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The Ugly Truth about Low-Visibility Operations

I'm on the phone talking to the operations manager of a helicopter operator.

July 18, 2007
By Dennis Venturi


'm on the phone talking to the operations manager of a helicopter
operator. The voice at the other end says, "the helicopter hit the
ground on its side at about 30 knots. It looks as though the pilot was
trying to turn 180 degrees back to VMC and follow the power line out."
He continues, "it looks to me like he lost it in the turn, and went in
sideways." The phone line gets quiet for a second and then the voice
says: "The pilot died at the scene." I say a quiet prayer hoping that
this poor soul was at least unconscious and free of pain in his final
moments. Then the manager drops a bomb. "It occurs to me," he says,
"that the way the industry teaches low-vis ops is going to end up
killing people."

The Real World, and Assumptions that Kill
curious about this comment, and I listen attentively while he argues
his case. According to the manager, as a result of accidents in near
zero-zero conditions, the need for low-visibility training evolved. The
assumptions of low-vis training are as follows: The pilot has been
taught how to make good decisions by attending a decision-making
course, the aircraft is equipped with instruments that the pilot
actually knows how to use, and that by practising a 180-degree
low-level instrument turn once a year, the pilot will be ready to
handle near zero-zero conditions. After 25 years in the game, I know
that I have a better chance of getting a date with Britney Spears than
surviving a 180-degree low-level turn in near zero-zero conditions
using the dials alone; and I fly IFR for a living. The manager thinks
that by teaching only the 180-degree IMC turn, pilots are being misled
about surviving a near zero-zero encounter. Furthermore, he wants to do
something about it. He wants to start by changing his company
operations manual to reflect the real world.

The operations manager and I agree on one thing. Surviving a near
zero-zero encounter requires that reference is maintained at all cost.
If need be, the helicopter must be slowed to the point of a stationary
hover in order to keep reference. I recently heard a story about a
pilot flying a heavily loaded R44.As the weather closed in around him,
he went running for a confined area so he could land. He was unable to
find one; the weather went below one-half mile and ultimately to near
zero-zero. The pilot knew that the R44 would not hover out of ground
effect. So he found the smallest trees he could, and slowed the
aircraft to the only safe speed he could. Naturally, as the aircraft
lost its forward speed, it slowly sank from a high hover and crashed.
His company's internal investigation found that he did not deliberately
push the weather, but did the best that could be done under the



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