IMC encounters

February 24, 2012 by Tim McAdams

Using a simulator, researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study with 20 pilots who had no instrument training to see the survivability of an encounter with IMC conditions. All of them lost control, and the only variable was how long it took. The range was as short as 20 seconds to as long as 480 seconds with the average being 178 seconds. This was done in a fixed-wing simulator and I do not know of a formal study like this done with helicopters. My guess is a helicopter pilot with little or no instrument training would lose control in a much shorter time. Continued VFR flight into IMC conditions has caused many helicopter accidents.

For example, according to the National Transportation Safety Board a Bell Jetranger and an R44 helicopter were in route to Astoria, Washington when they encountered an overcast layer. A passenger in the Jet Ranger reported that the pilots of both helicopters were in continuous contact during the flight and as the weather conditions deteriorated, the pilot in the accident helicopter asked the pilot in the Jet Ranger what they should do. The witness reported the pilot in the Jet Ranger stated, “I’m going to go through it, stay right behind me.” The pilot in the accident helicopter agreed. The witness reported that when the Jet Ranger entered the fog, the accident helicopter was behind and above us. Approximately 30 seconds later; the pilot of the Jet Ranger stated, “Go back up… it’s too low. It’s much lower than we thought. Go back up right now.”

The witness stated that as the Jet Ranger ascended, the pilot attempted to contact the accident helicopter, however the attempts were unsuccessful. The Jet Ranger departed the area and was eventually able to land in Astoria. A search for the other helicopter was initiated and two orange life vests and miscellaneous debris were located floating in the water. The bodies of both pilots and passenger were recovered in the general area later that day. Numerous smaller pieces of helicopter wreckage were recovered from the water; however the majority of the wreckage was not located.

The pilot of the R44 held a commercial pilot certificate with rotorcraft-helicopter and instrument ratings. The pilot also held a flight instructor certificate with helicopter and instrument helicopter privileges. As an instrument instructor I am sure the pilot had practiced instrument flying with a vision restriction device. However, there is a significant difference between practicing with a hood and losing all visual references while under stress.

  • Alan Barnes

    It all boils down to piss poor ADM. Stupidity kills. Both those people would be alive had the pilots of BOTH helicopters made rational decisions. We fly helicopters, people. We can land anywhere. If the weather turns to crap, LAND. Don’t be a cowboy (or cowgirl). Don’t kill yourself or others. Don’t be stupid.

  • Samuel Davis

    Agree with Alan Barnes. This is a case of very poor judgement on both pilots part. In aviation, stupid kills.

  • Matthew Pollack

    Tim, would you provide a reference to the University of Illinois study? I’d be very interested in reading the paper.

  • Jim

    I think the primary responsibility was with the pilot of the accident aircraft. Assuming the aircraft was equipped for instrument flight, a rated instrument pilot should have been able to maintain control and climb to VMC above. This was over open water with no obstructions he just needed to keep a level attitude and climb. The accident is unfortunate, but the recovery should have been simple.

  • Ted

    Good article. Not to be a nit-picker, but Astoria is in Oregon, not Washington.

  • Alan Barnes

    The accident happened in 2006. NTSB SEA06FA159

    There are a couple more inaccuracies in this post though. The pilot of the R-44 was NOT a commercial pilot, flight instructor, or instrument pilot. He was a newly certificated *private* pilot. However, in the left seat was a commercial pilot with instrument and flight instructor ratings. He was hired by the first pilot to give instruction during the flight. It’s not known which pilot was flying the helicopter when the accident happened although it was the instructor who was handling radio calls during the descent into the clouds.

    Surface winds were calm in astoria but not sure about up top or in the clouds. 5miles and 400 OVC. The coast guard reported that the wx in the accident area (which was a mile off the shore in the ocean) was 10 knots, 1 mile vis, and 100 OVC. South along the coast the visibility was reported as 1/4 mile vis and 100 OVC. The R-44 is a light helicopter and will never be certified to fly in the clouds. They should not have gone in the clouds. Period. This is one of those accidents that we’ll never know what *really* happened. Especially since most of the helicopter was never found and is likely sitting on the ocean floor somewhere. They could have became disoriented and got into a low G situation. They could have gotten themselves into a vortex ring state. Or they could have descended right into the ocean.

    But what we DO know is that this accident was preventable. While the weather from their departure point was clear, it was still listing Astoria as 400OVC and 5 miles visibility. They had so many options it was ridiculous. The weather in this area, especially in the morning during that time of year, sucks. I’m 25nm or so from the coast and it can be blue skies here and the clouds can be on the water at the coast. You can SEE the coast from here if you climb up to a couple thousand feet. Since it was clear they could have started the flight and once they saw, and they WOULD have been able to, that the coast was covered, they could have went to any number of other airports in the area. They could have returned to Pearson. PDX, hillsboro, Scappoose, Kelso. All reporting CLR at the time. Kelso is 40nm away, a straight shot up the Columbia River – a 20 minute flight in the 44. OR…. they could have just waited TWO HOURS before leaving and things cleared right up. That’s common for the coastal weather here. Crap in the morning and then clear skies in a few hours. But no, they made the decision to try to go. They had access to the weather. They knew they would have to fly IFR to get into KAST unless they hugged the river all the way there (hello wires!). Then the second pilot in the 44, the instructor, asks twice what they should do about the weather. He should not have asked. He should have made the decision to turn around or divert. And the pilot in the 206 says “I’m going to go through it. Stay right behind me” ???? That was another opportunity for someone to have a glimmer of common sense and say “This is not a good idea. Let’s turn around and try again later” These kinds of accidents, the senseless and 100% preventable ones, piss me off. Three people are dead because at LEAST three people made terrible decisions that day.

  • Jim Borger

    Every year way too many qualified, curent instrument pilots end up dead after pushing into weather. I’ve seen many pilots, sitting next to me, bottom the collective and roll into a 60 degree bank upon unexpectedly running into clouds, giving themselves vertigo if they didn’t break out almost immediately. If they had just gone on the gauges and started a standard rate turn I wouldn’t of had to take the controls. It’s easy to say follow the rules and inadvertant IMC won’t happen to you. If you fly for a living, sooner or later, you will find yourself unexpectedly in the clouds or fog. Quite often, there is no visible horizon when flying over water or at night in rual areas and you can’t see the visibility coming down. The more experience you have the less likely you are to inadvertantly fly into the clouds but it can still happen to anyone.

  • Alan Barnes

    I agree Jim. It could happen even to the most experienced. However, in this particular incident, it’s just not the case. “I’m going to go through it. Stay right behind me” is NOT inadvertent. That is an active decision to start a descent through the clouds, over the ocean, when the reported ceiling is 400 OVC at the field, with at least the accident aircraft a non-ifr ship.

    Inadvertent or intentional, it should have been “easy” for them to get out of the clouds. They knew where the clear weather was so watch your attitude and just climb, right? That would require a couple of assumptions though. 1) it assumes that the instrument certificated instructor actually took over the controls prior to entering the clouds and wasn’t trying to give instruction. and 2) that said instructor has actually been in the clouds before and all his time wasn’t just under the hood. I’ve known some pilots with a couple hundred instrument hours and it was ALL under the hood. And we know that it’s a world of difference being under the hood and actually in the clouds. My actual ifr time was all in a 172 but at times, even when the winds were calm on at the surface, it was like riding a mechanical bull and very stressful. I don’t even want to think about how that would be in a Robbie and the instructor only had hood time and the person in the right seat has had his private ticket for two months. Not saying that was the case but it’s a definite possibility given the prohibitive cost of flying an ifr capable helicopter for training.