Sometimes Making the Right Decision Costs You


Last Monday I had my first lesson with a new student seeking his add-on rating. He was determined, ready to launch into it, had a great attitude…and was ready to fill up my otherwise empty schedule. I had 3+ hours sweat equity invested in coming up with a plan to help him reach his goals. Since the weather Monday was terrible, we spent an hour discussing the plan, setting up some homework, and testing his knowledge. Weather for the rest of the week looked spring-time-good, and I was looking forward to getting in a couple of flights with this student before passing him off for a few flights with another instructor while I headed home for family time.


An hour later I was on the phone with the vet: my 15-year old dog was in bad shape. We set up an appointment to put him down on Thursday, if he lasted that long. I’ve had and lost dogs before, this guy was different. Over almost a third of my life, he’d seen me through school, jobs and joblessness, beginnings (and endings) of relationships; he’d been with me on many adventures; moved me in and out of new apartments and homes, and traveled with me all over the country. “Woof” and “Koko” were among my daughter’s first words, and he was the business end of the team when we did Search and Rescue and Therapy Dog work. Other than my family, there’s maybe only 1 or 2 people I’ve even known for 15 years. I knew this time was coming, and it wasn’t going to be easy letting go.


At first I thought I’d stay until Tuesday morning, take the flight with this new student, and then head home. By the end of the day though, I could tell I wasn’t with it. I cancelled the lesson and drove home. It’s a 5-hour drive for me, and I could tell I wasn’t all there. Distracted, unfocused, fixated on what the next few days would be like–caffeine and luck got me home.

Before coming back to work, I noticed the student had taken his name off the calendar, so I called him up to see how he’d been progressing. He didn’t exactly hit it off with the instructor I left him with, and in the interim had looked up a school that was a little closer to his house. So that was that. I’d definitely made the right decision not to do any flying, but it wasn’t without consequence. But I was able to spend a few good moments with my old friend before he faded away, and I’ll get to fly again another time.

First ADM Lesson: 1*

Way back, I took an Emergency Medical Technician course. On the first day they put up the star of life and Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). Right there I though WTF, I’m taking this to save lives and “do no harm” is the industry motto??? But this simple message lays the foundation for many EMS concepts that accomplishes the greater goal. The obvious medical application comes from the days when ambulance drivers would just scoop up patients, throw them in a station wagon, and race off to the hospital (often making spinal injuries worse or getting into an accident along the way). The not so obvious one is that making more patients by rushing into an unsafe scene, or blowing through a red light and wrecking an ambulance, doesn’t serve the patient well. That simple motto comes back again and again throughout EMS training and in practice, and it becomes cemented in your head.

ADM should be the same way, and I’m a proponent of introducing it early in helicopter pilot training. Set the precedent in every prospective pilot’s head that safety is their first consideration. I also recognize the practical limitation to doing this. A private pilot student is overwhelmed with “important information”, and isn’t mentally prepared to accept a  full-blown ADM lesson when they 1) are still just excited about being in a helicopter and 2) might not be in the mindset of undertaking professional training. Instead, what happens is that ADM/safety get pushed off until some undefined later point in time.

Take the SFAR. We all should have gotten the SFAR training before our very first demo ride. At that time, how many of us understood anything about energy management, low-G maneuvers, or mast bumping? I remember standing there in front of the helicopter, the instructor said “We have this training that we have to do for Robinsons.” He then took a deep breath and gave a well-rehearsed summary of the required training. Looking back, I remember it being thorough and accurate; at the time though, only bits of it even registered (wait, what was that about separation of the main rotor??!). But he ended with “Don’t worry about it, I’ll be monitoring all these things to make sure we don’t get into any trouble.” In terms of the principles of primacy and readiness, the lesson here is that the safe operation of the helicopter was not my responsibility. That’s not what was intended, but it’s what was received because the SFAR training isn’t really at a level that is appropriate for somebody who doesn’t know the first thing about flying a helicopter. This is the precedent that the typical demo flight establishes.

In this month’s safety article by J Heffernan in Rotor, he essentially validates this problem.

Even ab initio programs do not produce pilots right out of their cribs; just the fact that you have to wait until their feet can work the pedals really puts a delay in the learning process, and training delays are where bad habits can be learned…Before you can teach, you have to unteach.

One way of taking this statement is that Mr Heffernan is saying, if you want safety to be a core value in your organization, you have to undo the bad habits acquired (in part) during initial training…the fact that you have to wait until their feet can work the pedals… To me, he’s talking about this grace period student pilots get where safety, ADM, situational awareness, and all that is somebody else’s responsibility. Thus, the powerful effect of primacy has to be overcome somewhere down the line. I disagree that it has to be that way, in part because Mr Heffernan provides a solution which could easily be applied to flight training.

This is where 1* comes in. I’m not going to tell you what it means now because I want you to be bothered and a bit annoyed that I didn’t tell you right off what 1* has to do with safety. Then you can read the lesson plan or Mr Heffernan’s article and his personal story (it’s in the Spring 2010 issue, which isn’t online yet).

The simple symbol/mnemonic 1* is appropriate for a brand new student’s level of experience, and like “First, do no harm” it’s something you as an instructor can build on throughout a student’s training. Start off on that demo ride by giving them the required SFAR73 Awareness Training, then make a point of writing “1*” on that endorsement and telling them This is all you need to remember for now. If they ask what it means, tell them it’ll become clear later–you’ve done your part in associating 1* with their first flight, and unconsciously set them up for thinking safety before flying without overwhelming or scaring them. Later, as you progress through the ADM lessons, you just need to associate that mnemonic/symbol with the pre-flight preparations that will enhance their safety consciousness, risk management, and situational awareness. From 1*, you can associate lesson plans on weather (Is 1* worth making a flight with forecast low ceilings at night?). Want to make sure your student is doing a good pre-flight? Get your school to slap a 1* sticker on the door leading out to the hangar.

The payback–hopefully–is that down the road, this little mnemonic will pop up whenever there’s a critical safety decision confronting your student, and it’ll trigger all those other ADM lessons.

Captain Easy and SBT

Sometimes watching the Original Forum on JustHelicopters can pay off. For most of the last 1.5 weeks, “Capt Easy” has been throwing out training scenarios and letting everybody bicker over them. Just sorting out the trash talk though, can be difficult enough, but on top of that, scenario based training (SBT) also requires a little bit of extra effort to arrive at the take-home lesson. In this scenario, Capt Easy was looking for problem solving skills when faced with inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) at night. It looks like a pretty nasty situation to begin with, and not something a low time pilot should be faced with for many years (most of the scenarios have been targeted at HEMS pilots it seems). This scenario does get at one thing that is introduced into every pilot’s early training though, and you’ll see it come up in the discussion. Also, the scenario assumed the aircraft was equipped with at least basic instruments (ie, not your stock R22) or was IFR-capable. Okay, here’s the situation (slightly edited):

It’s winter and there’s snow on the ground. It’s also night time, and there’s an overcast layer that’s not real high, but it’s high enough that you can easily fly below it. The visibility is >5 sm. The METAR and TAF both say you can easily make the 30-minute flight back to your base under VFR.

You depart with full fuel for home. About halfway through the flight, you find yourself flying through a snow shower with good (but still reduced) visibility. Suddenly everything goes black–no lights in front of you our below you on the ground. You just went IIMC. What’s your plan?

The first step, which will be a post for another day, is figuring out what just happened. Sitting here reading words on a screen, it’s not so difficult, but imagine it happening real-time. There’s actually a mental process that you go through when the unexpected happens, and getting through that is the first step to making the proper response. But that’s not at issue here. What matters is that you are  now in IMC.

The “discussion” broke into 2 camps: do a 180 degree turn back to VMC, or climb and contact ATC.

The 180-degree turn back to VMC

The rationale here is that you know what the weather is behind you, so why not just go right back to it? I can’t say where I heard this first, but I’ve heard it many times: the lifesaving 180 degree turn. Detractors to this response have a good point though: many good pilots–even instrument-rated pilots–kill themselves trying to make that 180 degree turn out of an IIMC encounter. And it is true that turning puts you at risk for spatial disorientation and all those sensory illusions that you read about in the PHAK. Conclusion:never make a 180 degree turn, especially at night.

Climb, contact ATC, get vectors to VFR or an ILS

Okay, turning is dangerous, so climb out. Can’t hit the ground if you’re high enough above it, right? Additionally, you can then contact ATC and get their help. This is advice has also been doled out, especially with respect to lost procedures, and you might remember it as the 3 or 4 C’s (Climb, Confess, Communicate, Comply, Conserve, etc, etc). The other side of the argument goes that climbing will guarantee that you remain in IMC, increases your workload (especially if you aren’t proficient), and might stick you in icing conditions. Conclusion: climbing is for morons.

Other options then?

There is actually a “right” answer in there. Both sides make good points for and against their approaches to the problem. So how do you approach this scenario? It starts during your pre-flight planning, and from there adapts to your circumstance.

  • Plan an en route altitude for obstacle clearance. In my training, we usually flew as low as possible (500-800 AGL). Lots of reasons for that, but in this case it’s night with surrounding weather. You want to be high enough that if you suddenly can’t see obstacles around you, you know that you can safely make turns or continue straight ahead without hitting them. The easy way to do this is to fly above the Maximum Elevation Figure (MEF) on your route. Not always practical, especially if you fly adjacent to high terrain. What I’ve done for my night VFR flights is planned them as if they were IFR, climbing to some altitude above the highest obstacle within 4 NM of my flight path. Once you have your instrument rating, your ways of thinking about how to establish an en route altitude open up: MEAs, OROCAs, the 4 NM rule, MSAs….
  • In flight, set a hard deck that will maintain obstacle clearance. At the RHC Safety Course, somebody recommended turning around or landing if you have to descend twice because of weather. I think this advice is mostly a way of imposing a limit on how many times you’ll descend to stay clear of the ceiling, and not necessarily something you should follow. But if you do, plan your en route altitude to take this into account. If you’ve made a descent and are now below your highest obstacle, your options have changed.
  • In an IIMC encounter, you don’t have to react fast. IIMC might be an emergency, but your response shouldn’t make a bad situation worse. To me, this one bit of advice settled the whole argument. Fly the aircraft. Get level and in trim. Relax. Commit to flying by the instruments. Once you’re in a stable situation, decide what you’re going to do. Turning when you haven’t fully transitioned to instruments does put you at risk for spatial disorientation, and climbing might not be necessary. This article from AOPA summarizes the rationale nicely.
  • Once you are flying straight and level by instruments, decide whether a climb or turn is indicated. Climb if you’re below your highest obstacle. If not, consider a turn if you still think there’s VMC behind you. Or contact ATC and utilize that resource. Either way, with the aircraft under control and your mental state adapted to the situation, you have time to think.
  • Stay on your instruments. Transitioning back to VFR from IFR can be a challenge, and for most of us, the closest we’ve come is flipping the hood out of the way. Getting partial spatial information from your peripheral vision or as you’re coming in and out of IMC is another risky area.


This could start as a lesson in determining en route altitudes for a night flight. Set your student up to do a night flight, and ask him what altitude is appropriate (although for a lesson in an R22, the decision would probably be to not make the flight, so you have to tweak that). Once he’s IIMC, you can discuss the decision-making processes that his flight planning left him with. The last part is discussing alternative options that he might not have considered. In this case, Capt Easy set up his flight so he was high enough that obstacle clearance wasn’t a concern. He transitioned to instruments, and made a 180-degree turn back to VMC. If he’d been in an R44, not instrument-proficient, and had descended to below his highest obstacle, his decision-making process would have been different.

The key lessons here are:

  • Your en route altitude should take into consideration the conditions you expect to encounter during the flight;
  • Changes to your altitude en route will also affect the options available to you if you encounter IIMC;
  • If you are IIMC, aviate first: control the aircraft and commit to flying by instruments;
  • Once the aircraft is under control, you have time to determine the best course of action.

Only 1 Kind of Hypoxia I Care About…

One thing all teachers have to face at one point or another is a student asking “Who cares? Why do we have to know that?” I was recently faced with that question while working with a helicopter pilot who’s sitting for his commercial ride. First some background on this pilot: he’s good. His level of confidence and skill going into his commercial ride well exceeds mine at any time during my training. He has a few things in his favor: he owns and maintains the helicopter, flies it weekly, and has over 300 hrs in it. He’s also been flying airplanes for many years, and knows more about aviation than I may ever know. Most of his flying has also been outside of flight schools. It’s awkward for somebody with as little aviation experience as myself to be “teaching” somebody at this skill level, and if anybody’s learning, it’s me.

His weak point is his book knowledge, and most of my time has been spend going over the PTS knowledge topics with him. After our last meeting, I gave him a list of topics that we needed to cover before I could feel good about signing him off, and I thought I’d heard him say he’d been studying. So I thought I’d put him to the test, hoping I could sign him off for the practical. I started with a topic we’ve all learned at the rote level: “What are the 4 types of hypoxia?”

“There are 4 types? Only one type I care about…the type where you ain’t getting enough oxygen!”

In the ensuing uncomfortable minutes, I fell into a trap that so many other teachers have. Since I couldn’t tell him outright why he should care that there are more than one type, the motivation I provided is that this is something you just have to know for the test. If he’d said “This is stupid!” or “This crap is just relevant for plank drivers” I’d have probably agreed with him as well. And what message would this have sent?

I’m going to try and atone for that now, and I’m going to try and do it with a couple of scenarios that hit the highlights. If you don’t remember, here’s the lesson plan for hypoxia. As part of a lesson on “The 4 Types of Hypoxia” these would be pretty obvious, but as part of a general lesson that included ADM scenarios, you might be able to get a student thinking beyond the rote level.

You’ve been contacted by a rancher who needs to clear some feral goats off his property. He lives in Lakeview (KLKV), and his ranch is to the east (N42 4′ 30″ W120 8′ 20″); you’ll be working mostly to the south and west in some foothills. He’s retired military and a former cop, so he wants to do the shooting. Assume you’re qualified to do the flight and you have access to a helicopter that can perform this mission safely. The rancher offers to put you up Friday night so you can get an early start Saturday morning.hypoxia lesson plan

You arrive the afternoon before the flight and discuss the flight with the rancher over dinner. It sounds like he’s familiar working around helicopters and doing aerial predator control. After dinner he pours you a scotch and, when you decline it, says something about not letting good whiskey go to waste as he drinks it quickly. He has a few more drinks and puffs on a cigar as you chat into the evening. By the time you head off to bed, he’s slurring his speech slightly.

The next morning he’s up and puffing another cigar while you have breakfast. As you review the plan for the day, you notice the bottle of scotch and figure that he probably had 1 or 2 more drinks after you went to bed. He doesn’t seem to be hung over this morning. As he shoulders his rifle, he asks “We ready?” Can you legally and safely do this flight?

Three things come together in this case: the elevations where you’ll be working are generally above 6,000 MSL. Although this is lower than where most people would be be feeling the effects of hypoxia, at those altitudes there is less oxygen available to breathe (hypoxic hypoxia). On top of that, smoking definitely affects a person’s ability to utilize oxygen (hypemic hypoxia), and so can alcohol (histotoxic). Although this rancher might not be visibly impaired, could residual alcohol in his system further sensitize him to the affects of altitude? In this type of operation–where judgment, reaction time, and a good aim are necessary–is this client prepared to conduct this flight safely and efficiently?

You have a commercial student who’s check ride is scheduled for next week. He’s ready for it, but bad weather has kept him from getting his night solo flights done. It looks like the weather tonight, and maybe tomorrow night, will be above the school’s minimums for night solo flights. As you’re reviewing the student’s pre-flight planning and he’s briefing you on his plan for the flight, you notice he has a bruise and needle mark on his left arm. You make a joke about him getting his heroin habit under control, and he tells you there was a blood drive yesterday at work. The weather turns out to be better than expected, and the student appears to be well-prepared for the flight. Any concerns about sending this student out to wrap up his required night solo flight hours?

The issue here is that night vision can be affected at altitudes as low as 5,000 MSL, and supplemental oxygen has been recommended for night flights at or above 6,000 MSL (although this is not in the current PHAK). In this student’s case, a blood donation can cause a hypemic hypoxia condition that lasts for several weeks. If he’s flying out of a high altitude airport, his night vision could very well be affected by the combination of altitude and anemia.

I think these 2 scenarios are both reasonable and realistic, and can be used to teach students the effects and types of hypoxia closer to the application-correlation level. Are they putting unreasonable expectations on the pilot? Like the SCUBA lesson, these topics are here so that you can evaluate your own fitness for flight, and possibly recognize conditions in your clients and passengers that could affect their comfort or health.

Two New Lessons

What I wanted to get across with these 2 lessons isn’t the content of them, but where they fit in a helicopter flight training syllabus. The first lesson is Helicopter Main Rotor Systems (MRS), and the second is Helicopter Crew Resource Management (CRM). Neither of them are lessons that would get a student excited, and if I told you CRM was all part of Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM), that would probably further dampen your enthusiasm. Main Rotor Systems is the very first thing in the FAA’s Rotorcraft Flight Manual, right there on page 1-1. It comes before helicopter flight controls (page 1-3), helicopter aerodynamics (Ch 2), weight and balance (Ch 7), and even basic helicopter flight maneuvers (Ch 9). CRM is one very long paragraph in Chapter 14, and it starts off with something about the airlines. Seven pages later, you’re reading about some crazy thing called an autogyro.

Just judging from where these 2 topics are in the RFM, which one do you think is more important? Which one are you going to use earlier in your training, and throughout your training? Which one is going to make a bigger impression on you–the one you see when you’re fresh and excited about becoming a helicopter pilot, or the one that you have to get done before your check ride next week?

That’s my point. ADM and CRM are things that should be with you starting with the first few hours you log. These 2 topics, though, are shoved to the back of the RFM (and things like Aeromedical Factors didn’t even make it into the RFM). Of course, you don’t have to learn things in this order, but if you don’t know any better, you’re going to read the RFM from front to back like any other book, right? What about your school? Well, the easy thing for a school to do is to just follow the FAA’s lead, and here’s the result:

helicopter syllabus CRM vs MRS

MRS is the very first lesson, and, along with anti-torque and flight controls, gets a generous 2 hours. ADM is the second to last lesson, and gets 1.5 hrs. Again, what does this tell you?

Operationally, I’ve seen plenty of students and instructors roll their eyes and use diminutive descriptors (“such bullshit“) when referring to ADM-type topics. I’ll also admit that I was one of them. Part of my 1.5 hr ADM lesson was spent joking with my instructor to the point of shortening the DECIDE model to the DIE model (Detect, Identify, Evaluate). The chief pilot and in-house DPE wasn’t amused, but Exhibit A: primacy and Exhibit B: he didn’t do much to impress the value of ADM on me afterward.

That actually came $400 later at the HAI Flying in the Wire and Obstruction Environment course. I signed up for that class not knowing really what would be covered, so I was a bit surprised that about 1/3 of that class was ADM/CRM. The instructor’s approach to CRM wasn’t a historical account of what the airlines did, or a series of acronyms that had no operational significance, or what some desk jockey needed to do to implement a CRM system to please upper management. A lot of it was just talking about how we screw up and miscommunicate, and some simple bullet points to tell you how to get out of that rut. By starting the class with CRM, he made the point that “Hey, CRM is critical to surviving the wire environment!It’s more important than learning where to look for wires, what kind of wires are out there, what weather conditions are more conducive to wire strikes. All the interesting stuff, in summary, is secondary to good operational procedures and crew communication. Is flight training so benign that CRM/ADM is effectively just an appendix to your primary training? (For that matter, if you’re doing off-airport landings, you are in the wire environment.)

I’d been meaning to write up a few lessons on CRM/ADM, and something from the Wire Environment course, but it was a post on VerticalReference that inspired me to actually do it. Somebody asked what everybody’s favorite YouTube helicopter videos were, and mine is, hands down, the Oh Ye of Little Faith Apache video (which you can see as part of the CRM lesson plan). That’s a pretty classic example of a CRM fail, but it doesn’t have to be so overt: consider the Bonanza video where they almost whack a mountain in IIMC.


That’s exactly the kind of scenario that will bite you in the ass. Everybody in that airplane was clinching sphincters long before they kissed that hill, but either nobody said anything or somebody didn’t listen. CRM fail.

So in the ground lessons section, I’ve placed the MRS and CRM lessons where I think they ought to be relative to each other: CRM up front, and MRS stuck somewhere in the back. I bet you can make it through your PPL without being able to list the 3 kinds of rotor systems. And I think you could tuck them into the Aerodynamics lesson somewhere in the middle of your training just fine. Weight and Balance, Weather, Performance: all more important, and things you should be doing before every flight by the time you’re hovering. I think I know why MRS is on page 1-1: it’s a starting place for establishing a common language between instructors and students so they can go on to learn the more complicated stuff. And, from a marketing standpoint, it’s better to start off saying “Today you’ll fly a helicopter with a semi-rigid rotor system, but one day you could be flying a BO-105 doing loops in with it’s rigid rotor!” than starting off by saying “You very well could die flying helicopters.” Ironically, by handling ADM/CRM the way it is handled, the chances of that are probably higher.

The R22 Power Check: It Sure Sounds Like a Great Idea

Every year since I’ve been watching the Vertical Reference forums, there has been an “R22 Power Check” thread that pops up. When I saw it come up last month, I thought it’d make a great lesson plan. The thread always gets lots of views, users will put a lot of work into writing their responses, and on the surface, it’s a pretty important topic, right? Now that I’ve spent a couple of hours going over 10+ pages of posts from Vertical Reference, I’m not so sure.

The idea, as I understand it, is that you want a way of checking whether you will have enough power to make an off-airport landing. I’m going to mull over the threads on this for a while longer, but lemme put out this scenario that I got on a check ride:

Bubba & Sons Company has a station on a 6200-ft mountaintop that needs to be serviced, and they’re on the phone wanting to know if you can take Bubba Jr up there in an R22 to do the work. At the airport (2450 MSL), it’s typical weather for the desert in the summer: calm winds, 30 C and rising, and CAVU. You’ve flown with Bubba Jr, and he’s at 210 lbs, plus 20 lbs of gear. The nearest fuel is a 50-minute flight from the station, and the weight and balance shows you need to be at MGW to have the fuel to legally complete the flight. Do you take the flight?

There aren’t any tricks to this question. I looked at the HOGE, fuel requirements, and weather, and declined the flight. The HOGE suggests that the flight can be done, but that’s making several assumptions about the flight–that the temperature won’t be any warmer than 30 C when I get there and that my fuel burn will be at least 10 gph–and quite possibly my abilities. At 200 hours of experience, I told the examiner I wouldn’t do it since it was too close to the limits of the aircraft’s performance, but that’d I’d be happy to send him on it or to take a Raven II. He nodded and said that the customer would accept the R44, then went on to grill me on aerodynamics.

Right here, right now, I don’t see anything to support the need for this type of power check if you have reviewed your performance limitations before the flight. Realistically, you know what elevations you’ll be working in, and from that you should know what your HOGE limits will be. The approach I’ve taken during training is to determine the limit for performance, and then apply a buffer to cover things you cannot anticipate (like humidity, winds calm, a confined area, or higher-than-expected temperatures at the landing site). Reasonable estimates for all of these can be made comfortably while at your desk, and you can reevaluate winds, fuel, and temperature onsite. As long as those are below your limits, you can make the landing. (Since I’ve flown mostly at elevations that top out around 5500 ft, I’ve always had at least a 1000-ft margin to work with. I’m not sure whether this is too conservative to be practical though.)

So, to apply this method to the case above without going on for too much longer, I can assume winds are going to be calm on the mountain and that it’ll still be warm when I get there–maybe 28 C. I can also estimate my fuel burn at 8 gph and determine what my weight will be when I arrive. I can’t do anything about my passenger’s weight, my fuel load (my limitation on reserve fuel is higher than the required 20 minutes), or the landing zone to tilt the odds in my favor. Knowing this, I can look at the charts and tell I’m not going to be comfortable with this scenario. But, I can do the flight first thing tomorrow a.m. when it’s 15 C cooler. By the charts, I get a HOGE that’s 750 feet higher than what I need. Or, if I get to the landing zone with anything less that 1340 lbs, I’ll have additional power to draw on. The odds are now stacked in my favor. If I get there and there’s a 10 knot wind or the temperature is 12 C…Bonus!

The other way of looking at it…and this is something that I’ve used on just about every flight…is to set a limit and stick to it. We’re going to go work on pinnacle landings today? Okay, temperature, weight after 30-minute fuel burn…we can sustain a HOGE below 6500 MSL. Don’t ask me to go into 7000-ft terrain to practice pinnacles. In fact, maybe I don’t want to be practicing pinnacles above 6250 MSL. I’m also going to control for lower-than-expected performance from the aircraft by checking my hover power before departure. Is it higher than what I would expect from this aircraft on this day? And as I’m approaching the landing zone, does the OAT gauge show a temperature near or below what I used to calculate my performance back at base? Where is my MAP throughout the approach? Am I nearing my MAP limit as I’m getting close to losing ETL? I should be clear that I’m not suggesting that a chart in a book is the be-all and end-all to figuring out if you have the performance to land. But that that chart, developed by a pilot more capable than most of us and under controlled circumstances, is one part of the ADM equation (dammit, there’s another post to do…).

Back to the threads. Forget for a second that I didn’t see a consensus method described for conducting the power check, and that there is no procedure for a power check given in the R22/R44 POH or Maneuver Guide, or any FAA publication. But in the threads, numbers get thrown around, such as, “If you have a power reserve of X inches in cruise/in the downwind/at minimum power speed/etc, you can make a vertical landing” or “If you have less than Y inches of power, you can only make a run-on landing.” These numbers come from a variety of sources, some possibly more credible than others, but again, they aren’t coming from RHC or the FAA. On top of that, when they start getting into differentiating between a normal landing, a run-on landing, and a no-hover landing, those would be indications that we’re operating very close to the edge of the envelope. At that point, the question isn’t “Can I do this?” but instead “Should I do this?” Or maybe it’s “I bet I can do this!” that necessitates the power check?

If I’m wrong, I hope somebody with more real-world and teaching experience will set me straight here. But isn’t this analogous to dealing with weather limitations? We know what we can legally fly in, but we should also know what we are trained to fly in, and we should set a further buffer so that if conditions get worse, we have an out. But the whole power check concept seems to be just like the “Let’s go take a look” mentality toward weather. Instead of knowing that the procedure is well within the limitations of our aircraft and our training, it’s like saying “Maybe we shouldn’t do this, but maybe we can.”

Two last things I’ll throw out here. First, there’s the “HOGE power check”, which is something along the lines of getting near your LZ, slowing into a HOGE, and figuring out if you can maintain it. I guess, if you really want to be sure and the LZ you are moving into doesn’t offer any good escape routes for a go-around, maybe this is fine. It does entail some risk, and you may not get a good answer from it if you do the power check under the safest conditions (eg, 1000′ AGL, where it will be cooler and windier). The second is a mountain flying technique that I’ll cover another time, where you make several very slow passes at the same elevation as your LZ. This is for dealing with poor escape routes, downdrafts, weather conditions you couldn’t anticipate prior to departure, and nasty landing zones; it’s also part of a 3-5 pass low reconnaissance. I’ve read about these techniques, but wasn’t taught them. They do seem applicable to real-world applications scenarios that entail a higher degree of risk than you would encounter as a low-time pilot. My thought is that they entail more risk than is appropriate for flight training, but I don’ t know.

Right now this is all just armchair musings–I would like to figure it out though. It’s either a training deficiency–all 3 of the VR threads were initiated by CFIs–or maybe it shouldn’t be part of what students are being taught. As mentioned in several of the posts on VR, most instructors and students can recite the procedure, but they can’t explain the rationale behind it or cite a source for it (other than their instructor). Think about that.

Go or No-go? Advice from JH HEMS pilots

Since the South Carolina HEMS crash, there’s been a pretty good thread on JH started by asking HEMS pilots how many times they’ve picked up to “take a look.” One pilot points out that minimums are when you stop flying, not when you think about going. The first part of this is developing minimums and sticking to them. There are 2 personal minimums worksheets distributed by the FAA and ASF. Unfortunately, they’re designed for plank drivers, waste a lot of space on developing IFR minimums, and don’t offer much guidance on how one should actually go about deciding what his minimums should be. This would be helpful advice. I’ve never flown at night in anything less than CAVU (clear and visibility unlimited), so what should I set my night minimums to? Not having guidance on how to go from conditions you know you can fly in to conditions you haven’t flown in before is how I think most new pilots get into the look-and-see trap.

Another pilot suggests that if it takes more than 5 minutes to make a go/no-go decision, then the decision is not to go. There have been several times that I’ve agonized over whether or not to do a flight, when the answer should have been simple. On my commercial dual cross-country, there was an Airmet Tango overlying my destination. This was a small mountain airport that I’d never been to before (and the instructor, somebody I had never flown with before, had only been there a few times). Should have been an easy decision, but what made it difficult to call was 1) an airport in the same valley was reporting calm winds and seemingly great conditions and 2) another student who was making the same flight as her solo commercial cross-country, was headed out to pre-flight. The second factor was the pressure of the 12-month interview, knowing that the owner wouldn’t be too keen on seeing the helicopter I reserved sitting in the hangar when another student had made the flight just fine. (Ultimately the CP stopped that student from making the flight, but that one’s an instructor now.) The first factor I laugh at now–the reason for the Tango was the turbulent shear zone somewhere that I’d have been flying in to get to those calm surface winds. It should have taken me 0.05 seconds to make that decision.

Students and instructors also need to look at all their flights through cockpit resource management lenses. This is difficult since we establish a cordial relationship with our instructor on the demo flight–the student’s excited and the instructor wants to recruit the student. How’s that going to go if the instructors words are “Clear to taxi, sterile cockpit until we exit the pattern.” Just another one of those conflicts between the sale of flight instruction and the delivery of safe instruction. One thing you can introduce at any time during your training (or instructing relationship) is the concept that the entire crew of the aircraft is part of the decision-making process, whether it’s your 2-pilot R22 or you have a pilot and 2 flight nurses on a EC145. You, as a student, have the obligation to speak up if you are not comfortable with any part of a lesson. You, as the instructor, have the obligation to listen to your crew. In situations where a crew member voiced a concern about the flight, often times others had also had the same concern and were relieved to get it out into the open. If the conditions are bad enough, the pilot may be too focused on keeping the aircraft up to divert his attention to another course of action. Also, as the pilot, realize that while your crew might say “Gee, weather ahead looks like it’s only getting worse” they’re thinking “I was pretty fucking scared 10 minutes ago.”

The last really useful bit of advice off that thread was to use ATC. Safe to say that helicopter pilots talk less to ATC–we don’t fly as far, as high, or on IFR plans as often. One of the drills for plank drivers is, when you are in trouble, Aviate-Navigate-Communicate and the 3 (or 4 or 5) C’s: Confess (you screwed up), Climb, Control the aircraft, and Call ATC. I remember a discussion with my instructor where we questioned this…is climbing going to do us any good? Maybe. Sometimes. At least there are fewer things to hit higher up. One of the JH posters related a story about how he once went IIMC (inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions). He successfully transitioned to instruments, climbed, got directions from ATC, and made it back to the airport safely…only to have his CP threaten to fire him if he ever did that again. That’s the same mentality that had me considering a flight into an Airmet Tango, and it’s unnecessary incentive for anybody who doesn’t want to be crash residue.

Here are links to the personal minimums checklists: PAVE checklist and FAA Personal Minimums.