Too close to the rotor

January 3, 2011 by Tim McAdams

Late one night I was returning to base in an EMS helicopter and, on short final, noticed water spraying onto the helipad. It was a ground-based helipad and the temperature had dropped below zero causing a lawn sprinkler pipe to burst. After a radio call, the water was shut off and I started my approach again. There was only a small corner of the pad that was not wet, and with the temperature below freezing, I decided to put the helicopter in that dry spot. There were no more flights that night so when the day pilot showed up I explained why the helicopter was in the corner and headed home.

Arriving at work the following night the day pilot told me the chief pilot saw the helicopter parked in the corner and asked that I call him. On the phone I explained why it was there, he listened but expressed concern that the four-foot high chain-link fence was too close to the rotor disk. He added that our operations manual states that the rotor blade tip of a running helicopter must be 12 feet from any object or obstruction. He emphasized the word “any” and stated the manual does not allow for exceptions. I explained that I believe the intent was to mean 12 feet from the rotor tip to an object at the rotor height (such as a building), not in every direction. He disagreed.

The reason I do not believe the intent was meant in every direction was it would have precluded us from landing at several hospitals that had planted two-foot-high shrubs around their heliport. Further, many scene landings on roads placed the rotor tip within 12 feet of curbs and small temporary concrete barriers. Finally, there must be at least one exception–the helicopter’s rotor height is 10 feet, placing the ground within 12 feet of the rotor tip. I understand the need for rules, but they should be clear, concise, and appropriate.

  • Mark Carino

    Once you’ve been in aviation long enough you realize that logic don’t always enter into it. I’m constantly frustrated with rules that don’t make any sense, and that’s before considering the TSA.

    Good luck.

  • Maria

    There is an exception to any rule. In my opinion, you did the right thing, no matter how the related rule is interpreted. Landing on ice could cause loss of control on the ground if your skids could not get traction. Even if the skids could get traction, there’s a chance that you or your crew might not. By choosing the dry spot, you helped ensure the safety of your aircraft and crew.

    If the Chief Pilot didn’t like where the helicopter was parked after the danger of ice was gone, he (or you or another pilot) could move it. If he didn’t think it was safe to hover to a better spot, the ground handling wheels could be used. But there was obviously enough clearance to land it there; there should be enough clearance to move it.

    I understand the reason for rules, but in most cases, they should be used as guidelines. Circumstances often require breaking the rules. Safety-related circumstances should not be questioned.

  • Avi Weiss


    It’s unfortunate that scientist and engineers are not consulted before actually creating the language used to write a “rule”, as they usually add the accuracy and precision often implied when written by less precise people. It’s also unfortunate that common sense is also in short supply to fill in where precision fails to.

    Clearly, the distance can not be referencing a radial distance extending from the rotor hub and transcribing a complete sphere surrounding the aircraft, since as you clearly point out, the GROUND is within 12 feet. So to be more precise, the manual should describe the distance as “the lateral distance between an object and the possible location of the rotor tip”. This would essentially cover ALMOST all types of operations (say, slopes) and keep the measurement applied to the PRACTICAL distance that matters.

    Even greater precision could be added for covering object penetrate into the rotor plane within a rotor-blade length + 12 feet (say landing next to a retractable pole that suddenly decides to rise from the ground INTO the rotor plane), which might be useful for operations that engage in considerable amounts of off airport landings.

    I’m curious how you left it with him…

  • Steve Sullivan

    It is unbelievable to me that someone (your chief pilot) with such little common sense could rise to a position of aircraft command, much less the leadership of personnel. This is exactly the “one size fits all” attitude that safety dictates should never occur in rotorcraft aviation.

    As the aircraft commander, you were forced to make a decision based on the safety of your crew and ship, and in my opinion you made the right decision. I do not believe regulations are simply guidelines. If so, they would not be regulatory. They should however be as consise as possible. When they are not, a person who has risen to the level of chief pilot should be able to interpret any company rule or regulation with common sense.

    When safety is concerned there is no room for idiots. A pilot should be capable of making the best decision concerning his/her crew and aircraft.

  • Tim

    Incredible story. Stupidity rains.
    Your boss sounds like Barney Fife.

  • Tim McAdams


    I ended our conversation with, “I have no problem following any rule, but let’s make it clear what it means and get that in the ops manual so everyone will understand. Just keep in mind that some of our current landing areas and scene operations will need to change in order to comply.” He said he’d get back to me on it. I never heard another word and just continued using my own judgement.


  • Mark D Jones CFII

    Rules smetimes have to be overridden by brains. Otherwise we could automate everything. This guy’s boss is an idiot.

  • Jeff Webb ATP,CFII, MEI

    Good job Tim. You can’t teach Good Judgment. Your suggestion for the change in the OPS SPEC was “spot on”.


  • Dave Tibbals

    Hey, I think I worked for that guy. He called me about a flight I declined because there was not enough fuel to make the flight at 3:00 AM and no refuel points enroute.

  • http://AOPA A. Fellow

    But please keep in mind (EVERYONE), that if you ever “tap” anything within 12 feet, or that Chief Pilot doesn’t care for the way you walk, you can easily be fired for not following “published” Operations Procedures. (He’s already been called in once.)

    So….. if you would like to guarantee a long and successful aviation career, my answer to the CP would have been. Please rewrite the ops manual and have it approved before my next flight with something less restrictive, OR remove everything from around my landing sites that fall within the 12 foot rule…….OH, by the way! Here’s the phone number to our legal department and the local FSDO if you require any assistance in coming up with a rewrite….. or I could assist you as well.

    Always keep in mind, WHO’S going to feed your family or pay the mortgage because you just lost your job over something so stupid. Your own judgment (being well intentioned), can lead to a speedy job loss with no recourse. You broke the rules …..rules are published to keep us safe. Bye.

    And with all this SMS crap going around…. you just lost a job for not following PUBLISHED operations limitations. Who in their proper legal mind is going to offer you another one?

  • Terrence Murphy

    This reminds me of the Marketing Director at a national adult daycare company who wanted manuals and procedures followed to the letter. Every morning the clients were assembled in a group called “Morning Circle” where they were oriented to time, place and purpose so the staff could see if any were losing cognitive function.
    One of the places we visited had the chairs for “Morning Circle” in rows and not in a theatre-in-the-round set up (circle) since the building had column roof supports. The MA, PhD local director said “Circle” is a euphemism and in her professional opinion “circle doesn’t work with square holes”. She and I spent hours rearranging the furniture until Skippy said, “you know, circle doesn’t work”…
    I think the term is officious boob.

  • Gary Nygard

    I vote the chief pilot gets demoted to janitor for being a rigid idiot! Lack of common sense is why the human race is in the shape it’s in. Just another prime example!

  • pdxpilot

    Tim – good story – obviously got a lot of other people’s interest. Maybe you could ask other helicopter pilots for stories that would inspire good debate.

    Will you be at Heli-Expo in March in Orlando?

  • HighCountry

    The CP has a job to do, too. It doesn’t sound like he took any real enforcement action, he just used the opportunity to remind the pilot about the rules so he doesn’t get into a real problem some other time. One defense would have been that the ice-covered landing surface was an emergency and he deviated from the regulations to the extent necessary to deal with the emergency. Then they both win.

  • b. bedell

    Well said, A. Fellow.

    I’m reading this thread with the name calling, etc. and cringing for Mr. McAdams. I think the point here is to invoke a discussion about common sense in a one-size-fits-all world. I wasn’t there, nor do I fly helicopters, but I can see that common sense says we can ignore 8″ high curbs, but a 48″ high fence might be crossing the line. Neither pilot is “wrong” in this case. One side is listening to common sense, the other is listening to his insurance adjuster, lawyer, FSDO, etc., should something go wrong. The insurance company would love to deny coverage for violating the manual and yes, that SMS crap too. The FAA version of Barney Fife may be short on violations for the week and shut down the entire operation. Then there are the lawyers………..

    Rather than take sides in a “he said/she said” debate, I suggest the manual be ammended to include an acceptable height, maybe something like “no higher than 24″ below the tail rotor,” for objects within the 12′ exclusion area. I’ll take my lumps for my ignorance of helicopter ops if my proposal here is all wet!

  • Alan

    I am a novice. Having said that, how much wind would be required to tilt the rotor disk enough that it would impact the fence? To me, that is the question. As long as the winds are well below that during take-off, all is good.

    I suppose this is why the curb is not an issue?

  • r22pilotmaker

    I would think the ground based landing pad would be designed so that any helicopter to be landed there could park anywhere within the confines of the pad and have adequate clearance from obstructions around the pad. Otherwise the obstructions should be moved further away or the pad should be smaller. Do you have ops specs regarding landing while another helicopter is parked on the pad?

  • http://AOPA A. Fellow

    My post was simply to “enlighten” those men and woman built of good intention, high work ethics, and yes, reams of common sense, to the air of todays corporate business structures.

    When you’re sitting across the table from a person (HR) who has no clear concept about what a pilot does, other than make aluminum fly, and is dismissing you for not following a procedure that, you know, has been circumvented many times in the past, you will at that time understand, that your ONLY saving grace in today’s new SMS mumbo jumbo corporate policies not my fault environment, is to know AND follow what those “boobs” have put in place on PAPER. (Verbal = zero.)

    Any other deviation from written policies should be considered and Emergency (out of the normal, not supplemental,) and must be declared BEFORE any event.

    In the original post Mr. McAdams should have preempted any company action by calling the CP (day or night) with an explanation to why the offset landing, along with an ACR (written document.) Bang! Ass covered!

    Too much headache for such a dumb and trivial occurrence??

    Reread paragraph two.

    “The funny thing about common sense, is that it’s not very common.” Mr. Mark Twain

  • http://AOPAOnline Don Stafford

    Based on my experience as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and later an instructor at Ft. Rucker, I believe you made exactly the right decision. Common sense must prevail over rules that cannot possibly cover any situation. It is very interesting as you point out that the rotor blade is only 10 feet from the ground! Sound to me like you shoulb become a chief pilot somewhere.

    Don Stafford

  • Captain777

    I actually am FULLY on the chief pilot’s side! (tim knows that *someone* isn’t going to buy his story 100%…)

    1. The pilot did one of two things…both wrong.
    A. Knew the rule, and made a decision to violate it, or
    B. Didn’t know the rule and is guilty of not knowing or following it
    2. In aviation…unlike a supermarket checkout lane…numbers mean the difference between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’…and ‘life’ or ‘death’. Why 12′ and not 10′, or 15’? I don’t know…and I bet neither does the pilot, OR the chief pilot. However the person who wrote the manual sure did…and unless they were flying that day…no one should assume to know better.
    3. Most of us (myself included), like to catch a break, or give one…if it doesn’t hurt anything. Everyone who blasted the chief pilot for not giving the break would surely be first to scream if someone parked a car 6″ too close to theirs….and lament how stupid the driver is! There would be no breaks given that day….so why do it with a million dollar piece of equipment that others rely on for jobs and health?

    Point is…rules in aviation should be followed…and if you erroneously break one, be thankful that 4′ wasn’t close to a piece of FOD that got sucked up and ripped a hole in your blade, or worse. Eat your humble pie and go apologize for the mistake….ask how to fix it for next time…and your ego will heal just fine!

  • Rolan Carr

    So the ground is only 10 feet away from the rotor. That means that to comply with the rule the helicopter can NEVER, EVER land. As long as we are being nit-picky, isn’t the tail boom also an “object”? It is certainly within 12 feet of the rotor, so the helicopter as designed can never be flown and still be in compliance with the rule.
    But, unfortunately we live in a world ruled by parasitic lawyers, so companies have to be constantly protecting themselves from the possibility of lawsuits, and following the letter of the rules is a way to do that.
    The most intelligent solution, now that a problem or mistake has been found in the rule book, is to rewrite the rule so that it makes more sense, while still covering the company.

  • Bob Pillion

    I wonder how the chief pilot would explain to the company your refusal to start with the rotor blades less that the required distance
    from any object. With care, a helicopter can be set down at distances much less than your prescribed distance as I have done it numerous times over my 35 plus years of flying them. I’m not saying this an every day practice but sometimes the pilot must use his judgement when to be the safest possible pilot and in this occurance the possibility of an iced over helipad was more dangerous than setting down within several feet of a secured fence that doesn’t reach the rotor disc anyway. I can explain just exactly what happens when a helicopter is shut down on ice and the ensuing spin.

  • Hugh Tillman

    Without talking with your chief pilot I would say he is correct but………There is always a “but”……….As PIC your other option was to land somewhere else where the rules could be met. As long as your chief pilot and the company was ready to incur the cost of that (time and $$) all is well. Something tells me you would have gotten the “look” from them all the next day…….If you want to get technical, the water (I am assuming it was frozen) was an obstacle closer than 12′ from the rotor.

    The point of all this is as the PIC you made a choice and in your estimation it was safe. If it wasnt and things went bad you would be help accountable, possibly at the cost of lives and expensive equipment…….Hey, that’s what you get paid the “big buck’s for!!

  • MRA

    I laughed when I read the article. I know that was not your intention, but I was imagining what the conversation was like in my head.

    I remember one CFI telling me that any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

    But in all seriousness, I want to know what the chief pilot would have done in that scenario.


  • Andy

    What would have been better was to park those skids right in the wet spot and have your next scheduled fire up the ship and wonder why things weren’t moving at a certain power setting…then who would be in deep doodoo… much for the 12′ frozen skid buffer..

  • Craig Clapper

    Within any rule is the requirement to apply common sense, afterall, there are many ways to practically, safely, and legally solve a problem. Rules are for guidance and safety, not necessarily to be rigidly applied, but when working in the gray areas one need think in the legal sense as well in order to round out the loop of reasonable judgement. In this one the words “12 feet from any object or obstruction” carries the implication ‘anything that might be hit by the rotors’ since the intent is obviously not to do so. If there is no reasonable way a rotor might hit an object under normal and expected abnormal situations it pretty much gets discounted with respect to the application of the rule in my book. Bottom line it is all about judgement, good judgement, and although this is a case that can be discussed in that sense, it appears reasonable judgement in landing where the pilot did prevails. Rules can always be refined to fit reality, perhaps this is one that needs it.

  • Robert Bennett

    Arguing with the chief pilot is like arguing with your wife…there are no winners!

  • Jim Pieper

    If it weren’t for the exceptions, we wouldn’t need any rules.

  • Jerry

    Once again it is demonstrated by the chief pilot that common sense is anything but common.

  • R. Fetterman

    Quite simply, the pilot in command has the final say and can bend or ignore any rule necessary if in his/her assessment it is prudent to do so for the safety of he crew or public. Just make sure you don’t enter a TFR in the process.

  • Jim

    Cap’n 777,
    I wonder how you can be certain that the writer of the Ops manual determined the 12-ft margin so scientifically? “Why 12′ and not 10′, or 15′? I don’t know…and I bet neither does the pilot, OR the chief pilot. However the person who wrote the manual sure did…and unless they were flying that day…no one should assume to know better.” I have been involved in more than one occasion of developing operation procedures for an outfit, and as often as not, would set limits that seemed, to my informed opinion, reasonable at the time. Twelve feet sounds reasonable; if the writer neglected to include “lateral distance” or some other clarifying wording, it is the failing of the writer – – not the pilot in the actual situation.
    I do concur that Mr. McAdams would have been most prudent to send the Chief a CYA letter before leaving the facility that day; it might have turned out to be a career-saver. Turns out he didn’t need one, but there was no way to know that in advance. Cite ’emergency authorization’ or declare that the copter had slid to the corner after landing – whatever, but CYA. Then get that Ops Manual revised to make sense.

  • Cary

    My .9 hours of rotorcraft time hardly qualifies me to comment, but as an experienced pilot and a lawyer, I have some thoughts here. I question that the author of the ops reg had any reason–I’ve seen too many rules, regs, ordinances, statutes, and court opinions that have obviously been drafted by someone with zilch knowledge of the subject–they were just given the drafting task. One of the critical criteria for a good reg, however, is that it is unambiguous–this one apparently is ambiguous and needs to be changed.

    Just yesterday, reading about Dave Hirschman’s unanticipated landing of the SBD, I was reminded of how regs et al often make little sense. The operating manual for the SBD told Hirschman that he should land gear up in an emergency, but he chose to land the SBD gear down on a grass strip. That’s similar to the ops manuals of most Navy airplanes for years. When I was learning to fly back in the early 70s at a USAF aero club, I often read the Navy’s aviation safety newsletter. In it, there was an article about a Navy flight student who landed gear up in a T-28 after an engine failure–on a 10,000′ runway–because the T-28’s manual said that emergency landings must be made gear up. It took thousands of bucks to repair the airplane, over and above replacing the engine.

    The PIC has final word on what is or is not safe. Whether landing on an icy helipad is unsafe, I can’t say for lack of experience, but if the PIC considered it to be unsafe, then his alternatives were to land where it wasn’t icy or go elsewhere, either being OK in spite of regs to the contrary, because of his emergency authority.


  • Jim Borger

    The chief pilot has no choice but to enforce the ops manual, no matter what his personal opinion is. If he was a line pilot he might very well have done the same thing but he can’t say that. Nobody can write a set of rules that covers every situation you might encounter while performing your duties so you, as PIC, must decide the best course of action to take in a particular situation. If the chief pilot disagrees with your decision then you know not to do it again. Say you’re sorry, even if you aren’t, and ask him for guidance as to what the proper course of action should be if this situation should arise again.

  • Rob

    “The chief pilot has no choice but to enforce the ops manual, no matter what his personal opinion is” 20 years in the helicopter industry and I say this comment is totally wrong! The chief pilot has the responsibility to make sure the ops manual is resonable and that his pilots are allowed to make decisions in the best interest of safety. If he does what you say and doesn’t apply his opinion he is a waste of a position. I can find someone off the street and pay them minimum wage to just “enforce the ops manual, no matter their opinion” A chief pilot is supposed to be qualified enough to give an opion that is useful and matters to those in management, and back the pilots when they do something smart.

    “You either knew the rules and broke them, or didn’t know the rules, either way your wrong” Or, you knew the rules, understood the intent, and made the best decision to best protect the assets (crew and aircraft) that the rules are there to protect in the first place. That’s why PIC stands for pilot in command, not pilot in compliance.

    Next thing you know we are going to have people that think the ops manual should of had a paragraph in it to tell the pilot what to do in case the helipad is being covered by water from broken pipes that froze.

    If I couldn’t have the rotor over a 4′ obstacle our utility flight department would be shut down. Cleary what you did was in the best interest of the crew. Like you said, have silly CP put it in writing how he interprets the regs and when 50% of your flights get turned down, the management will fire him long before they let go of a pilot that can actually use judgement when necessary.

  • Jim Borger

    The chief pilot can change the ops manual but he must enforce it until he does change it, which he can do verbally over the phone. If you think something in the manual is wrong put it in writing and send it up the line but until it is changed live with it. If you choose to do something outside the manual have a good reason and be prepared to suffer the consequences, good or bad. I am not advocating blindly doing everything by the book. As I stated, nobody can write a set of rules that cover every situation. Use your best judgement but be aware that just maybe the boss, or FAA, will not see things your way.

    45 years of flying helicopters, over 40 in 135 ops. Whoopee.

  • HeloMike

    You did land ON THE HELIPAD….
    Good job!

  • Jerry Faust

    Tell the chief pilot you will accept his butt-chewing but only after he has first chewed the butts of everyone before you who has flown the subject helicopter type for the company, given that they all violated the 12 foot rule every time they landed.

  • helios

    Unfortunately being a chief pilot in the EMS or Gov’t world doen’t always mean your smarter than the next guy. It just means that he’s been there longer and wanted you to know that he is the BOSS. He probably agrees with your explaination but will never admit it.

  • Obelix

    Mr Jim Borger, I would love to hear why you believe that the Chief Pilot had NO CHOICE but to enforce this rule? It seems to me, while I understand that the ops spec is a legal document that the operator is required to abide by, that there is always discretion and judgement to be used in every situation. It is what Tim used when he decided not to land in the middle of the pad and it is what the Chief Pilot should have used when deciding how to handle the matter. Many people misunderstand this about positions of authority.. it is a part of one’s responsibility in that position to use discretion when enforcing rules. One should enforce the SPIRIT of the rule not aimlessly follow the rule to the letter. Pointlessly following rules to the letter is in fact only a display of one’s incompetence and lack of confidence in one’s own ability to judge and use discretion correctly.

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