ROTOR Magazine2020 Q2Fly Safe

Unplanned VFR Flight into IMC: Stop the Insanity

By May 15, 2020March 26th, 2021No Comments

What’s your IIMC battle plan?

It’s a quiet Sunday morning on Jan. 26, 2020. The HAI HELI-EXPO® flight operations teams located at Fullerton Municipal Airport (KFUL) and the Anaheim Convention Center patiently wait for the morning fog to lift to allow the second of two fly-in days to resume.

Yesterday’s 24 aircraft and their flight crews arrived safely. Once today’s weather clears, the remaining 24 will do the same. A successful start to another HAI HELI-EXPO.

The HAI team breathes a sigh of relief, but celebrations are respectfully muted. Only 50 miles north of the convention center, a fellow helicopter pilot and his eight passengers are reported down. The news is grim—no survivors.

Since that fatal flight, we’ve learned the helicopter was operating under a special VFR clearance, causing news outlets and industry representatives to suggest that unfriendly meteorological conditions (UMC) could have been a factor in the accident. (For more on UMC and the tools aviators can use to address it, see the March/April 2020 issue of FAA Safety Briefing.) As in all active investigations, HAI withholds speculation and instead looks forward to the NTSB’s final accident report and proposed recommendations to enhance helicopter safety.

Regardless of what’s ultimately revealed about the Calabasas tragedy, however, there’s reason for many to scratch their heads about certain accidents. VFR flight into marginal weather conditions, in particular, remains one of the most common causes of fatal accidents in the commercial helicopter industry.

Many argue that, in response, bold changes must come on the regulatory side. Others see it quite differently. Almost all, however, agree that something must be done to solve the problem.

That pilots die each year from inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) isn’t news, and the tips listed on p. 68 for combating IIMC are routinely recommended. But we mustn’t stop fighting.

“If not now, then when? If not us, then who?” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said at HAI’s Annual Membership Breakfast on Jan. 27 as he asked HAI members to join him in improving helicopter safety. And for my pilot readers, that’s certainly true when it comes to protecting yourself from the dangers of IIMC. If you don’t take action to avoid or survive your unplanned entry into IMC, then who or what will save you?

On the next page, we’ve provided you with an IIMC battle plan and the steps to execute it. What would you add? (See p. 16 for a look at how your industry peers say they deal with IIMC.)

These tips are provided to get us all thinking more actively about how we can avoid or survive unplanned entry into IMC. Statistics show that if we fail to prepare for battle against IIMC before all VFR flights, our chances of survival are severely diminished.

Share the Story
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.