat to get the part and while the other pilot cleared the deck, we chatted on the radio.

“Oh by the way, the stabilizer is busted” he said. The stabilizer is a U-shaped hydraulic flume tank near the stern, married to the inside hull of the boat. Tuna clippers are long and sleek; so without a working stabilizer there isn’t much roll stability.

I knew what that meant. But I asked how bad it was anyway.

“Well she is rolling a bit in this swell, just pick your moment and you should be okay.”

“How much is rolling a bit?” I said. He was really getting my attention now.

“Oh, about 30 degree each way, but she’ll settle down once in a while for you to land. No problem, just get the timing right.”

Nearing the boat, I could see they had recently set the net and were laying stern-to in a following swell. This was worst possible position and she was rolling heavily, but I noticed there were pauses. I made an approach, trying to gauge and anticipate the roll. Once over the actual helideck, it was a combination of looking at the horizon and down at the landing area. The deck was moving up and down a manageable 6 feet, but the roll was bad. It was necessary to wait until the deck was fairly level and within the slope limitations of the helicopter, and then get it down fast before the next roll.  As soon as the floats touched down, I quickly bottomed the collective before the next roll. The mechanic rushed out with cargo straps, cinching us to the deck, and I began the two-minute cool down. The ship then took a big roll, which was not a lot of fun; an idling helicopter on a 30-degree slope 35 feet above the ocean. I doubt I could ever get used to that. Soon we shut down and I went into the bridge to look at the inclinometer gauge, which measures the amount of roll. I could hardly believe it, but it was showing regular rolls to 28-degrees both ways; a 56-degree swing.

After the part had been loaded, I climbed back in and started the turbine. After bringing the rpm up to 100 percent, I signaled the mechanic to release the last remaining cargo strap. Waiting for the ship to level, I then applied max power and nosed her over.

After I cleared the ship, I radioed the other pilot. “Hey man, how long has it been like that?”

“It went out at the beginning of the trip about a month and half ago,” he said.

“ Well, if there was a tuna boat helicopter pilot hall of fame I would vote for you.”

“Ha, well the first week is rough, but you get used to it,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure I would get used to it.  Rick was one of our most senior pilots and had been doing this for more than six years and was very good.  I was sure glad our stabilizer was working, and made a mental note to buy some drinks for our chief engineer the next time we hit the beach.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, until we blew up one of the helicopter’s floats with a ¼ stick of dynamite….buts that’s for another blog.

(These views and opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Era.)

Flying to the ship

Flying to the ship

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Doors-off flying

April 22, 2015 by Maria Langer

Summer is on its way and, in most parts of the northern hemisphere, that means warm weather will soon be upon us. Not every pilot is fortunate enough to fly a helicopter with air conditioning. When I lived and flew in Arizona, it was common for me to take all of the doors off my R44 in May and leave them off until September. It was that hot every single day. (And no, I don’t miss it one bit.)

Of course, pilots don’t need warm weather as a reason to take the doors off. Sometimes the mission you’re flying requires it. Aerial photography is a great example — there aren’t too many photographers who would be willing to pay hundreds of dollars an hour to fly with you and be forced to shoot photos through highly reflective, possibly scratched Plexiglas.

When you remove the doors from a helicopter, you add an element of risk to the flight. Fortunately, the risk can be controlled if you fully understand it and do what’s necessary to reduce or eliminate it. That’s what I want to touch upon in this post.

Loose objects

The most obvious risk is from loose objects blowing around the cockpit or, worse yet, exiting the aircraft. This is a real danger, especially if an object hits the tail rotor or someone/something on the ground.

Want some examples of how dangerous this can be?

  • NTSB WPR14CA363
    “While in cruise flight an unsecured jacket departed the helicopter through an open window. The tail rotor drive shaft sheared as a result of the jacket’s contact with the tail rotors. The pilot subsequently initiated a forced landing to an orchard where during landing, the main rotors struck and separated the tailboom.”
  • NTSB WPR13CA071
    “Prior to the flight, the doors were removed in order to make it easier for the passengers to board and exit the helicopter…. After the two passengers were transported to a work site location, the right rear passenger exited the helicopter and placed the headset on the hook located behind the front seats. After departing the site, about 3 to 5 minutes later while en route at an elevation of about 1,000 feet above ground level, the pilot felt something strike the helicopter. After landing and upon inspecting the helicopter, the pilot discovered that the right rear headset was missing and that the leading edge of the tail rotor had been damaged.”
  • NTSB LAX03TA150
    “While in cruise flight, the back door on the helicopter opened, and a flight jacket that had been unsecured in the back seat departed the helicopter and became entangled in the tail rotor assembly. The tail rotor assembly subsequently separated from the tail boom, and the pilot was unable to maintain control of the helicopter.”
  • NTSB FTW86LA047
    “The pilot failed to assure the cabin door was properly closed before flight, or the cabin door just popped open during flight, allowing an unsecured life vest to blow out the door and into the tail rotor blades. This resulted in the entire tail rotor assembly departing the helicopter.”

(As some of these examples show, you don’t need to have the doors removed to have an unsecured item depart the helicopter and get into the tail rotor.)

Robinson Helicopter warns about this in Safety Notice SN-30, “Loose Objects Can be Fatal.” It recommends that pilots firmly latch all doors and even goes so far to recommend that pilot never fly with a left door removed. (Remember, the tail rotor is on the left side in a Robinson and many other helicopter models.)

I know that my engine starting check list includes an item to assure that loose items are secure. Yours should, too. While this is always important, it’s vital for doors-off flight.

Be sure you warn passengers of the danger of an item exiting the aircraft. Even something as small as a lens cap or lens hood can do significant damage to the tail rotor in flight.

Never Exceed Speed

You might not realize this, but your helicopter’s never exceed speed might be reduced with the doors off. On a Robinson R44, for example, Vne is reduced to 100 knots with the doors off, even if other conditions such as altitude and temperature would allow a faster speed.

My understanding from the Robinson Factory Safety Course is that this reduction of Vne is for structural reasons. (If someone knows better, please correct me in the comments.) There’s more buffeting wind inside the cabin with one or more doors off than with all doors on.

Check the Pilot Operating Handbook for the aircraft you fly the next time you remove doors to make sure you don’t operate beyond doors-off Vne.

Securing Passengers

This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you’re going to remove doors, your passengers had better be secured in their seats with either seat belts or harnesses.

Because some of my aerial photography or video clients like a greater range of movement in their seats than seat belts allow, I have a mountain climbing harness with a suitable strap for securing it to the aircraft frame. I make this available to clients as an option if they don’t have their own. Under no circumstances do I allow my passengers to fly without being secured, especially when their doors are off.

Keep in mind that while a photographer might use a harness to secure himself in the aircraft, you must make sure he knows how to release the harness from the aircraft in the event of an emergency — just as your preflight briefing must tell passengers how to release their seat belts.

 

Dangling Seat Belts

Of course, it was my generous offering of a harness to a photographer that resulted in more than $2,000 of damage to my aircraft when he used the harness but failed to secure the seat belt at his seat. The seat belt buckle dangled outside the aircraft for the duration of our 90-minute video flight chasing racing trucks over desert terrain. On landing, the passenger side fuel tank and area just outside the door frame had at least 50 dings and paint chips in it. How he didn’t hear it repeatedly striking the aircraft near his head is something I’ll never figure out.

Of course, it was my fault for not catching this prior to starting up and taking off. Expensive lesson learned.

Conclusion

While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking the doors off a helicopter prior to flight, it does give the pilot more responsibilities to assure that everything is secure and all passengers are properly briefed.

Or isn’t that something we’re already supposed to be doing?

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