Thoughts on Pinnacle Landings

I had the chance to fly some last weekend, and took the opportunity to do a few pinnacle landings. The pilot who I was with has just a little more helicopter experience than I do, and quite a bit of fixed wing time. He’s done more of what I’d characterize as “real-world” flying (ie, out of the flight training pattern), and his experience shows. We picked a reconned a pinnacle just south of the airport: a nice ridge with a steep drop-off on the west face, and a smooth slope moving off to the east. The wind was blowing briskly up the face at probably 12-18 knots.

Wind is one of the factors that dictates how you approach a pinnacle. When the wind is light, the airflow is laminar (flows smoothly over the earth, following its contours). As the wind picks up, two zones that are separated by a “demarcation line” form. Above the demarcation line airflow remains laminar and smooth–good for flying in. Below the demarcation line, turbulence and eddies are going to toss the helicopter around. The method you’ll read about in the FAA Rotorcraft Flying Manual uses a steep approach that terminates right at the windward edge of the landing zone (LZ). Flying a steep approach keeps the helicopter above the demarcation line and in the smooth air. The downside of the steep approach is that it gives you fewer options in the case of trouble and, especially if you don’t plan it well, can require larger power changes. Also, as the wind picks up, your approach has to become increasingly steeper to stay above the demarcation line.

The alternative to flying a steep approach is to use a shallow approach. I’ll add a disclaimer right here that you shouldn’t try anything I’m suggesting–find an instructor who knows what he’s doing and have him show you. A shallow approach offers a few benefits that I might elaborate on at some point, but one key advantage is that you fly the approach so you don’t have to fool with trying to stay above turbulent air behind the LZ. In this instance, we could fly the helicopter along the face of the ridgeline, taking advantage of updrafts there while keeping a convenient escape route down the face. So here’s how I [tried to] fly it. Both my high and low recons were elongated ovals, with the high recon passing just over and to the east of the knob that we were going to land on. On the low recon, I descended to just above the LZ, flying the helicopter parallel to the face of the ridgeline. The final approach phase was right along the cusp of the of the pinnacle face. The entire approach is lower, and it’s set up to be a shallow descent that terminates right at the LZ. One key feature of flying this approach is that you start with the wind perpendicular to your flight path. As you slow, you still need to align with the wind to stay in trim, so you are moving along the ridgeline laterally as you approach the LZ. Since you never move behind the LZ, the helicopter never enters the turbulent airflow there.

For the record, I haven’t flown much in the last 6 months, and the Schweizer 269A is still a strange helicopter to me (different sight picture, higher skid height, no governor). The results weren’t as nice as I’d planned it in my mind: mostly, I flew it too low and started the approach too soon, so that I ended up moving over the ground sideways and lower for a lot longer than I’d have liked. In theory though, flying the approach like this has it’s benefits–for example, we were above ETL throughout the approach, right up until the point where we came to a hover.

The other pilot took the helicopter and demonstrated how he would have flown it. Not only did he execute his plan much better than I did mine, but his approach had some advantages that I hadn’t considered. Basically it was a hybrid between the steep and shallow approach techniques. He flew the approach pattern the same as I did, but a bit higher. As he lined up on final, he started a shallow descent as if he was shooting past the LZ. Once he intercepted a steep approach sight picture though, he flew that profile to the LZ. The steep portion was about what you’d do at the termination of a quick stop…or maybe about how you’d fly into a confined. His result was exactly the same, but kept us up at a much more comfortable altitude until the very end of the approach. That extra altitude makes it easier to exercise the option of breaking off the approach and flying down and away from the pinnacle face. One of his (well-justified) complaints with my approach was the risk of catching a skid while moving laterally along the face of the pinnacle–even if I’d flown it at the altitude I wanted to, I was still lower for a longer portion of the approach…my approach looked a lot like what a shallow approach to a runway would look like. Some unlucky combination of a change in wind, the lateral flight path, and an unseen obstruction would have ended my approach very badly.

Off-airport landings are something I think a lot about since confined and pinnacle landings are the mission profile for many helicopter operations. No two are the same, and getting your head wrapped around off-airport landings is tough to do in 200 hrs. Even though I’ve read up on different methods, taken a mountain flying ground course, and spent a good bit of time during my training to try different techniques, I recognize that I still have tons to learn. I’m in no position to be saying what the optimal approach is, but I liked the shallow-to-steep method.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Pinnacle Landings”

  1. Very good article, however I would like to see your suggested altitudes during both approaches.

    1. Hi Sandy,
      Altitudes…man, it was a long time ago. The initial parts of the approaches were much like I’d do any pinnacle. After a high recon for obstructions, I like to do a low recon just a bit higher than the LZ (on the “downwind leg”, maybe 100 ft above it). This provides the best indication of the wind and the surface conditions. On these approaches, we set them up as shallow approaches from about the same altitude as the recon. At the termination of the approach, my profile (which was less than ideal) was about what you’d do for a hover taxi. It’s not what I’d intended, and I’m chalking up flying over rough ground sideways at that altitude to being rusty and in an unfamiliar aircraft. The other pilot’s termination was much more comfortable. From the sight picture that I remember, maybe the steep part of the approach was from <50' AGL. The rationale is to minimize the time that you're in a steep descent profile while at the same time setting up an approach that avoids turbulent areas. Make sense?

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