1 DO get trained and stay proficient. Training, certification, and proficiency are the best weapons against inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC). Even if you’re not instrument rated or have lapsed in currency, you can still improve your recognition of and recovery from unplanned flight into degraded visual environments. You can conduct this training in an aircraft or Level D simulator, but you can also use low-cost aviation training devices or desktop simulation programs to develop and maintain your instrument skills and improve your confidence to deal with unplanned IMC.

2 DON’T even think about attempting VFR flight into deteriorating weather conditions. The FAA offers a subtle warning in its Helicopter Flying Handbook: “If the pilot isn’t instrument rated, instrument current, or proficient, or is flying a non–IFR-equipped helicopter, remaining in VMC [visual meteorological conditions] is paramount” (https://bit.ly/3a3mby6, pages 11–24 through 11–26).

We prefer to state it more boldly: In an unplanned VFR flight into IMC, if you’re not a highly proficient ­instrument-rated pilot operating a fully certificated IFR aircraft, your chances of surviving beyond two minutes are nearly ZERO. 

3 DO set, announce, and follow your personal limits. Clearly understand and consistently abide by the limitations of your aircraft, your skills, and regulations—without compromise! Always brief your takeoff minimums and en route decision points before you fly. Doing so manages the expectations of your crew and passengers and ensures that active risk management is integrated into all phases of flight planning and execution.

4 DON’T scud run! IFR does not stand for “I follow roads.” Focusing on what’s below you is a sure way to collide with what’s in front of you (terrain, wires, towers, etc.). Take note if you’re getting lower (for example, 500 feet agl) or slower (such as 50 KIAS [knots indicated airspeed]) just to maintain your visual references. You likely have already reached a decision point and need to return home, amend your flight to avoid IMC, or if a safe landing can be made, simply get the helicopter on the ground and Land & LIVE!

5 DO respond immediately and decisively if you enter IMC. Despite warnings to avoid continued VFR flight into bad weather, it still happens. If you have an unexpected entry into IMC, what you do in the next few seconds will determine your fate. First and always, make helicopter control a priority above all other duties or distractions.

Here are the five basic steps all pilots should be trained to execute immediately if they ever encounter IIMC:

  1. Wings: Level the bank angle using the attitude indicator
  2. Attitude: Set a climb attitude that achieves a safe climb speed
  3. Airspeed: Verify that the attitude selected has achieved the desired airspeed
  4. Power: Adjust to a climb power setting relative to the desired airspeed
  5. Heading and trim: Pick a heading known to be free of obstacles and maintain it.

Note: The guidance available on IIMC is much too extensive to limit to only five steps. We strongly encourage all pilots to refer to the 2019 release of the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook, FAA-H-8083-21B. Pages 11–24 through 11–26 include several updates addressing how best to avoid and respond to VFR flight into IMC.

Author

  • 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.

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.