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Be careful, son. Fly low and slow.” Allegedly, a mother to her son who was learning to fly fixed-wing aircraft said this. I have always understood that it was predicated on the mistaken assumption by Mom that if things ever started to go wrong, that you could always get out and walk – or at the very least, you wouldn’t fall so far, and hurt yourself.


January 12, 2015
By Fred Jones

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Be careful, son. Fly low and slow.” Allegedly, a mother to her son who was learning to fly fixed-wing aircraft said this. I have always understood that it was predicated on the mistaken assumption by Mom that if things ever started to go wrong, that you could always get out and walk – or at the very least, you wouldn’t fall so far, and hurt yourself.

Anyone who operates airplanes, understands just how wrong Mom was. In an airplane, at low altitude and airspeed, you are most vulnerable to encountering an unrecoverable stall or the dreaded stall-spin scenario that is so common among airplane drivers – but does the low-slow scenario present a risk to helicopter operations?

I recall this debate from my early years in the industry. The argument was either, “If something goes wrong at low altitude, you can get the aircraft on the ground in a hurry – and before it gets worse” or “The higher you are, the more time you have to deal with the problem, and select a suitable emergency landing area.” I didn’t know who to believe.

It is clear that even though as helicopter pilots we need less real estate to land on, the lower we are, the fewer landing areas that we have to choose from. What’s more, fixed-wing operators don’t have the Height-Velocity curve to contend with, so if we are low and slow, we could be even worse off than our seized-wing brethren.

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What has also become clear over the years, is that we are often called upon to fly “in the curve” by the demands of the operation. What we can do is to mitigate that risk but choosing not to operate there unless operational circumstances require it, and to mitigate that risk when it is required by operating in-to-wind or by paying special attention to engine-parameters, or by maximizing access to emergency landing areas, for example.

If you are operating the aircraft cross-country at cruising speeds, is there any reason to be operating at tree-top, or does it make more sense to fly at two or three thousand feet? I can also personally vouch for a higher bird-density at low altitudes. Having said that, many helicopter pilots still get a nose-bleed above 3,000 feet, and climbing to 8,000 feet for a one-hour flight may not make sense, so lets not get too carried-away…

In spite of my efforts to be disciplined, the reliability of modern civilian turbine helicopters can make us all lazy and complacent unless we are constantly vigilant to the potential of a problem. It was drilled into me during my ab initio training that even a whisper of a wind can make the difference in an autorotation scenario or in an emergency landing, for example. We need to constantly be alive to the potential for a problem. It could be a bird-strike or a hydraulic failure or any one of a dozen other problems.

I appreciate that there may be some scenarios where you may want to “get on the ground” as soon as possible, but it would be my own personal assessment in-the-balance, that I would prefer to have more-time-and-altitude than less-time-and-altitude to correctly assess the nature of the emergency – and the appropriate response – rather than leap to any hasty conclusions.

Through Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring (HFDM) programs, some operators are becoming more aware of the manner in which their aircraft are being operated, and setting operational policy with resect to acceptable cruising altitudes, angles of bank, or descent-rates on the approach, for example – particularly in single-pilot operations. This is not generally implemented with a view to punishing a pilot for exceedances of these parameters, or to implement a “big brother is watching” policy, but to ensure that pilots are aware of the unnecessary risks that they may be habitually exposing themselves and their passengers to.

I have often thought how a warning-gong or chime to alert me to an approaching limit made me a more cautious and careful pilot – not just because any exceedance was going to be digitally recorded for the world, but because my professional pride would be wounded. In some ways, I have often thought that HFDM is the next evolution of “First Limit Indicators.” It’s not even a limit the way that operating outside the FOM is a limit – but it is additional risk – and we should be aware of that risk, even if we choose to take it.


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