We get the most interesting calls

Commercial pilots, can you take this flight:

Yeah, I need to go to Hoquiam (KHQM) tomorrow. Can you take me, wait around for an hour, and then bring me back? You won’t charge me for waiting around, will you? …Right, anyway, we need to go look at an airplane I’m buying. How much will it be and how long will it take? …Oh, and Bremerton (KPWT) is too far. Can you just come pick me up? I have a huge front yard, or could we meet at Tacoma Narrows (KTIW) and start from there so I don’t have to drive?…

This prospective client is a rated pilot (ASEL, Private). I didn’t end up taking the flight, for many reasons (too expensive, looming CFII check ride, bad feeling about what this guy would end up asking for since he kept adding demands as the call progressed…). But say I really, really wanted to go fly that day. Is there a way you could work the conversation to do a legal flight that would get him to HQM to do his thing?

Aerial Photo (Navigating Adjacent Airspace) Scenario

This post came out of a question I had about navigating contiguous Class D airspace for a photo flight that I was asked to do earlier this week. I’ll add the “answer” to the communications question to the comments. I’d also be interested in the utility of this as a scenario: how useful would it be for pilot training? I try to do something like this for the students I have. Many of them have said outright that they’re “hands-on” learners, and haven’t really been able to understand or apply regulations or other topics just by reading or getting a lecture on them.

I do land appraisal evaluations, and one of your pilots has flown me around to evaluate properties before. It worked really well, so I’m willing to drive the extra distance to KPWT  to fly with you rather than working with somebody closer. Now I have a list of properties that I need to survey and photograph tomorrow. Since I’ll be taking the pictures, I need to have the door off and would like to be able to get as low as possible for pictures of the waterfront side of the properties. The other pilot was able to stop the helicopter so I could get the shots I needed. Here are the lat/long coordinates for the properties: [47.151275,-122.562098], [47.151902,-122.564464], [47.161102,-122.570134], [47.163393,-122.567173], [47.172277,-122.567822]. After you’ve had a look, call me back so I can get on your schedule.

  • As a commercial pilot stationed at KPWT, can you take this flight? If you do, what limitations might you place on the flight based on you experience (<1000 hours TT) and capabilities?
  • You have access to an R22 Beta (875 lb BEW, 103.71 long arm). Your weight is 172 lbs and the passenger is 200 lbs with 3 lbs of camera equipment. The aircraft has an auxillary fuel tank, non-moving map GPS (database expired in 2001), transponder, and single radio. Can you do the flight in this aircraft, and is it the right aircraft for the customer and mission?
  • The relevant TAF for tomorrow is 20006KT P6SM SKC, and the civilian forecast is for clear skies, low of 65 F, high of 85 F, with light southerly winds throughout the day, becoming cloudy overnight with rain showers, low 55 F to 75 F, with westerly winds 5-15 knots throughout the following day.
  • You haven’t flown in this area before. What airspaces will you have to navigate, and what communications, equipment, and regulations apply? What altitudes and airspeeds will you use enroute?
  • What are some of the external pressures that you need to keep in mind as you’re working with this customer? How will you manage them? If he shows up business casual (short sleeve shirt, khakis, and dress shoes), with a small point-and-shoot camera on his hip and a high-end SLR, and a stack of satellite photos of the properties so we can identify them from the air, does this raise any additional concerns or pressures for you?

helicopter aerial photography




In-flight Decision-Making Scenario

Do a quick flight plan for ferry flight that takes you west from Dill0n (KDLN), past Lemhi Co (KSMN), to La Grande (KLGD). You can use the AOPA flight planner or SkyVector.com, or the chart below and an AFD should suffice. Assume you’re in an R22 with full fuel (~3.5 hours), and just ignore the practicalities of making a flight in an R22 over this terrain. With the forecast winds and fuel, you figure you can make this leg of the ferry flight and arrive at KLGD with at least a 30-minute reserve.

The GPS shows you’ve been fighting a strong headwind during this whole flight. About 70 NM from KLGD, you review your plan and notice that your main fuel is below 1/2 full and the auxiliary has about 1/8th tank remaining. You’ve been managing about 75 KIA. What are your options?


TR Pre-flight Scenario

What do you think of this? We just switched out our Mariner for a Beta 50 hours out of its 2200-hr overhaul. First picture was from the pre-flight, second was 0.8 later on the post-flight. Would you take the next student out for his flight? According to Robinson, the only requirement for oil in the tail rotor gearbox is that “oil should be visible in the sight glass.” After looking closer, you find several drops of oil on the bell crank. That change your answer?

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.