Technique Archive

Doing Wildlife Surveys

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

When I was just getting started with my helicopter charter business in the early 2000s, I thought my business would revolve around tourism. As a result, I developed a sizable menu of tours ranging from 30 minutes to six days in length. When those didn’t sell as well as I needed them to, I spent (or wasted) a lot of money on advertising and marketing, trying (and failing) to differentiate myself from my larger competition. Finally, I opened my business up to other kinds of work that eventually taught me a valuable lesson: you make money with helicopters by having repeat customers. Tourists seldom come back for more.

Over time, I realized that three kinds of business were responsible for making my helicopter operation profitable: wildlife surveys, cherry drying, and frost control. Those niche markets — especially cherry drying — became my specialties. And since I have no intention of becoming a slave to my business, they keep me busy enough to keep the helicopter airworthy, give me a chance to fly, and earn me a living. What else could someone want?

In my next three blog posts on Hover Power, I’d like to share my experiences in these three areas. I’ll start with wildlife surveys.

The Job

I started doing wildlife survey work back in 2007 with my R44 Raven II. Since then, I’ve flown about 200 hours doing this kind of work, primarily for one client. I did most of it in Arizona and New Mexico, and basically lost the client when I moved to Washington state in 2013 — although I did do some work for them in California last spring and hope to again.

There are lots of kinds of wildlife survey work and I won’t profess to be an “expert” on any of them except the type I did: raptor surveys. Raptors are birds of prey. My client was primarily interested in eagles, hawks, and falcons. In each case, they’d been hired by a wind generator company to do government-required environmental impact studies. The government wanted to make sure that future wind turbines in an area did not hurt existing raptor populations.

In each case, my client would have a tablet computer or similar GPS-enabled device with the future wind farm drawn out on it. They were required to cover that area and a few miles beyond it. The total area was dozens of square miles or more in size. Fortunately, we didn’t have to search every inch of that for signs of raptors. Instead, we’d search the habitats where raptors were most likely to nest: cliff faces, canyons, and tall treetops.

The canyons we flew in were often so narrow that the rotor blades could not fit safely within them. I often imagined someone out in the flat land near the canyons seeing the main rotor blades of a helicopter -- and nothing else -- sticking out of the ground.

The canyons we flew in were often so narrow that the rotor blades could not fit safely within them. I often imagined someone out in the flat land near the canyons seeing the main rotor blades of a helicopter — and nothing else — sticking out of the ground.

For each flight, I’d take two observers on board. One would sit beside me and the other would sit behind me. It was their job to find and document birds or bird nests and to give me directions. My job was to fly where they told me to fly. When they found something, they’d mark the coordinates, take photos, and make notes. And then we’d move on.

The jobs were long. One of them lasted four days with us flying all day long every day. We’d spend the night in an area hotel and get right back to it in the morning after breakfast. We knocked off the New Mexico job in one 10-hour day, starting and ending with a 90-minute repositioning flight from the Phoenix area. Because it was done in the early spring when days were short, we took off before dawn and returned after sunset. That was a very long day.

Often, we’d do an area early in the spring and return later in the spring to check on what we’d found. The second round was usually quicker because we were checking on known nests. I should mention that in addition to us scouting from the air, the company often had guys scouting from the ground in areas where they could get a vehicle in. Sometimes we’d have to check on things that they’d found, too.

The Flying

The flying was tedious and somewhat dangerous. Not swinging logs from a line dangerous or landing on oil platforms in poor visibility dangerous. More like flying in the Deadman’s Curve close to cliff faces at high density altitude with quartering tailwinds dangerous. The kind of flying where you’re dancing on the pedals and watching your power and if the engine quits you’re screwed. You need good flying skills, a good feel for the ship you’re flying, and a well-maintained aircraft.

Which is something you should have for most missions, right?

We’d take off from the closest airport with full tanks of fuel and go direct to our starting point. One of the observers would point me in the right direction. Sometimes, it would take 15 or 20 minutes (or more) to get to the starting point. It was usually a rock outcropping or cliff face or butte, but on one survey we did multiple times, it was a winding canyon. I’d fly up to the rocky wall (or descend down into the canyon) and get into position about 100 feet away. Then I’d follow the cliff face at about 20 knots ground speed, moving up or down as requested to get them the view they wanted.

Here's a close up of some of the canyon flying I did. The loops outside the canyon show where I had to circle back.

Here’s a close up of some of the canyon flying I did. The loops outside the canyon show where I had to circle back.

When they saw a nest or bird, I’d have to either come to a stop or circle back for another look. What we did depended on conditions. If the wind was calm or it was a headwind and it wasn’t too hot and we didn’t have a heavy load, I could usually hover for them. Sometimes I’d even back up if I had to, since it was quicker than circling around. But if conditions were tougher for flying, I’d have to circle around, occasionally more than once.

For some flights, I had a GPS tracker app in my phone enabled. I’ve taken two of the tracks and put them on a topo map to give you a better idea of the kind of flying I did. The canyon flights near Winslow were especially challenging. I’d descend into the canyon just enough that the main rotor blades would stick out the top and and the cabin would be level with the tops of the canyon walls. The canyon, cut into the Coconino Plateau, twisted and turned, often onto itself. When I had to circle around, I’d have to climb out of the canyon to do it. On one flight, we were airborne for a total of 2 hours and 43 minutes and covered 104 miles, but never got more than 10 miles from the airport. After flying down the twisting canyons all day, I still felt the motion of the flight hours later in my hotel room.

On this 2 hr 43 min flight, I started at Winslow Airport flew down one canyon, crossed over to another canyon, and zipped straight back to get fuel. We only covered 104 miles but we were never more than 10 miles from the airport.

On this 2 hr 43 min flight, I started at Winslow Airport, flew down one canyon, crossed over to another canyon, and zipped straight back to get fuel. We only covered 104 miles but we were never more than 10 miles from the airport.

I had a GoPro “nosecam” set up for the above flight and captured it in still images. Here’s a time-lapse of the whole thing.

When it was time to get fuel, I’d go to the nearest airport. That means I always needed to know which airport was nearest, where it was related to our current position, and how long it would take to get there. I also had to track my fuel consumption to make sure I had enough to get to the airport. Of course, we wanted to fly as long as possible to minimize repositioning time and fuel stops. I once timed it pretty close; the low fuel light came on just as we were touching down at the fuel pumps. During one long day we did three flight segments starting from Flagstaff and refueling twice at Winslow before returning to Flagstaff at the end of the day. Another time, there was no fuel anywhere near the survey area and I had to hire a driver to take my truck and its 82 gallon 100LL tank up to a landing zone and wait for us. I refueled twice before sending the truck home with an empty tank.

This track log records most of three flights in the area between Flagstaff and Winslow: 377 miles in about 8.5 hours.

This track log records most of three flights in the area between Flagstaff and Winslow: 377 miles in about 8.5 hours.

On one job we did in late spring between Kingman and Lake Mead in Arizona, it was hot with just enough wind to make slow flight with a tailwind difficult. On those flights, I had to start each flight with just 3/4 tanks of fuel to give us the performance we needed to complete the mission safely.

The Client

The observers for these jobs had more time sitting in helicopter passenger seats than I had flying — sometimes over a thousand hours in a year. Some of them had been in helicopter crashes. One had been in a near crash when the pilot got a low rotor horn and had to land where he was because he simply couldn’t climb out.

As a result, they knew all about what a helicopter could and couldn’t do. They also knew how to push a pilot to do what other pilots had done for them and how to back off if a pilot didn’t think a maneuver was safe. No pressure. I liked that.

They were usually biologists or environmental scientists, with the degrees to make them experts. They were not allowed to become pilots — even as a hobby — because their bosses wanted them looking for wildlife and not thinking about the flying. Similarly, I was supposed to concentrate solely on flying and not look for birds. I did see them occasionally — a bald eagle scooping a fish out of a lake, a falcon on top of a pinion tree, a golden eagle on a nest on a cliff face, and even a coati (which is not a bird) on a canyon ledge.

And I must have been a satisfactory pilot for them because they called me again and again for several years in a row and even used my services outside my normal area of operations, including New Mexico and, more recently, central California.

Repeat Business

It was this work, which I believe I started in 2007 or 2008 — my log books aren’t available right now to look — that finally made my business profitable. For years, I’d been doing tours and photo flights and golf ball drops and taking in just enough money to cover basic expenses. My other career as a writer was subsidizing my flying business by making the big loan and insurance payments.

But suddenly I had a regular client who had me flying 40 to 60 hours a month for several months in a row several years in a row. My business was finally holding its own.

Things would get even better for my business in 2008. That’s when I started doing cherry drying work in Washington state. I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog post.

How does one weigh a log?

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016


We all know it is the pilot’s responsibility to ensure the helicopter is flown in accordance to limitations, which in part requires knowing the helicopters takeoff weight. However, due to the versatile nature of helicopters it isn’t always as simple as back in flight school. We may find ourselves picking up a sling load such as a log. How does one weigh a log? A dozen passengers off a ship. Ever try to use a scale on a heaving ship? Or out in the bush of Alaska picking up crew and equipment.,What scale?  One aspect that goes along with flying the ultimate off-road vehicle is that we may find ourselves in places without scales.

If conducting an external load operation and the aircraft has a load meter installed, the pilot simply monitors the gauge as the load is lifted  A load meter is basically a scale, which measures the weight on the cargo hook. Prior to attempting the lift the pilot should do some quick math to determine the maximum allowable load, which must not be exceeded.  This maximum allowable load is the aircraft maximum gross weight subtracted by the aircraft actual takeoff weight without the external load. When hovering over the load, the pilot slowly increases collective, and tension is gradually increased on the sling. The load gauge is monitored to ensure it does not exceed the maximum allowable load, and the helicopter will not exceed its maximum gross weight. In this case the center of gravity is not a concern, as cargo hooks are positioned longitudinally to not appreciably affect CG. If the CG was calculated to be good without the load, it should be good with the load.

sling load

An AW139 lifts a daisy chain sling load on the North Slope of Alaska. This helicopter has a load cell and so the pilots were able to monitor and verify the weight of the cargo.



Most helicopters are not flying sling loads nor have a load cell installed, so we need another method of weight verification. Fortunately some performance charts can be used for this purpose. Performance charts are predictive, enabling a pilot to accurately determine variables prior to takeoff and many can be used in a variety of ways depending on which variables are known. The Sikorsky S-92 flight manual makes this an easy process, with the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect chart. One can predict what the indicated torque per engine will be for a specific weight, density altitude and wind condition. In this example, a negative 3,000-foot density altitude with a 10-knot headwind would equal 66 percent per engine torque for a gross weight of 23,000 pounds. For the same density altitude and wind condition, 83 percent per engine torque would indicate the maximum gross weight of 27,700 pounds is being exceeded. Using the chart it’s easy to see that that 1,000 pounds is equivalent to about 3.5 percent per engine torque, for a given density altitude and wind condition.

Using the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect, one can obtain the predicted torque for the S92 at a specific aircraft weight, density altitude and wind condition.

Using the Indicated Torque Required to Hover in Ground Effect, one can obtain the predicted torque for the S92 at a specific aircraft weight, density altitude and wind condition.


If the aircraft lacks this type of chart, a little m,ore work is necessary. The takeoff and maximum continuous power Hover in Ground Effect charts also provide maximum weights for a range of density altitudes. This gives a start for making your own quick reference chart, and after a couple dozen flights you can add more data points with other power settings. Say you flew 500 lbs under gross weight with a 1000-foot density altitude; simply note the torque in a stable in ground effect hover and enter the torque, density altitude, and weight on your quick reference chart. Over time, you will have created a chart to use as an aid when you are unsure of the aircraft takeoff weight. An external load pilot, without a load cell may opt to use a HOGE (hover out of ground effect) chart instead of a HIGE chart. Experienced pilots with a lot of time-in-type already have a pretty good idea of the power required for specific weights and density altitudes, which is essentially what this quick reference chart provides.

The pilot should also note the cyclic position necessary to maintain a stable position over the ground, providing an indication of the aircraft’s center of gravity. An excessive lateral or longitudinal deviation from a normal position can indicate a CG out of normal range. Wind can also effect the cyclic position, but experience in type will help you learn what a normal cyclic flight control position should be in a variety of conditions. For example, a farther forward and left cyclic position than normal would indicate an aft and right CG, which a left quartering headwind could also cause.

These methods are certainly not a substitute for a proper weight and balance calculation using accurate weights. They are a means of verifying your calculations, particularly when in situations where the weights provided may be in question. It is also a means of understanding the performance of your helicopter better.

Staying Alive in a Two Dimensional World

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

Winter is coming, so I thought it a good time to touch on an optical illusion called flat light. Though it is more prevalent during winter months, it can occur any time of year.

For VFR flight, we need to see enough of the ground as a reference to control the aircraft and to avoid terrain, which is the problem with this illusion. Those of us who fly in Arctic regions take flat light very seriously, but it can also occur at lower latitudes.

If you haven’t experienced it personally, flat light can be difficult to appreciate. While horizontal visibility may often be very good–like being able to see a mountain range 50 miles away–when looking down one is unable to focus on the ground.  Imagine being able to see the ground, without having the depth perception necessary to determine exactly how far away it really is. In a flat light condition your height above the ground determination may be off by as much as 2,000 feet!

The problem stems from the limitations of how we perceive our world. Our brain acts as a video processor and models an image based on raw data received from the retina via the optical nerve. We only see .0035 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light in the near ultraviolet class, and that data is badly pixilated with a hole in it. The hole, commonly referred to as the blind spot, is due to a lack of light receptors where the optic nerve attaches to the retina. Even when we close one eye we don’t see the blind spot because our brain is very good at interpolating data. It simply fills in the picture with what it calculates should be there. An interesting experiment demonstrating the brain’s imaging capability is when people are fitted with special glasses, turning the images they see upside down. After a time, the brain makes the correction and everything is right side up.  That is until the glasses are taken off, when the image once again goes upside down until the brain can once again adapt.

If that wasn’t problematic enough, the best part of our field of view with good resolution is very narrow. Based around the retina center, it is about 1 degree, or about an inch using the distance from the pilot to the aircraft instrument panel. Now you know why our instructors always stressed a proper scan! As humans, we are stuck with these sensory capabilities, which unfortunately don’t serve well flying in a flat light environment.

Flat light typically occurs during winter with overcast skies and a snow-covered ground. The combination of a very reflective white surface and a lack of direct sunlight turns our 3-dimensional world into one that looks 2-dimensional. There are no shadows or contrast, which are necessary for depth perception. Rock, trees, rivers, buildings, and roads can all provide the pilot with a much needed depth reference. Knowing this, a prudent pilot flying over a large flat white valley may opt to fly along an area with objects providing contrast, such as a rocky ridgeline.

One of the things that makes flat light so dangerous is its insidious nature. The pilot thinks he can see the ground and judge the altitude. Others may be convinced that if it’s daytime and there isn’t a ground obscuration, such as fog or blowing snow that they will be able to see the ground well enough to avoid crashing into it.


Loss of direct sunlight due to an overcast cloud layer over flat terrain covered with snow results in ideal conditions for flat light.

Losing sunlight over flat terrain covered with snow is an ideal conditions for flat light.

The closer one is to the ground the more dangerous the situation, as during takeoffs and landings.  You may have just landed on snow covered terrain with the sun shining, only to find 15 minutes later the sun has dipped below a ridge or been covered by a passing cloud.  You are now enveloped in a shadow of flat light where an attempted takeoff could be very dangerous. This is a case where you are better off being on the ground wishing you were in the air, rather than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.

There was an incident in 1999, when a company crashed three helicopters in one day and all on the same glacier due to flat light. The first helicopter encountered flat light on the glacier and experienced a hard landing, injuring the pilot and passengers. With the first aircraft overdue, a second helicopter was dispatched to search, which also crashed on the same ice field. A third helicopter began to search for the two missing aircraft, which also ended up crashing on the same glacier. The pilot of the third helicopter reported that he thought he was 500 feet above the ground when the aircraft impacted the ground.

These were experienced pilots who had been flying tours over this glacier day after day. They didn’t become less experienced in a day and the glacier didn’t change. What changed were the lighting conditions. It can be hard to accept that at times one can see the ground without enough depth perception to know how far below it really is. Without instrumentation such as a radar altimeter or TAWS (terrain avoidance warning system), the pilot won’t even realize it’s happening.

Anywhere, anytime

Vermilion Bay, on the shores of Louisiana, is so notorious with Gulf of Mexico helicopter pilots that it is commonly referred to as “Vertigo Bay.” The bay’s water has a reddish brown color, and when coupled with an overcast cloud layer, low visibility, and no wind it presents a significant hazard to VFR flight. It is the same effect you get in a room with a full-sized wall mirror when it gives the illusion of the room being much bigger than it really is. Vertigo Bay is so large that with visibility less than 5 miles you can’t see land, and without any wind the highly reflective mirror-like water provides no contrast, but instead reflects the cloud layer from above. When these adverse conditions exist, VFR helicopter pilots circumnavigate the bay sticking close to the contrast of the shoreline.


Highly reflective mirror-like water will reflect the cloud layer from above, making it difficult for the pilot to judge the height visually.  This is the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, and though the water is reflecting the cloud layer from above, the sandbars, ship and distant ice pack help provide contrast for the pilot.

Highly reflective mirror-like water will reflect the cloud layer from above, making it difficult for the pilot to judge the height visually. This is the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, and although the water is reflecting the cloud layer from above, the sandbars, ship and distant ice pack help provide contrast.

Avoidance is the certainly the best remedy for flat light. Understanding the environmental conditions where flat light can exist helps the pilot in early recognition and avoidance. Study the terrain along the planned route of flight, including possible areas where you may divert. Review weather reports and forecasts to determine what lighting conditions will exist on the flight. Avoid flying over large expanses of water without wind to ripple the surface and direct sunlight to provide contrast. Stay clear of takeoffs or landings or any low-level flight over large areas of white snow without some direct sunlight. Flat light is a condition where a conservative approach is best, using your superior judgment to avoid the necessity of using your superior skill.

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

Bell opens new training academy

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Bell Helicopter last month celebrated the grand opening of its new training academy in Fort Worth, Texas. Bell has long been known for superb factory training, both for simulation and especially in the aircraft. The facility is equipped with a dedicated tower and flight line, a maintenance training hangar, and advanced multimedia classrooms. The company said its 86,000 square foot facility represents the final part of its consolidation efforts in North Texas.

The academy offers basic, recurrent, and advanced training programs for the entire line of Bell models, including some no longer in production. It also offers non-destructive inspection training for technicians, and first responder safety ground training. Bell also provides offshore and rooftop specific training by way of a 30-foot elevated platform used for pinnacle take-off and landing maneuvers. It is an FAA, EASA and Transport Canada approved training facility. With the training academy now complete, Bell has consolidated more than one million square feet within their main corporate campus which they said will save close to $20 million in annual operating expenses.

Bell CEO John Garrison (foreground) and instructor Ric Forns in a Bell 47 at the grand opening.

Bell CEO John Garrison (foreground) and instructor Ric Forns in a Bell 47 at the grand opening.

Like all helicopter manufacturers, Bell has been hit recently with declining commercial aircraft sales, due in part because of the continued decline of crude oil prices. Military sales of the V-22 Osprey, praised for its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, have steadily declined as well.  The Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft that hovers like a helicopter but can fly at high-altitude and speeds similar to a jet. It can carry two dozen troops and up to 20,000 pounds of additional cargo.

At the same time, the company is looking to the future with its 505 light single, a replacement for the ever-popular 206. Late last month the company officially opened its Lafayette, Louisana-based 505 production facility. Testing continues at Bell’s Mirabel, Quebec location.

–Scott Hotaling

No two are the same

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

Recently Mick Cullen, of the Rotary Wing Show, invited Hover Power editor Ian Twombly and me to a podcast interview (episode 31 if you want to check it out). The end of the podcast had an offer for an AOPA hat, given to the first three listeners who offered topic suggestions for Hover Power. Thanks to Lee Rilea, who asked us to describe: flight characteristics of different helicopter types, and how pilots can prepare for them.

Each model helicopter is a unique and aerodynamically complicated machine, and all have differences the pilot must be cognizant of. Even sister ships have differences, such as the 62-inch versus the 65-inch tail rotor in the Bell 206 series. The differences can be subtle too; simply changing low to high clearance landing gear can alter slope limitations for a particular aircraft.

With proper training and proficiency these aircraft differences are manageable. While the Rotorcraft Flying Handbook is a good general resource, the Rotorcraft Flight Manual and Factory Training Manuals will have specific information for a particular helicopter.

I will cover a few differences, and Hover Power blog readers can add more in the comment section.

Main rotor systems

An example of a unique flight characteristic involving the main rotor is the rigid rotor system of the BO-105, BK117 and EC145. Unlike most other rotor systems, which are semi-rigid or fully articulated, it is capable of negative Gs. Sounds great, but as in most cases there are compromises, and mast bending is one. The rotor blades, rotorhead, and mast are attached together rigidly without hinging capability. Turbulence, abrupt or extreme pilot control input, settling with power, and slope landings can all generate high mast bending. Think of the rotor system, mast, transmission, and airframe as one solid unit without any ability to hinge, with the mast actually bending when there is a shear force between the airframe and main rotor. A strain gauge is mounted inside the mast and is connected to the mast moment indicator on the instrument panel, so the pilot can assure mast-bending limitations are not exceeded.

Let’s also consider Vne and retreating blade stall in the rigid rotor system. Some aircraft are fairly docile when encountering retreating blade stall, just a gentle shutter as the aircraft slowly pitches up or rolls, but not the BO105.

One day, while flying a BO105CBS across the mountains of New Mexico I experienced retreating blade stall in a rigged rotor system for the first time. I had just a few hours in type, but fortunately was flying with an instructor. As one increases altitude, the Vne will decrease accordingly and we had made that adjustment. However, as any mountain pilot can tell you, turbulence and altitude can make for a wicked combination. A strong updraft can momentarily increase the angle of attack on a blade, creating a retreating blade stall condition. There is nothing gentle about this in a rigid rotor system, as I found out that day. We hit a particularly strong updraft at about 7000 feet, when the nose pitched up abruptly. Forward cyclic had no effect, and in fact would not even move. I didn’t recognize this as a retreating blade stall condition, but the instructor did and immediately decreased collective or we probably would have looped. Decreasing the collective removed the stall condition caused by the updraft, and allowed the cyclic to regain its effectiveness. I learned to always have my hand on the collective when flying the BO105 over mountains or when the possibility of turbulence existed. I also learned a smoother pitch attitude could be maintained in the BO105 by actually flying the collective with slight cyclic inputs. Increase collective slightly to pitch up and decrease collective slightly to pitch down, resulting in a smoother ride through turbulence.

Another characteristic of the BO105 is a phenomenon called “divergent roll.” In a descending low airspeed right bank, there is a tendency to run out of left cyclic. When turning right, one needs more and more left cyclic to maintain the bank angle without having it increase. One can reach the point where the cyclic is hitting the pilot’s left leg, which is already pinned against the center console. The remedy is left pedal, which is responsive in correcting this condition. This is not considered a cause for concern among experienced BO105 pilots, because they are prepared and knowledgeable of this characteristic.

The tail rotor and Notar

All helicopters with a tail rotor or Notar (MD Helicopters’ acronym for No Tail Rotor) are susceptible to a loss of tail rotor effectiveness in a hover or at low speed. The effectiveness of the tail rotor is dependent on a stable and relatively undisturbed airflow. There are many factors that can affect this airflow and cause LTE, such as main rotor downdraft and vortices, density altitude, gross weight, turbulence, forward airspeed, and relative wind speed and direction. Some of these factors contribute to the need of increased tail rotor pitch, resulting in a higher power requirement and a higher angle of attack of the tail rotor blades, leaving less thrust available in reserve. Other factors can disturb the airflow through the tail rotor creating a vortex ring state, such as the relative wind direction; also known as the critical wind azimuth. No two model helicopters are alike and the pilot must know the aircraft’s tail rotor limitations, typically found in the limitation and performance sections of the RFM.

A pilot flying at lower altitudes may not give the critical wind azimuth much thought, such as during a hover taxi in a right quartering crosswind. However, an increase in density altitude and gross weight also increases the required pitch from the tail rotor, making it more susceptible to LTE when wind is from the critical azimuth direction.

A different technique may be prudent to account for the increased susceptibility of LTE in certain aircraft. The MD902, with its Notar system, is more prone to LTE than any other aircraft I’ve flown when operating at altitudes over 3000 feet and at high gross weights. When hovering at altitude in the MD902, I would avoid any right crosswinds during takeoff, approach or hover; even to the point of doing a 270 degree turn at a taxi intersection rather than the 90 degree with a right crosswind. It is a manageable characteristic, as one learns “everything is into the wind above 3000 feet” in a MD902.

Another aircraft I’ve flown prone to LTE were the early Bell 206s. These had the smaller 62-inch tail rotor (Bell later went to the 65-inch tail rotor), and the early flight manuals did not have the critical wind azimuth chart or its inclusion in the hover ceiling charts.

HP chart 2

For this BH206, the critical wind azimuth area is depicted to be from 050 to 210 degrees, and the hover chart shows the altitude, temperature, and gross weight that area would be designated the avoid area B.

Gross weight

Lighter helicopters can respond faster to pilot input than heavy helicopters. An acceptable descent rate below 1,000 AGL for an AStar 350 (GW of 4960 lbs) would not be acceptable for an AW139 (GW of 14994 lbs). Just as a heavy truck on a highway needs more time to accelerate and decelerate, so do larger aircraft. The pilot of a heavy helicopter needs to recognize a negative trend sooner, such as an unacceptable descent rate on short final, as it will take more time to correct.

I typically fly out of Houma, Louisiana, which is probably the busiest airport in the United States for civilian helicopter operations, with over 71,457 helicopter landings in 2014. One can watch variations in approaches and departures for different helicopters. The most obvious variables are the approach speed, profile and descent rate. Heavy helicopters, such as the Sikorsky S-92, make a slower and steeper approach than lighter aircraft. Each pilot is flying their specific type helicopter in accordance with the RFM and company flight standards, and it’s a good opportunity to see how this varies among different helicopters.

What differences have you experienced? Tell us in the comments section.

More on “scud running”

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

In my post about long cross-country flights I brought up the topic of scud running. Apparently, my account of a flight into low visibility conditions, which I referred to as “scud running,” hit a nerve. As an example, someone called for a “definitive statement from you declaring NO to EVER scud running.” That got me thinking about the reality of flying.

My Definition of “Scud Running”

Let’s start with exactly what I’m talking about when I use the phrase “scud running.” Reader Dan Schiffer nailed it when he responded to one of the commenters. He said, in part:

It’s a term most pilots use to discuss low visibility conditions that we all are faced with occasionally due to changing weather.

To me, scud running is any situation where low ceilings or low visibility require you to alter your route around weather. And yes, low ceilings are a part of low visibility–after all, if you’re in mountainous terrain, don’t low ceilings obscure your visibility of mountainsides and peaks?

The FAA discusses scud running in its Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge:

This occurs when a pilot tries to maintain visual contact with the terrain at low altitudes while instrument conditions exist.

I discuss this in more detail later, when I cover weather minimums for helicopter pilots.

Neither my definition nor the FAA’s have anything to do with so-called “scud clouds.” I can’t find any mention of these clouds in either the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) or Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. I did find a definition in AC 00-6A, Aviation Weather:

scud – Small detached masses of stratusfractus clouds below a layer of higher clouds, usually nimbostratus.

A Google search brought up a similar, but more detailed Wikipedia definition:

a type of fractus cloud, are low, detached, irregular clouds found beneath nimbostratus or cumulonimbus clouds. These clouds are often ragged or wispy in appearance. When caught in the outflow (downdraft) beneath a thunderstorm, scud clouds will often move faster than the storm clouds themselves. When in an inflow (updraft) area, scud clouds tend to rise and may exhibit lateral movement ranging from very little to substantial.

For the record, I’m definitely not endorsing flying anywhere near a thunderstorm or cumulonimbus cloud. The FAA says to maintain 20 miles separation from thunderstorms and that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

So, in summary, when a pilot uses the phrase “scud running,” it usually means flying in low visibility conditions and has nothing to do with so-called scud clouds.



A Note about flying in remote areas

I’ve done just about all of my flying in the west: Arizona (where I learned to fly), Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington (where I now live). In the 3,200 hours I’ve logged, I’d say that at least half of them were in relatively remote areas. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to remember that most pilots fly in more populated areas, where they’re seldom out of sight of a town or building.

As difficult as this might be for some people to believe, there are still many places in the U.S. where a helicopter pilot can fly for over an hour and not see a single sign of human life. I’ve flown 90 minutes in a straight line somewhere between Elko, NV and Burns, OR without seeing a building or a vehicle on one of the few dirt roads–just herds of wild horses running at the sound of my approach. I’ve flown over the high desert of the Arizona Strip, crossing just one dirt road over an 85-mile stretch of forest and canyons. I’ve flown the length of Lake Powell from the Glen Canyon Dam to Canyonlands National Park in the winter, passing just three seasonally closed marinas along the lake’s blue water and canyon mouths. I fly with a SPOT personal tracking device for a reason; if I go down out there–even by choice in a precautionary landing–no one would find me without some help.

So while “scud running” might seem like an unreasonable risk when you’re in an area with towns and airports every five or ten miles, it could be a matter of life and death when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and need to get somewhere safe. It’s not a black and white situation with a right or wrong answer.



Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’ve done all your flight planning and believe you can make a two-hour flight to Point A, which is a rather remote place, without any weather/visibility concerns. You start the flight and things are fine for the first 90 minutes or so. Then the weather starts deteriorating. Maybe the ceiling drops or there are scattered rain showers that lower horizontal visibility in various places along your path. You can see well enough in your general forward direction and easily find paths around those showers that will get you closer to your destination, but things might be worse up ahead. Who knows? Even a call to Flight Service–if you can reach them on the radio in mountainous terrain with low ceilings preventing you from climbing — might not be able to provide adequate weather information if the area is remote enough.

Here’s where experience, judgement, and personal minimums come in. As helicopter pilots, we have three options:

  • Alter your route to completely avoid the weather, possibly ending up at a different destination. This might be the best option if there is an alternative destination and you have enough fuel to get there. But if your intended destination is in a remote place and you’re only 30 minutes out, there might not be an alternative.
  • Land and wait out the weather. Heck, we’re helicopter pilots and can land nearly anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with landing to wait out a storm. Remember, in an emergency situation, you can land if necesary, even in an area where landing is normally prohibited, such as a National Park, National Forest, Wilderness Area. (Again, I’m not recommending that you land in any of these places in non-emergency situations.) Do you have gear on board for an extended or perhaps overnight stay? This is another good reason to bring food on a cross-country flight.
  • Continue toward your intended destination. At the risk of sounding like I’m a proponent of “get-there-itis,” the destination is a known that’s a lot more attractive than the unknowns offered by the first two options.

There are many variables that will determine which option you pick. Here are a few of them:

  • Experience. If you’ve encountered situations like this before, you have a better idea of your comfort level than if you haven’t. You’ve likely also established personal minimums, possibly fine-tuned by real scares. The more experience, the better you’ll be able to deal with the situation and make the right decision.
  • Alternatives. If there is an alternative destination within range that you can safely reach with available fuel plus reserves, why wouldn’t you go for it?
  • Available fuel. There’s a saying in aviation: “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” One of the challenges of planning a long cross-country flight is making sure you have enough fuel on board to deal with unplanned route changes. But when flying to extremely remote areas, you might need almost all the fuel you have on board to get there. That definitely limits your options.
  • Actual weather conditions. If you can see a path ahead of you with potential landing zones and escape routes along the way, you’re far more likely to succeed at moving toward the destination than if the weather is closing in all around you. Never continue flight to the point where you don’t have at least the option to land and wait it out. The trick is to turn back or land before that happens; experience will be your guide. Likewise, if what you’re seeing tells you that the weather is localized and better conditions are just up ahead — perhaps you see sunlight on the ground beyond those heavy showers? — continuing flight might be the best option.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. As the pilot in command, you are the decision maker. You need to evaluate and re-evaluate the situation as it develops. You need to make a decision based on your knowledge and experience. If in doubt, choose the safest option.

With mist, rain, and low clouds, would you keep flying?

With mist, rain, and low clouds, would you keep flying?

Weather Minimums

Despite the severe clear weather I’ve been seeing around my home in Central Washington State this week, weather minimums are on my mind lately. Why? Mostly because I just took my Part 135 check ride and was a bit hazy on them. Spending most of my flying career in Arizona didn’t do me any favors when it comes to knowing when it’s legal to fly — or being able to identify different types of fog by name, for that matter.

So let’s look at weather minimums as they apply to helicopters.

FAR 91.155, Basic VFR weather minimums sets forth weather minimums for each type of airspace. I’m going to concentrate on Class G airspace, mostly because that’s the type of airspace I’ve been talking about.

According to the FARs, a helicopter may legally operate under VFR in Class G airspace during the day with a minimum of 1/2 mile visibility clear of clouds. Conditions less than that are technically IMC, thus invoking the FAA’s definition of “scud running” discussed above.

But what if visibility in your desired flight path is 1/4 mile or less but visibility 30 degrees to the right is a mile or more? That is possible with localized showers or very low scattered clouds. Are you allowed to fly? I think that if you asked five different FAA inspectors, you’d get a bunch of different answers. But if you crashed while flying in those conditions, the NTSB report would claim you were flying VFR in IMC.

What’s the answer? Beats me.

Scud Happens

What I do know is this: If all your preflight planning indicates that weather and visibility will not be an issue during a flight but unexpected weather conditions come up, you need to react to them. As helicopter pilots, we’re lucky in that we have options to avoid flying into clouds and the terrain they obscure. At the same time, we don’t want to push that luck and get into a situation we can’t get out of safely. Experience, skill, and wisdom should guide us.

Scud running is never a good idea, but sometimes it’s the best idea under unforeseen circumstances. It’s your job as a pilot to (1) avoid getting into a dangerous situation and (2) make the best decision and take the best actions to complete a flight safely.

Slinging IFR

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

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


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.

Master your environment

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

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.


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.

OSAPs, HEDAs, and ARAs oh my!

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

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

Tips for long cross-country flights

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

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.