Did you decide to Land & LIVE? Then you did the right thing—no matter what the media says.

As you read this column, I’d wager that thousands of moviegoers are enjoying a ridiculously unrealistic helicopter scene in a modern action film. Hollywood is constantly treating viewers to helicopters doing impossible stunts that sometimes end in spectacular crashes.

While industry insiders may laugh at these routinely outrageous representations, much of the viewing public soaks it up and believes the unbelievable. And who can blame them—our helicopters are impossibly dynamic aircraft capable of doing amazing feats that no other machine can accomplish. And don’t you enjoy an exciting action movie that showcases our industry, even with—maybe especially with—the occasional blooper?

Given these larger-than-life portrayals, the public and media are understandably naïve about helicopter safety, technology, and performance realities. They often overlook important aviation news, such as advancements in safety, technology, and human performance, in favor of violent, shocking, or tragic events—because the latter bring in clicks or views. These flawed perceptions can lead to negative coverage of routine vertical aviation activities, such as precautionary landings.

Emergency versus Precautionary Landings

Most laypeople don’t understand the difference between precautionary and emergency landings. These generic terms don’t explain the flight conditions that may prompt a pilot to land at an unplanned destination such as an open field, beach, or road.
When experiencing an in-flight anomaly, pilots must use their judgment and training to promptly assess the situation and comply with relevant manuals, policies, and regulations that dictate appropriate actions. Chief among these directives is the rotorcraft flight manual, which includes an emergency procedures section describing potential abnormal conditions and any landing criteria that may apply. The criteria often vary, based on the aircraft type, operator policies, and other factors.

Emergency landings. When witnesses or other persons not affiliated with helicopter operations unilaterally declare the pilot performed an “emergency landing,” they seldom understand the terminology that they are using. An emergency situation is one in which the safety of the aircraft or of persons on board or on the ground is endangered for any reason.

Helicopter emergency landings are uncommon. In rare instances, they might involve a loss of power, smoke, fire, or critical system malfunction. In-flight conditions requiring a pilot to land right away are usually emergencies that demand immediate action while in the air and once safely on the ground.

Precautionary landings. A precautionary landing is a premeditated landing, on or off an airport, when further flight is possible but inadvisable. Most unplanned, precautionary helicopter landings are made from an abundance of caution. It’s our industry’s equivalent of pulling onto the shoulder when the car’s check-engine light comes on. News reports often mistakenly—or intentionally, for effect—report these events as emergency landings.

Helicopter pilots’ superpower enables them to land their aircraft almost anywhere—and save lives in the process. Learn more about this special ability, and download this poster, in the November 2023 Spotlight on Safety feature. (Colten Gonzalez-Hill Design)

Depending on the severity of in-flight conditions, a pilot might land as soon as possible (more severe) or as soon as practical/practicable (less severe). Pilots may have the flexibility to return to their original takeoff location or divert to the closest suitable location. When flying over urban areas, mountains, forests, or water, pilots will continue the flight to a safer landing area unless conditions further deteriorate, requiring an immediate landing or ditching.

When the VAI communications team receives a news report that breathlessly reports a “helicopter emergency landing” that is clearly a precautionary landing, they do reach out to educate that media outlet about the difference between the two. But we continue to see that mistake, and sometimes I hear from pilots or operators who are frustrated about receiving ­negative attention for doing the right thing.

Keep Doing the Right Thing

The key point for those in our industry to understand is that when a pilot responds to any abnormal in-flight situation and performs an unscheduled landing, it doesn’t matter what anybody else calls it. As spelled out in 14 CFR 91.3, “the pilot-in-command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”

Annex V, 7.2, of Regulation (EU) 2018/1139 of the European Parliament and of the Council echoes this theme, stating, “The pilot in command must have the authority to give all commands and take any appropriate actions for the purpose of securing the operation and the safety of the aircraft and of persons and/or property carried therein.”

No matter what the local TV station or newspaper has to say about your “emergency,” the world’s civil aviation authorities, including the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the FAA, direct you, as pilot in command, to assume the final authority as to the operation of your aircraft.

When HAI launched its Land & LIVE initiative in 2014, some wondered if pilots choose to continue on in deteriorating flight conditions because they fear FAA disciplinary action if they made a precautionary landing. If you’ve heard that aviation tall tale, I can tell you that it is false. The FAA, and to a large extent other international regulatory agencies, support pilots who make sound aeronautical decisions—in fact, the regulators want every pilot to do so!

In the meantime, the exaggerations and mischaracterizations of precautionary landings by the media will continue. We may not possess the power to divert the media from weaponizing a normal day in the office for a vertical aviation professional. But we can—we must—continue to do what we know is right.

Pilots, dispatchers, owners, and operators: Never allow the media or others to distract you from your professional duties. Keep acting in the best interest of your aircraft, crew members, passengers, and the public.

And when it’s time to land—use your superpower and, as Matt Zuccaro, our former president and CEO, said, “Land the damn helicopter!” Begin every flight with a commitment to your duty to bring that flight to a safe conclusion.

If you are not familiar with VAI’s Land & LIVE safety initiative, I invite you to check it out and take the Land & LIVE pledge for pilots. Operators can also pledge to support their pilots when they decide to make the safety of flight their top priority.

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Chris Hill

Chris Hill

After an aviation career in the US Army and Coast Guard, Chris Hill oversaw aviation safety management systems throughout the USCG as aviation safety manager. He holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours, primarily in military and commercial helicopters. Chris joined HAI in 2018 as director of safety.