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Inadvertent IMC – UP, DOWN or AROUND?

Safety Check

Welcome to the November 2022 edition of Safety Check – the section of our newsletter that we reserve to promote Enstrom helicopter safety.

This month we will be discussing the pilot’s corrective action if we encounter inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) or a fancy way of saying unintentionally flying into clouds or low visibility flight conditions. I’m guessing for readers that have logged a few thousand flight hours you know exactly what I am talking about. Inadvertent IMC can result in loss of control which continues to be the leading cause of helicopter accidents.

During the oral portion of my practical tests I will provide a scenario to the applicant where they are flying in marginal VFR conditions and they suddenly find themselves in the clouds or reduced visibility conditions. Part of the testing includes the applicant telling me word for word what course of action they will take in this IIMC scenario. This is important because if they meet the FAA Practical Test Standards (we still aren’t using ACS) I am signing my name to their Temporary Airman Certificate. I need to know that they will NOT become an NTSB statistic. Below are estimated tabulations of the responses the past five years to this scenario based question.

  • 85% of the applicants said they would reduce airspeed, maintain altitude and conduct a 180 degree turn and land at the nearest suitable landing site.
  • 15% of the applicants responded with if terrain clearance was assured, they would reduce airspeed, maintain wings level and do a slow descent and land at the nearest suitable landing site.
  • 5% of the applicants said if the clouds or fog were thin they would add power and climb to an altitude where they would be VFR on top and land as soon as possible.

The percentages are similar for Jeff Schorsch, a helicopter DPE colleague who represents the Cleveland FSDO and serves as the Director of Operations for Sweet Helicopters. We both agreed there really isn’t one correct answer because of the different variables involved i.e. Indiana versus Colorado, surface fog versus low clouds, VFR panel versus an IFR panel, etc.

But one fact remains the same in all IIMC encounters, the pilot in command must remain calm and fly the aircraft solely on the use of instruments.

That is easier said than done. Even instrument rated pilots have failed miserably under these circumstances. It has been estimated that 90% of all aircraft loss of control accidents are occurring in the first 20 seconds after encountering IIMC! What that is telling me is that spatial disorientation happens quickly and pilots are not transitioning to their instruments. This is where instrument training proficiency becomes so important.

Part of the flight requirements for helicopter commercial applicants is to comply with FAR 61.127 (b)(3) that includes 5 hours on the control and maneuvering of a helicopter solely by reference to instruments using a view-limited device including attitude instrument flying, partial panel skills, recovery from unusual flight attitudes, and intercepting and tracking navigational systems. The FAA doesn’t really care if you can shoot a full ILS approach down to minimums. They are more interested in the applicant being able to safely fly the helicopter if they encounter an IIMC condition that results in an unusual attitude.

I am constantly telling our pilots that we need to fight the temptation of satisfying the client and “know when to say NO”. Remember the longer you continue into IMC the longer it may take to get out of it. Those first 20 seconds could be the worst 20 seconds of your life. It is not worth the risk. Your position as a safety minded pilot should be to avoid IMC to begin with, however if you do encounter it, immediately take action to get out of it.

Earlier this month I had a chance to demo Airbus’s new H145 D3 with the Helionix Auto Pilot system. It has some amazing features but the one takeaway I had was the “oh crap button” conveniently located on the PIC’s cyclic. If for any reason you find yourself in an unusual attitude the pilot can depress this button and the aircraft magically goes wings level. I took the opportunity to test it and each time the aircraft recovered quickly and smoothly. Good job to Airbus for incorporating this great safety feature into their newest aircraft.

How do we avoid being part of an NTSB report? Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Stay proficient on instrument flying. Take a safety pilot and use your foggles.
  • On your next flight review have your instructor focus on recovery in unusual attitudes.
  • Preflight planning is essential! Know the tops of the overcast on long cross-country flights.
  • Add an instrument rating to your license. Your insurance underwriter will take notice and it could lower your premiums (or at least not increase them).
  • Know you own limitations and do not deviate from them.
  • Recognize direct and indirect pressures when you are being tempted to fly when the weather conditions are deteriorating. One of HAI’s best slogans is LAND & LIVE.

I hope in some small way the Safety Check helps you become a safer pilot. Until next month….FLY SAFE.

Randy Sharkey

Randy is a dual rated Airline Transport Pilot with 13,000 flight hours in airplanes and helicopters. He has type ratings in the BE400 and CE500. Randy has been a rotorcraft Designated Pilot Examiner representing the Grand Rapids FSDO since 2014. Currently he works for Sweet Helicopters, a northern Indiana Part 135 air carrier operator and serves as the Airport Manager of the Goshen Municipal Airport.

About Enstrom Helicopter

From Rudy Enstrom’s early designs in 1943 to initial testing in a Michigan Quarry in 1957 to aircraft operating on six continents, Enstrom Helicopter Corporation has maintained a reputation for safety, value and performance. Based in Menominee, Michigan and proudly made in the United States, Enstrom has a rich history for design innovation. The goal is to provide helicopters to the customer’s exact specification and deliver support and maintenance worldwide.