Image above: iStock/Bilanol
Just how low should we go in a helicopter?
I’m a member of one of the luckiest clubs in the aviation industry. I hold this dubious honor because I am a wire-strike survivor. The circumstances behind my survival story are not the focus of this article, but I, like many other survivors, feel obliged to prevent others from succumbing to the deadly game of low-flight limbo. Because if they hit an obstacle, the odds are stacked against them from becoming a member of my club.
Flying low is fun. There’s no denying it. As helicopter pilots, we get to feel the earth slipping beneath us during every phase of flight. Our fixed-wing counterparts often only enjoy that feeling during takeoff and landing. Countless books, songs, and movies capture our fascination with flight. Royal Canadian Air Force Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr.’s classic 1941 sonnet “High Flight” describes the incredible heights airplane pilots can achieve. The poem’s eerie closing, “[I’ve] put out my hand, and touched the face of God,” has inspired several generations of aviators, astronauts, and elected officials.
In 1972, an anonymous Vietnam War helicopter pilot penned “Low Flight” and brought us back down to earth, closing with a cheeky reference to its predecessor, “[I’ve] put out my hand and touched a tree.” As fate would have it, Magee suffered a fatal midair collision three months after writing “High Flight.” Far too many helicopter occupants have also died after striking objects while attempting to experience the joy of low flight one final time.
Because We Can
Fellow helicopter pilots sometimes proudly proclaim, “500 ft. agl and below is our domain!” Yes, of course, we perform the bulk of our work while in ground effect when we’re lucky, and out of ground effect when we must. But do we have to fly below 500 ft. agl during our en route segments? If so, why?
If you instinctively answered, “Because I can!” I submit that’s a clear precursor of a hazardous attitude. But let’s walk that back before you think I’m judging too much. Instead, I’ll offer this simple, unoriginal, yet proven solution that can reverse the alarming number of low-altitude fatal accidents: When operating conditions permit, and during all en route segments, climb higher to buy yourself some free altitude insurance.
And why should we fly higher? Because we can, we should, and it will save lives!
Since finding free aviation insurance is akin to finding a leprechaun riding a unicorn, consider activating your free policy today. What comes with your altitude insurance package other than the obvious regulatory compliance rider? Here are just a few things extra altitude can offer if you act quickly:
- Time: Time to remain calm, react, analyze situations, take appropriate actions, troubleshoot, complete checklists, communicate, regain aircraft control, or perform other aeronautical decision-making (ADM) calculations
- Distance: Increased maneuvering space for OEI (one engine inoperative) climb or descent, autorotational glide, set a favorable wind condition
- Clearance: Added clearance from wires, towers, buildings, terrain, birds, drones, airport traffic, and so on.
The Lowdown for Low Flyers
There are abundant resources available to help us prepare for and perform aerial work near terrain and obstacles. Pilots who, whether routinely or rarely, operate in the wire environment need much better advice than “climb above it.” Below are several helpful resources:
- Cable Collisions: European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Community Network article and video
- “Low Altitude Operations” webinar: US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) All Hands Webinar series
- “Wire Strikes: Danger Hiding in Plain Sight”: HAI@Work Webinars series
- Low Altitude Ops (USHST website)
- “Surviving the Wires Environment” (HAI Rotor YouTube channel)
- Flying in the Wire-and-Obstruction Environment: (1) online or on-site from Utilities/Aviation Specialists; and (2) on-site at HAI HELI-EXPO 2023 (HAI Professional Education Courses, coming in March 2023).
Flying low when it’s not essential is killing helicopter occupants and eroding confidence in our industry. For over a decade, striking an object while flying at a low altitude has remained one of the top three causes of fatal US commercial helicopter accidents, according to the USHST. (The other two are UIMC and loss of control in flight [LOC-I].)
Despite the tangled web of unseen obstacles that await us, the seductive nature of low-altitude flight will continue to lure helicopter pilots of all experience levels. Not all of them will survive. But the professionals who plan for and mitigate the known risks and climb above them when conditions allow can still have loads of fun without touching a tree or playing the deadly game of low-flight limbo.