Instrument flying

February 10, 2011 by Tim McAdams

When I got my CFI rating in 1981, instrument flying in helicopters was very rare. In fact, back then very few companies required it for employment as a commercial helicopter pilot. Today it is much different. An instrument rating is required for most jobs and all professional training programs include the rating. Moreover, any pilot who begins their career instructing (as most do) will need a CFII.

Thirty years ago instrument flying was airport to airport. Now with GPS, approaches can be designed inexpensively to almost anywhere, making IFR helicopter operations more reasonable. However, there are some limitations with helicopters. One of them is range. Helicopters typically carry about 3 hours of fuel. With a large weather system it can be very difficult to fly to your destination, find a qualifying alternate and maintain the required fuel reserve.

Because of the unique characteristics of helicopters, the CFRs provide some help with the range limitation. Helicopters are required to have a 30-minute fuel reserve as opposed to 45 minutes for airplanes (CFR 91.167 (3)). Regarding the weather at the destination used to determine if an alternate airport is required, CFR 91.167 (b) (2) provides lower minimums for helicopters.

(i) For aircraft other than helicopters. For at least 1 hour before and for 1 hour after the estimated time of arrival, the ceiling will be at least 2,000 feet above the airport elevation and the visibility will be at least 3 statute miles.

(ii) For helicopters. At the estimated time of arrival and for 1 hour after the estimated time of arrival, the ceiling will be at least 1,000 feet above the airport elevation, or at least 400 feet above the lowest applicable approach minima, whichever is higher, and the visibility will be at least 2 statute miles.

Also, under CFR 91.169 (c) (1) IFR alternate airport weather minimums are different as well.

(i) For aircraft other than helicopters: The alternate airport minima specified in that procedure, or if none are specified the following standard approach minima:

(A) For a precision approach procedure. Ceiling 600 feet and visibility 2 statute miles.
(B) For a nonprecision approach procedure. Ceiling 800 feet and visibility 2 statute miles.

(ii) For helicopters: Ceiling 200 feet above the minimum for the approach to be flown, and visibility at least 1 statute mile but never less than the minimum visibility for the approach to be flown.

The regulatory relief has helped helicopters use the IFR system more often.

  • Avi Weiss

    Hey Tim;

    Instrument-rotor candidates face a somewhat modified “chicken-and-egg” problem.

    As you mention, having an instrument rating prior to job application is becoming more of a necessity than a “preference”. Unfortunately, currently few training aircraft (R22, S300) are IFR equipped. Candidates who finish their CFI ratings at flight schools without IFR equipped aircraft now must find a training facility that has such equipment. If that new training facility is not located withing commuting distance, now the candidate must also relocate and provide while finishing training.

    So, the bar raises a bit more…

  • John

    Avis Weiss,

    You are 100% right. I’ve learned in the helicopter industry that nothing is simple. I have come upon the same problem.

  • Mike Harrington

    Helicopter IFR wasn’t rare in 1981. I’ve been involved with copter IFR since 1965, and the WW II vets that taught me since well before that. Other than the date issue, I enjoyed the information.

  • John Sibole

    We’ve equipped the Schweizer 300CB at our flight school in Pennsylvania as an instrument trainer and are very happy with it. The fully articulated design is stable, and the cyclic trim is great for instruments. And, it has a good useful load—our typical training sortie lasts 2.0 hours.

  • Dan Katen

    I agree with Mr. Harrington. I was taught to fly IFR in 1980 and logged my first and only true instrument hour in 1980 as well. It shouldn’t take moving to another facility to get your IFR rating. Most flight schools that are serious about teaching have an R44 that is capable of teaching instruments. I have also flown an R22 and a Schweizer that were instrument trainers. I took my CFII in an R22 in Lousiana. You just have to look around and find the right school. The first thing you should consider is whether or not a flight school has a simulator for IFR training. That cuts the cost and gives you a safe place to learn instrument procedures.
    Just my two cents.

  • pdxpilot

    I’m instrument rated in fixed wing (mostly for convenience and safety – I’m a private pilot) Have thought about it in helicopters…


    We provide a simulator at our school and as Mr. Katen suggests we agree it is an invaluable training tool as well as a tremendous cost cutter for the students. In fact we provide two hours free simulator time for every hour logged in the aircraft. There is no reason most instrument time can not be done in the simulator rather than expensively in the air and at the reduced or no cost level the student will usually put even more hours in than the minimum required. ([email protected])

  • Donovan Mott

    While it is true that helicopter IFR has been around since the early 1960s, most Viet Nam era US Army pilots had a “Tac Ticket” which did not translate to an FAA IFR rating. Therefore, US Army veterans had to undergo (FAR) required training and certification just as if they had no previous (IFR) certification. Of course previous military training could count toward the required minimum hours necessary for certification and the time and training hours were reduced when compared to ab initio civilian trainees. A significant impediment to the training environment was the lack of IFR certificated helicopters. In 1979, only three single engine helicopters were so certificated in the US—A Jet Ranger operated by a Tennessee coal company, a Gazelle operated by a Texas training company and a Jet Ranger operated by a San Jose, Ca. training organization. Both bell products were certificated under SFAR 29.2 and allowed to fly in IFR conditions (IMC) only during daylight hours. As a result, veterans who were about to run out of GI training benefits flocked to flight schools to obtain IFR ratings. The company I worked for (in San Jose) trained over 80 pilots during this period. They chose to fly in a helicopter which could actually fly “in the clouds”. And, they could see the future of IFR.

  • David M. Klein

    Tim, I’m currently training for my Instrument-helicopter rating and encountered the following problem that I hope you share with your readers. According to 61.65(e)(2)(ii), a candidate must fly a cross country flight UNDER INSTRUMENT FLIGHT RULES AND A FLIGHT PLAN. I’m training at a Part 61 flight school that uses a Robinson R22 as an instrument trainer. According to the regulations, my instructor and I filed an Instrument Flight Plan. Although our second airport’s weather was reporting clear skies, an overcast cloud layer formed beneath us enroute to that airport. We were level at 4000 feet and TRACON cleared us to descend to 2700. I advised that I was unable due to a cloud layer beneath us. The controller said, “You are on an IFR flight plan and can’t go in the clouds?” I advised him that Robinson helicopters are not certified to fly in IMC. For the sake of brevity, I will simply say he was very unhappy with us and ended up called the FAA wanting to know why an aircraft that cannot fly in the clouds is flying on an IFR flight plan. After several phone calls, the flight school’s POI advised us that a Robinson helicopter cannot fly above a cloud layer on an IFR flight plan unless you are willing to cancel your IFR if ATC clears you to descend into IMC. This is an important restriction that does not appear to be published anywhere. My instructor, nor any of my fellow helicopter friends were aware of this restriction.

  • Ben Bailey

    Mike Harrington. You were my flight instructor in 1973, if you are the MH who worked at Enstrom and had one of the few IFR Rotor ratings in the country. If its you, look me up on Linked In and lets get in touch.

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  • Dan (bo) Norwood

    I’m looking for Don Mott……..he was my heli instructor in ’77, San Jose / Aris helicoptor