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Changing It Up

The weather is marginal VFR with temperatures just below the freezing point. The GFA shows extensive cloud with scattered snow showers.


October 22, 2013
By Michael Bellamy

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The weather is marginal VFR with temperatures just below the freezing point. The GFA shows extensive cloud with scattered snow showers. For the helicopter pilot tasked with moving surveyors, seismic crews or any of the myriad jobs that we accomplish daily, it’s welcome back to winter flying in Canada.

After a summer of mostly ideal flying conditions, fall is not only nature’s prophet of what’s to follow but also a warning to pilots to pay more attention to those weather reports and forecasts. After all, we are Canadian and winter flying should be nothing new to us.

Customers are usually on a tight schedule and tend to be a little impatient if they perceive excessive caution. This is a circumstance where the pilot will be called upon not only to make professional decisions but also to assure the client that he or she has their best interests in mind. Rather than offhandedly announcing that the weather is lousy and walking away, a pilot should always provide an explanation as to why the conditions brought them to that conclusion in the first place. This will help placate an impetuous client. We have all heard stories of customers facing an approaching deadline and trying to intimidate a pilot by minimizing the severity of the weather – especially when they themselves are not on board.

Pushing the weather implies the wrong connotation entirely, but flying in conditions where all known criteria are just within limits is often the norm in a charter operation, especially in winter. I emphasize “known” here because decisions made to fly are predicated on those weather reports. What the pilot encounters en route may be another matter entirely and complex decisions will have to be made while flying.

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I once observed a manager who was flatly instructing his pilots to land immediately at the first available clearing if they encountered icing conditions. I followed him by elaborating: “but if you continue,” I suggested, “this is how your machine’s performance will be affected.”

I recognize a scenario where home is 20 miles away, darkness is approaching and the pilot observes a white ridge of rime ice starting to form on the bottom of the windscreen. This may be indicative of widespread icing or perhaps it’s just a pocket and will dissipate, but human nature will compel the pilot to continue, just to see what’s up ahead.

Many pilots have established procedures, as have I, and beating a hasty retreat to an alternative is close to the top. For pilots who have flown safely for many winters, icing is a common foe and having an opportunity to share experiences and lessons over coffee is well worth the time.

“To go, or not to go” – it’s a complicated question. Marginal winter weather conditions are further complicated by a host of variables such as the terrain. Low cloud and visibility will be more of a concern when flying over a featureless Arctic landscape than over forested areas. Throw in few alternates, minimal fuel on board and so on, and soon the pilot will be faced with so many borderline conditions that the decision to “not go” should be a foregone conclusion.

We have all been faced with deteriorating weather and uncertainty when deciding when to pull the crews off the line. Many have made the decision to get the crews home early only to find out later that the weather in actual fact improved. It may be a bit embarrassing for the pilot and cost the client half a day, but the crew you set out that morning have a return ticket. Taking the chance of having to leave them in the bush overnight should not be an option.

How many of us, when driving to the airport, anticipate problems by observing a low indistinct ceiling? Do we recognize that hoar frost adheres to the wires or the trucks radio antennae starts to dance as invisible moisture accumulates ice on the leading edge? For pilots, a morning overindulging in caffeine and weather sequences will probably be in the offing until the decision is made either to scrub the day or, if conditions have improved, to go have a look.

A bush pilot who taught me the ropes many years ago always impressed on me the value of preparedness and having alternatives. Never totally commit to only one course, he would stress, and always leave yourself an avenue in case things go bad. A night in the bush may well be the only safe alternative, but if we don’t prepare for that unlikely event, the experience will be markedly uncomfortable.

As our daylight window shrinks and temperatures drop, flying and maintaining a helicopter demands considerably more effort. Unlike urban commuters, we shouldn’t have to relearn the lessons with the first snowfall.


A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.


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