Author: Maria Langer

Flying frost control

Frost control is a lot like cherry drying (or blowing) in that it requires you to move above the crops to circulate air. But while cherry drying requires the helicopter to be low and slow so the downwash really shakes up tree branches, frost control’s purpose is to move warm air in a temperature inversion down into the crop area to keep the temperature above freezing.

Frost control flying is done in southern and central California, Florida, and other places throughout the United States. It’s commonly used to control frost over citrus trees, lettuce, and other crops.

My contracts are always in California’s Central Valley, not far from Sacramento, where I cover almond trees. The nuts are susceptible to damage from freezing temperatures from the time they’ve been pollinated until weeks after the nuts begin to form. As my client explained to me, when the nuts are in a gelatinous stage early on, freezing temperatures can destroy them. Because the “ranches” are huge — sometimes hundreds of acres — its not cost effective to install wind machines, as they do in California’s wine country for grapes or Washington’s orchard country for tree fruit. So the helicopters are called in and put on standby.

More about the flying

There are three main differences between flying to dry cherries and flying to control frost:

  • Altitude. Frost control flights are done at a slightly higher altitude. Generally speaking, you want the helicopter high enough to be above the inversion so it can suck that warm air down. The exact altitude varies, but it’s usually at least 30 feet above the ground.
  • Speed. Frost control flights are done faster, slightly above ETL. The goal is to cover the crops quickly, pulling the air down and letting it circulate around. You might have to cover an area multiple times and it’s vital to get the air moving throughout the crops quickly. My first-year client told me that the warm air above a field is normally depleted within 3 hours.
  • Time. Frost control flights are nearly always done at night, usually between 2 a.m. and just after dawn. In most cases, the coldest time of night is right before dawn, so you might have the benefit of some twilight lighting to see where you’re going. But with weather fronts and other factors affecting weather, it’s possible to have to fly in the middle of the night when it’s pitch black.

My Experience

I’ll be honest with you: I’ve had frost contracts for the past four winter/spring seasons and I have yet to be called out to fly. I’ve been put on standby several times and spent more than a few predawn hours parked on the ramp beside my helicopter in the dark, glad that Dutch Brothers has a 24-hour coffee stand between my motel and the airport. But fly? Nope.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t try it. My very first season on contract, 2013, I gave it a go with my friend Jim, who was also there for his first season. We’re both experienced R44 pilots with thousands of hours logged. But neither of us have much experience flying at night so we wanted to get an idea of what we were in for before the call came.

The first night out, we got into my helicopter, waited until 10 p.m. when it was good and dark, and took off. The first challenge was finding the field. Yes, of course I had the GPS coordinates for it, so I zipped right to the general area, flying at 500 feet AGL to avoid power lines and towers. When I spotted the trees below me, I spiraled down, remembering obstacles like wires in the area. I was about 50 feet up when I realized that the bright patch below me wasn’t the almond blossoms of my field shining in the starlight. It was a body of water I knew was about a quarter of a mile away. I hadn’t scouted that area, but I also knew there was an unlighted wind turbine nearby. I got spooked and climbed out, away from where I knew the tower might be. (The tower is now lighted.) We tried another field with slightly better results, but left equally spooked. Clearly, more preparation was necessary.

I use this app to make a clear outline around my almond fields so I know exactly where I am in the dark.

I use this app to make a clear outline around my almond fields so I know exactly where I am in the dark.

We spent the next day scouting our fields again. I picked up an app for my iPad that I could use to map the boundaries of my fields as a track. I could then use my GPS to get into the general area and then see my position over the outline of the field to know exactly where I was. I drove the perimeters of each of my fields to set this up. Jim used a less high-tech method of pinpointing his fields.

That night we went out again, this time in Jim’s ship to find his fields. We — or I guess I should say he — did remarkably well. I was just a passenger keeping an eye out and giving him moral support. But neither of us was happy about the nighttime flights we faced. He said the field owners should have guys down there with flares to guide us. I told him that they expected us to be able to do our job without their help.

Of course, it hasn’t mattered yet. Neither of us was called to fly that year and Jim didn’t come back for additional seasons. I just finished my fourth season — my contracts start in late February and run 60 days — and still haven’t flown. But every year, when I’m assigned my fields, I take that app out and drive the perimeters to mark them. And, of course, I scout them from the ground and from the air at least once during the day.


Like cherry drying, the kind of aircraft most suitable for this work is one that can push a lot of air. Larger aircraft like Hueys and big Sikorskys are pretty commonly used. I’m pretty sure that R44s are the smallest ships they’ll consider.

Light bars rigged to the underside of the helicopter are commonly used for night flying. Another friend of mine who put a ship on contract in 2013 in the same area had a friend build him a light bar with 1400 LED lights. The whole thing could be strapped to the skid legs within minutes and plugged into the electrical system on his Hiller. I never saw it lighted at night, but it was probably visible from space. Of course, his ship didn’t fly that year either.

I bought a pair of DeVore Aviation Triple LED FFRLs (Forward Facing Recognition Lights) for my R44. Back in 2013, they cost about $2,500 to buy and another $2,500 to install. They added about 15 pounds of weight to my aircraft. They have three settings: off, steady on, and pulsing. I tried them that first practice night and was extremely disappointed. They only provide significant light very close to the ground. I wound up replacing my landing lights with LED landing lights a few years later; they do a much better job lighting the area in front of me. Now I use the DeVores primarily in pulsing mode when I’m flying in crowded airspace or doing cherry drying work on a low-visibility day. I’m honestly thinking of having them pulled to get that 15 pounds back when I take my ship in for overhaul this winter. (Anyone want a deal on a pair?)

Revenue potential

In general, the revenue potential for frost control — at least the work I do in Central California — isn’t very promising. Sure, there’s standby pay, but because the pilot doesn’t actually wait around with the helicopter, it’s much lower than it is for cherry drying or other kinds of work. My contract also pays to move the helicopter onsite at the beginning of the contract and pays to get it back home at the end. It also pays a callout fee that covers the cost of me flying commercial from my home in Washington to Sacramento, renting a car, and getting a motel room. And then getting home after spending half the night sipping cold coffee in the rental car beside my helicopter. The hourly fly rate is lower than cherry drying, so I wouldn’t even make that much if I flew.

So why do I continue to do it? Mostly because I’m not doing much of anything else from late February to late April. It’s better to park the helicopter in California and collect a small check than keep it home in Washington and not collect anything. Even when I don’t fly, I’m not losing money. And I actually like spending the first month of my contract in the Sacramento area, winding down my annual snowbirding trip south. So I guess I can say that even without the big bucks, it works for me.

What do you think? Have you done any frost control work? How about sharing your experiences in the comments.

Using a big fan

When I bought my helicopter back in 2005, I was living in the Phoenix area. Arizona is nice — in the spring, summer, and autumn. But in the summer it’s brutally hot and no amount of air conditioning (which I didn’t have in my helicopter anyway) can make it bearable when you’ve parked on the tarmac with your cockpit in the sun waiting for a client. That’s if you can get any flying work at all.

After the summer of 2005, I’d had enough of it. Since another season at the Grand Canyon was out of the question, I began looking for other work for the summer of 2006. I was hoping that a tour operator in a cooler place would need an extra ship for their busy season.

What I got instead was a call from a guy named Erik based in the Seattle area. He told me that he was doing cherry drying work every summer and was always looking for pilots to help.

Cherry drying, explained

The explanation is simple: During the last three to four weeks before harvest, cherries are susceptible to damage from rain. If water from a rainfall is allowed to sit on the fruit, it can be absorbed through the skin, causing the cherries to expand and split. Moisture on the cherries can also cause mold and mildew. Any of these things can make the cherry unsalable. If 50 percent or more of an orchard’s crop is damaged, the orchardist won’t even bother picking and the whole crop will be lost.

To protect the cherries, orchardists hire helicopter pilots to stand by in the area with their helicopters. When it rains, they call the pilots out to fly, low and slow, over the treetops. The down wash from the rotor blades blows down into the tree’s branches, causing them to wave violently and shake the water off the fruit. Many orchardists refer to this as “cherry blowing,” which is a far more accurate description of what’s being done.

About cherry drying contracts

Cherry drying is contract work. Although it’s done in California, Oregon, and Washington, most of the cherry orchards and work is in Washington. The season is relatively short, starting as early as April in California and ending as late as August in some areas of Washington. Pilots are contracted either directly by orchardists or by service providers who are contracted by the orchardists who then subcontract out to pilots. Contracts are usually no shorter than 3 weeks; most include the possibility of “extensions” that may add days or weeks to that.

During the course of the contract, the pilot is required to base himself and his aircraft in the service area and stay there. That means getting lodging nearby and a means of transportation to get to and from the helicopter. Pilots are on call any time it’s light enough to fly — unlike frost control work, which I’ll cover in my next blog post, no flying is done in the dark. In Washington in June and July, the days are very long. Following the “eight hours from bottle to throttle” rule, it’s unlikely that you’ll go out drinking with your fellow pilots in the evening; you could get called before dawn the next day.

Pilots are expected to be airborne within minutes of getting the call. For this reason, they should be keeping an eye on the weather. If rain is in the area, the pilot should have the helicopter all fueled, preflighted, and ready to go. The pilot needs to get out to the orchard needing service and get right to work flying over the trees. To do that, the pilot needs to know exactly where each of his orchards are and be familiar with their boundaries and obstacles before the first call comes.

Contract terms have two parts: standby and fly time. Standby is the amount received for having the helicopter based at or near the orchards under contract. This daily rate should cover the cost of lodging and transportation for the pilot, as well as repositioning the helicopter to and from the contract base from home. It should also provide some sort of compensation for having the helicopter offline from other work. Obviously, the longer the contract, the more standby money is available to cover costs and possibly build a profit. Fly time is straightforward: it’s hourly pay for when the helicopter is actually flying over an orchard.

The work

When I say we fly “low and slow,” I need to make it clear just how low and slow we fly. My rule of thumb is 5-10 feet off the treetops and 5-10 miles per hour (or knots). It’s not unusual for me to come back from a flight with cherry tree leaves stuck in my skids where the ground handling wheels connect to my R44. Of course, with certain types of cherries — Rainiers, for example — a pilot needs to fly higher to prevent the more delicate fruit from getting damaged. And if a pilot is flying something bigger — say a Huey or S55, both of which are used in my area of Washington — he’ll need to fly higher so he doesn’t damage the trees.

A cockpit shot during a typical cherry drying flight. Note that the sun is out and my door is off.

A cockpit shot during a typical cherry drying flight. Note that the sun is out and my door is off.

Here's an example of a track for a quick dry of a large orchard. Areas I didn't cover were already picked.

Here’s an example of a track for a quick dry of a large orchard. Areas I didn’t cover were already picked.

How a pilot flies the rows of trees is something that varies depending on how dense the trees are. That varies with height, pruning, variety, age, distance apart, etc. Flying every other row is usually enough for most orchards. It’s even overkill for others. It really depends.  Depending on the orchard layout and obstacles, an R44 can dry 30 to 50 acres in an hour. The goal is to get the fruit as dry as possible as quickly as possible.

Because yes: the click is ticking. I’ve gotten all kinds of numbers from a variety of sources, but most of them agree that the cherries need to be dried within two to three hours of getting wet. That time is shortened if it gets warm and sunny out, which it usually does.

Although it’s usually done raining when a dry call comes, some orchardists will call to begin drying when it’s still raining. Some of them do this to make sure the pilot gets to their orchards first — with several (or even many) orchards assigned to a pilot, there’s a real competition between orchardists to get their pilot before another orchardist does. Sometimes a pilot will have to fly through a storm to get to an orchard on the other side of it where the rain has already stopped. (I’ve flown through more thunderstorms than I care to remember just getting from one orchard to another.) Sometimes a pilot will be halfway through an orchard when another rainstorm moves in; what he does then depends on orders from the person who hired him.

A fly call can come as early as 4 a.m. if it rained overnight. That doesn’t mean a pilot has to launch then, but it does mean he has to get ready to launch. I’ve spent more than a few predawn minutes sitting in my cockpit, waiting to see the horizon so I could crank the engine and prepare to depart. The earliest I’ve ever been over an orchard was 4:30 a.m.; although it was still quite dark, I was very familiar with the orchard and felt confident about flying it with the aid of my landing lights. Other times, I’ve flown past sunset. My rule is: if I can see, I’ll fly. When I can’t see, it’s time to go back to base.

When the sun comes out during a flight — which it almost always does — it can get unbelievably hot in the cockpit. It’s a miserable feeling to have stinging sweat dripping off your forehead and into your eyes and not be able to use either hand to wipe the sweat away. For this reason, I always fly with one door off. No matter how cold and cloudy and possibly even still rainy it is when I launch, I’ll be very glad I took that door off when the sun comes out.

Skilled pilots needed

The flying is intense. Both hands and feet are on the controls making tiny adjustments to all flight controls for hours at a time. Excellent hovering skills and familiarity with the aircraft are vital. A tailwind will have a pilot working the pedals just to keep flying straight. And if the orchard is on a hill, there’s plenty of sideways flying to keep the tail rotor out of the trees when flying downhill in order to remain close enough to the trees to stay effective.

Obstacles can include power lines, sometimes with poles right in the orchard.

Obstacles can include power lines, sometimes with poles right in the orchard.

With cherry trees 10 to 30 feet tall, all flights are well within the Deadman’s Curve. No doubt about it: if there’s  an engine failure, the helicopter is going down into the trees. The pilot has to hope the trees break the fall and keep the main rotor blades from entering the cockpit. (That’s one of the reasons I fly over aisles between trees and not the trees themselves.) Pilots who are squeamish about things like this need not apply.

The flying can be dangerous, especially when pilots lack the required skills or become too complacent to stay focused. We normally have at least one bad crash a year. Want to read up on some of the accidents? Here are some links to get you started; the two Sikorsky crashes happened on the same day:

(*Apparently, some operators are conducting “training” flights while on actual cherry drying missions. I think this is a huge mistake.)

Finally, drying cherries is not a time-building job. My first season, back in 2008, was 7 weeks long. During that time, I flew about 5 hours. The following year I had 11 weeks of contract work and also flew only 5 hours. Since then, it’s been a bit rainier each season, but I still average less than 3 hours of flight time per week. Last year was especially disappointing, with two of my pilots not getting any flight time at all.

Getting Started

If you like what you’ve read and think you want to try a season of cherry drying, the best way to get started is to keep your ears open for service providers looking for helicopters. Unfortunately, they’re not looking for pilots unless those pilots can bring a helicopter. So don’t bother calling around unless you also have a helicopter lined up to bring with you.

R44 helicopters are the ones most commonly used for cherry drying. Why? Because they’re cheap to operate and they move a lot of air. (I’ll argue that they move as much air as a JetRanger.) Generally anything relatively large with a two-bladed rotor system will do the job well. R22s are too small to cover a large orchard quickly, although they’re handy for small orchards with lots of obstacles and tight space. Ditto for Schweizers, although I think they push more air than R22s. The owners of large orchards prefer larger helicopters because they can blow more cherries faster.

Most service providers hire pilots/helicopters for a minimum contract term of three weeks with an option to extend by days or weeks as needed. In most cases, need is determined by the acres of unpicked cherries and the upcoming weather forecast. Each pilot gets a handful of orchard photos or Google satellite view images with coordinates and is expected to learn them. There usually isn’t any overlap; a pilot is responsible for just his orchards. That’s a two-edged sword: if it rains in a pilot’s area, he can do a lot of flying. If it rains elsewhere, he won’t do any flying at all.

I work my contracts with other pilots work a little differently. Last season, I hired four guys to work with me with contracts of at least four weeks each. We work together in two teams serving two different geographical areas. Each team knows where all the orchards are in their area. When the calls start coming, I start dispatching us to orchards. My goal is to to provide my clients with the fastest service possible, making the most of my assets (the pilots and their helicopters). If only one big orchard gets rained on, it’s not usual for me to put two or even three helicopters on it. But if rain is widespread, so are we — covering individual orchards as quickly as we can. Although I try to dispatch based on area, when there’s a lot of rain, all of the helicopters are in the air, even if that means a pilot has to fly across town to get to the next orchard that needs attention.

Of course, of the two areas we serve, one didn’t get any rain at all. Those two pilots didn’t fly; it simply didn’t make sense to fly them to the other area where they might have gotten an hour or two of flight time. But if a pilot can’t make it work financially based on the standby portion of the contract, he probably shouldn’t bother taking the contract at all. You have to go into a contract assuming it won’t rain — and be very happy when it does.

When the weather is clear and sunny and there’s no rain in the forecast, pilots are pretty much free to do whatever they like — as long as they watch the weather and can get back to base in a hurry if things change. Hiking, bicycling, swimming, paddling — there’s plenty to do in the area to keep busy. I used to think of it as a paid vacation with a handful of days when I needed to work. While it isn’t for every pilot, I certainly enjoy it.

More on “scud running”

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.

Owners, pilots, and owner pilots

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

What Owners Want

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

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

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

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

What Pilots Want

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

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

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

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

And that’s how they differ from owners.

Owner Pilots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working Together to Achieve Goals

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

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

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

Tips for long cross-country flights

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.

Doors-off flying

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

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

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

Loose objects

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

Want some examples of how dangerous this can be?

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

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

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

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

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

Never Exceed Speed

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

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

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

Securing Passengers

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

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

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


Dangling Seat Belts

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

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


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

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

Just say no to traffic patterns

Over the past eight or so years, I’ve done more than my fair share of long cross-country flights with newly minted commercial pilots or CFIs. In most cases, the purpose of the flight was to reposition my helicopter at a temporary base of operations 500 or more miles away and the typically 300-hour pilot on board with me was interested in building R44 time. I was on board as a passenger and got a chance to observe the things these pilots did–or didn’t do. I think the fact that I’ve never been a flight instructor gives me a unique perspective on what I observed.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that typical flight training does very little to prepare students for a commercial flying career. Instead, students are taught to perform maneuvers “by the book,” often so they can teach those maneuvers to their own students in the future. While it’s obviously important to know how to perform maneuvers properly, there are other concerns that are important to commercial pilots. In my upcoming posts for Hover Power, I’ll tackle a few of them, starting with traffic patterns.

I can tell lots of stories about new commercial pilots and CFIs entering traffic patterns to land for fuel at nontowered airports in the middle of nowhere. I can even tell you about the pilot who landed on the numbers of an empty airport’s runway, hover-taxied to the taxiway, and then hover-taxied a half mile down the taxiway to reach the midfield fuel island. They did this because that’s what they had been trained to do. That’s all they knew about landing at airports.

Our flight training teaches us a few things about airport operations, most of which are school-established routines at the handful of airports where we train. There’s a procedure for departing flight school helipads and there may be a procedure for traveling to a practice field nearby. Once there, it’s traffic patterns, over and over. Normal landing and takeoff, steep approach, maximum performance takeoff, run-on landing, quick stop, autorotation–all of these standard maneuvers are taught as part of a traffic pattern. It gets ingrained into our minds that any time we want to land at an airport, we need to enter a traffic pattern.

The reality is very different. Remember, FAR Part 91.129 (f)(2) states, “Avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft, if operating a helicopter.” Your flight school may have complied with this requirement by doing a modified traffic pattern at the airport, operating at a lower altitude than the typical airplane traffic pattern altitude of 1,000 feet, or landing on a taxiway rather than a runway. But despite any modifications, it’s still a traffic pattern.

But is a traffic pattern required for landing? No.

Experienced commercial pilots–and their savvier clients–know that traffic patterns waste time. And while the pilot might not be concerned about an extra few minutes to make a landing, the person paying for the flight will be. Why waste time flying around the airport before landing at it? Instead, fly directly to or near your destination and land there.

Before I go on, take a moment to consider why airplanes use traffic patterns. They enter on a 45-degree angle to the pattern to help them see other traffic already in the pattern. They then follow the same course as the other planes so there are no surprises. This is especially important at nontowered airports that don’t have controllers keeping an eye out for traffic conflicts.

But helicopters are avoiding this flow, normally by flying beneath the airplane TPA. As long as they stay away from areas where airplanes might be flying–remember, avoid the flow–they don’t need to worry much about airplane traffic. Instead, they need to look out for other helicopters and obstacles closer to the ground. If a runway crossing is required, special vigilance is needed to make sure an airplane (or helicopter) isn’t using the runway to take off or land. Obviously, communication is important, especially at a busy airport when a runway crossing is involved.

Now you might be thinking that this advice only applies to nontowered airports, where the pilot is free to do what he thinks is best for the flight. But this can also apply to towered airports.

Airport controllers who are accustomed to helicopter traffic and understand helicopter capabilities may instruct you to fly to and land at your destination on the field. You must be prepared to do this, even at an airport you’ve never been to before. That’s part of what your preflight planning is all about. Consult airport diagrams or even satellite images of the airport. Know where you’ll be flying from and where you need to park. Imagine the route to that spot. Be sure to take note of where the tower is–it’s often a great landmark for navigating while close to the ground. Never assume the controller will put you in a traffic pattern. And don’t be afraid to admit you’re unfamiliar if you didn’t do your homework or if things in real life look different from how they looked on paper or a computer screen.

What if a controller does instruct you to enter a traffic pattern and you don’t want to? As amazing as this might seem to new pilots, you can ask the controller to allow you to go direct to your airport destination.

I’ll never forget the flight I had one day as a passenger on my friend Jim’s Hughes 500c. Jim was a retired airline pilot who had been flying helicopters for at least 10 years. We were flying into Prescott Airport (PRC) in Arizona for lunch. When Jim called the tower, he asked for landing at the restaurant. The controller told Jim to enter a traffic pattern that would have required him to fly all the way around the airport, taking him at least 10 minutes out of his way. “Negative,” Jim barked into his microphone. “One-Two-Three-Alpha-Bravo is a helicopter. We want to land direct at the restaurant.” A new pilot at the time, I was shocked by his tone of voice. There was an uncomfortable silence and then the controller came back on and told him he could fly direct to restaurant parking.


The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.

The airport diagram for Prescott. The X marks the location of the restaurant and we were coming in from the west. Runways 21L and 21R were active. The tower instructed us to fly all the way around the south end of the airport, at least three miles out, to get into a pattern for Runway 21.


Will the tower always grant your request? It depends on the situation. If a runway crossing is involved and the airport is busy with traffic, they might not. It might be safer or more convenient for them to keep you in a pattern with the airplanes. But it can’t hurt to ask, although I don’t think I’d be as aggressive as Jim was that day.

One of the big challenges of becoming a commercial helicopter pilot is thinking like a commercial helicopter pilot. There are things we can do that seem to conflict with what we were taught. Landing at airports without the formality of a traffic pattern is one of them.

Maximum performance takeoffs and judgement calls

Ed note: In the last post we covered the mechanics of the Height-Velocity Diagram. Here author Maria Langer discusses an application of its use. 

This past summer, I was part of a helicopter rides gig at an airport event. There were three of us in Robinson R44 helicopters, working out of the same rather small landing zone, surrounded on three sides by parked planes and spectators. We timed our rides so that only one of us was on the ground at a time, sharing a 3-person ground crew consisting of a money person and two loaders. Yes, we did hot loading. (Techniques for doing that safely is fodder for an entirely different blog post.) The landing zone was secure so we didn’t need to worry about people wandering into our flight path or behind an idling helicopter.

The landing zone opened out into the airport taxiway, so there was a perfect departure path for textbook takeoffs: 5-10 feet off the ground to 45 knots, pitch to 60, and climb out. It was an almost ideal setup for rides and we did quite a few.

One of the pilots, however, was consulting a different page of the textbook: the one for maximum performance takeoffs. Rather than turning back to the taxiway and departing over it, he pulled pitch right over the landing zone, climbed straight up, and then took off toward the taxiway, over parked planes and some spectators. Each time he did it, he climbed straight up a little higher before moving out.

I was on my way in each time he departed and I witnessed him do this at least four times before I told him to stop. (I was the point of contact for the gig so I was in charge.) His immediate response on the radio was a simple “Okay.” But then he came back and asked why he couldn’t do a maximum performance takeoff.

It boggled my mind that he didn’t understand why what he was doing was not a good idea. The radio was busy and I kept it brief: “Because there’s no reason to.”

The Purpose

The Advanced Flight Maneuvers chapter of the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A; download for free from the FAA) describes a maximum performance takeoff as follows:

A maximum performance takeoff is used to climb at a steep angle to clear barriers in the flightpath. It can be used when taking off from small areas surrounded by high obstacles. Allow for a vertical takeoff, although not preferred, if obstruction clearance could be in doubt. Before attempting a maximum performance takeoff, know thoroughly the capabilities and limitations of the equipment. Also consider the wind velocity, temperature, density altitude, gross weight, center of gravity (CG) location, and other factors affecting pilot technique and the performance of the helicopter.

This type of takeoff has a specific purpose: to clear barriers in the flight path. A pilot might use it when departing from a confined landing zone or if tailwind and load conditions make a departure away from obstacles unsafe.

The Risks

This is an “advanced” maneuver not only because it requires more skill than a normal takeoff but because it has additional risks. The Helicopter Flying Handbook goes on to say:

In light or no wind conditions, it might be necessary to operate in the crosshatched or shaded areas of the height/velocity diagram during the beginning of this maneuver. Therefore, be aware of the calculated risk when operating in these areas. An engine failure at a low altitude and airspeed could place the helicopter in a dangerous position, requiring a high degree of skill in making a safe autorotative landing.

And this is what my problem was. The pilot had purposely and unnecessarily decided to operate in the shaded area of the height velocity diagram with passengers on board over an airport ramp area filled with other aircraft and spectators.

Height Velocity diagram for a Robinson R44 Raven II. Flying straight up puts you right in the “Deadman’s Curve.”

Height Velocity diagram for a Robinson R44 Raven II. Flying straight up puts you right in the “Deadman’s Curve.”

Seeing what he was doing automatically put my brain into “what if” mode. If the engine failed when the helicopter was 50-75 feet off the ground with virtually no forward airspeed, that helicopter would come straight down, likely killing everyone on board. As moving parts came loose, they’d go flying through the air, striking aircraft and people. There were easily over 1,000 people, including many children, at the event. My imagination painted a very ugly picture of the aftermath.

What were the chances of such a thing happening? Admittedly very low. Engine failures in Robinson helicopters are rare.

But the risks inherent in this type of takeoff outweigh the risks associated with a normal takeoff that keeps the helicopter outside the shaded area of the height velocity diagram. Why take the risk?

Just Because You Can Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Should

This all comes back to one of the most important things we need to consider when flying: judgment.

I know why the pilot was doing the maximum performance takeoffs: he was putting on a show for the spectators. Everyone thinks helicopters are cool and everyone wants to see helicopters do something that airplanes can’t. Flying straight up is a good example. This pilot had decided to give the spectators a show.

While there’s nothing wrong with an experienced pilot showing off the capabilities of a helicopter, should that be done with passengers on board? In a crowded area? While performing a maneuver that puts the helicopter in a flight regime we’re taught to avoid?

A responsible pilot would say no.

A September 1999 article in AOPA’s Flight Training magazine by Robert N. Rossier discusses “Hazardous Attitudes.” In it, he describes the macho attitude. He says:

At the extreme end of the spectrum, people with a hazardous macho attitude will feel a need to continually prove that they are better pilots than others and will take foolish chances to demonstrate their superior ability.

Could this pilot’s desire to show off in front of spectators be a symptom of a macho attitude? Could it have affected his judgment? I think it is and it did.

Helicopters can perform a wide range of maneuvers that are simply impossible for other aircraft. As helicopter pilots, we’re often tempted to show off to others. But a responsible pilot knows how to ignore temptation and use good judgment when he flies. That’s the best way to stay safe.