It’s not enough to tell pilots to avoid IIMC; let’s tell them HOW.
After the highly publicized Calabasas accident in January 2020, the HAI Training Working Group focused its attention on what could be done to reduce or eliminate accidents due to inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC).
The working group quickly discovered that no single change would eliminate these accidents. But they agreed that training should be part of the solution. When pilots know the danger posed by flying into the clouds—and yet they still continue to do so—then awareness isn’t the issue. They need better training in how to avoid making that often-fatal mistake.
Training Working Group members first decided to perform a comprehensive review of how IIMC avoidance is taught. They then developed materials that would fill in some knowledge gaps for pilots. The result: a series of white papers (see the section at the end of the article) that lays the groundwork for new curriculum worldwide that will address the shortcomings in today’s IIMC avoidance training.
ROTOR spoke with two members of the HAI Training Working Group about the project: Mike Becker, executive director of Becker Helicopter Services, and Scott Boughton, owner of Palisade Aviation.
How did this IIMC initiative get started?
Becker: When the HAI Training Working Group started looking at what got people into IIMC, we noticed people tend to focus on one little piece of the puzzle: the pilot needed more instrument currency or needed an instrument rating. The politicians were saying you must have terrain-avoidance technology. We decided to look at it holistically, because there’s not any one thing that causes the problem, that leads pilots to think they have the ability to push a limit that far.
We started by looking at what pilots are trained to do now. We looked at what the visual meteorological conditions (VMC) rule sets were—not just in the FAA but at the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority. We also looked at how each country folded the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] recommendations into their rule set. It was quite interesting to discover there were differences.
We decided, first off, that HAI should recommend what a standard visual flight rules (VFR) set and what minimum VMC should look like in each airspace.
We came up with a 13-page document called HAI VFR Best Practices. It’s not law. It’s not a rule. It’s a recommendation that encompasses those best practices for flying in VMC that we plucked from various countries. If you abide by these recommended best practices and apply the rules correctly, you should not get yourself into an IIMC event.
Now, this document required us to write some prescriptive minimums—we give a distance, a height, and a visibility. Looking at it holistically, we then looked at how a pilot interprets a prescriptive minimum. What does that look like in real life in flight? When the helicopter is flying 100 miles an hour at 500 ft. above the ground in deteriorating weather, how do you know you are 1 mile from the cloud when it’s constantly changing?
So that led to our second document, HAI Estimating Distance. This paper offers hints, tips, and all the little tricks that experienced pilots have learned over the years on how to accurately measure a distance. Pilots can use this resource to enhance their ability to stay in VMC.
Those two documents then led to the quite-detailed last document: HAI Decision-Making and IIMC. Here, we go through the whole process of planning your flight and making the right decisions during the flight so you can avoid IIMC—because everything really is about avoidance and not getting anywhere near an IIMC event. I can’t stress that enough: IIMC recovery skills must be taught, but I’d be quite happy if pilots made such good decisions that they never had to use them.
However, we do recognize that there are going to be some operations where the risk of flying inadvertently into the clouds is higher. So we also address in the paper the whole process of how you effect the recovery from IIMC back to VMC.
Are these resources aimed at a particular audience?
Becker: I hope people understand this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. IIMC is a really complex issue, and it doesn’t have any one answer. We all fly different types of helicopters and different types of operations, in different operational contexts and in different environments.
But what we can do consistently across the board is conduct the basic training in how we plan and prepare, how we make decisions during a flight, and how we recover from an IIMC event. In these documents, I hope people find some real meat and potatoes, if you like, on how to do all those things within their operational context.
Boughton: I also would like to point out that in these documents, there’s something for everyone. When I first looked at the drafts, I realized I’d never really thought about some of these things the way they’re outlined in the papers, and I’ve been flying for almost 22 years.
While what’s in these papers is valuable to new pilots, there’s some in-depth information even the most experienced pilots among us would do well to review. Pilots are always learning, and if you’re not, you need to question what you’re doing. But after you’ve been out there making money with your aircraft for a number of years, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.
There are some really basic things that people just stop thinking about after a certain point in their career, and that’s a good time for everyone to go back to basics. It’s one thing to tell someone the prescriptive minimum, but how do you really know the distance to that cloud? These documents give pilots really good tools to do that.
How can we get the most out of these resources?
Becker: In the first place, people should just read them, in order, for context, beginning with VFR Best Practices, then Estimating Distance, and finally, Decision-Making and IIMC. Knowledge is power. You may not yet necessarily know how to apply that knowledge, but you’re taking some of that knowledge on board.
Next, these reference materials should become the basis of a 10-hour basic instrument course. I would prefer it to be part of a commercial rating course so that 10 hours of required instrument training is really targeted at all the issues we’ve discussed: planning and knowing how to stay in VMC, making good decisions to avoid IMC, and if necessary, recovering from IIMC.
I also hope operators choose to use these reference materials in their own internal training and procedures. So whatever role you have in the industry—pilot, operator, trainer—please download these papers, read them, and use them.
Every pilot learns that IIMC is one of the top causes of fatal accidents. Yet, helicopter pilots still find themselves unintentionally in the clouds … with, on average, only 56 seconds to live.
Operators, pilots, trainers, and safety professionals throughout the international helicopter community are urged to take advantage of these resources:
- HAI VFR Best Practices: provides recommended standards for maintaining helicopter flight safety under visual flight rules
- HAI Estimating Distance: supplies pilots with the tools to make informed judgments about distance and closure rates in order to maintain a minimum distance from clouds
- HAI Decision-Making and IIMC: covers the preparations required to avoid IMC, airborne decision-making, and recommended recovery procedures in the event that IMC is unavoidable.