There are those that have and those that will. The moment when a helicopter pilot finds himself trapped in the fog. It can be one of the scariest moments you will encounter during your career as a helicopter pilot. Unfortunately, fog is a fact of life. Fog is an accumulation of water droplets or ice…
There are those that have and those that will. The moment when a helicopter pilot finds himself trapped in the fog. It can be one of the scariest moments you will encounter during your career as a helicopter pilot. Unfortunately, fog is a fact of life.
Fog is an accumulation of water droplets or ice crystals located and suspended at or near the surface of the Earth. Fog is a type of cloud, however it is differentiated by the fact that it is low-lying and the moisture within the fog is typically generated locally. Fog forms when the temperature of the air near the ground is cooled to the air's dew-point. When reporting visibility in the line item of a PIREP, it is important to differentiate between fog and mist; whereas fog reduces visibility to less than 5/8 of a sentence mile, mist reduces visibility to no less than 5/8 of a statute mile. For the VFR pilot, this type of visibility should be unacceptable. To continue to fly under VFR in this type of visibility is not only dangerous, but exhibits a lack of airman-ship and judgment.
It is incumbent upon certificate holders to ensure that operational policies and procedures not only discourage VFR flight under these, or similar conditions, but prohibit this as well. It would be equally derelict and irresponsible for certificate holders to not have in place, a quality Inadvertent IMC procedure.
Any good Inadvertent IMC program begins with training. Training programs must be designed to produce proficiency not currency. It must be consistent and comprehensive in its content. It must emphasize two key critical components; prevention and recovery.
Prevention begins with a solid understanding of meteorology and the calculus of weather formations. Understanding the components of fog and the conditions under which it is likely to form is critical. Specifically, training should include a familiarization with local weather patterns and the areas conducive to the formation of fog, as well as, an overview of areas of operation and weather patterns that are likely associated with those areas. A complete set of tools and resources should be made available at each base to facilitate pre-flight planning and compliance with flight launch protocols.
Company policies relating flight launch protocol should include clear and conservative weather minimums. Weather minimims should take into account those components under which flight operations will be conducted. For example, night flight minimums should obviously be more restrictive than flights conducted during the day. If night vision devices are used, a separate protocol should be created. Minimum should be consistent with mission requirements and take into account the overall experience level of the pilot pool. It should be noted that company weather minims may be more restrictive than those published in the FAR's, however, they can never be less restrictive.
Creating a link between pilot experience, weather minims, and flight launch protocols can be difficult and complex. Balancing customer requirements, safety protocols, and economics is a challenge. With crew and passenger safety being the top priority, an applicable risk assessment procedure may help alleviate some of those difficult and complex issues.
A risk assessment procedure should be in place to evaluate and analyze all components. This assessment procedure should assist the pilot in determining whether or not launch conditions exist. Simplicity is the key. Complicated risk assessment programs have failed in the past particularly when the applicability of the procedure was in-congruent with the components necessary in determining flight launch decisions.
Risk assessment plans will vary depending on industry standards and requirements, however, all risk assessment procedures should include multi-level decision-making. Multi-level decision-making accomplishes two things. First, it forces communication between crews and managers. Second, it promotes and enforces flight launch protocols.
It is impossible to eliminate all Inadvertent IMC events. Recovery is the second critical program component. It is here where hands-on training is essential. When a pilot “punches in” the only resource available at that point is the training he received. It must be conducted on a regular basis and should be realistic and scenario based. It should be structured sequentially meaning that item one is the first step performed.
Step one should always be to “aviate”. Pilots should accept the fact that they have entered into the IMC. It isinctive to lower the collective and try to maintain VMC. This is dangerous and can have catastrophic results. Gain aircraft control and initiate a clamp to clear all known obstacles. Relax and transition to instrument flying. This is probably the most critical and difficult step for most pilots. Transitioning to the instruments and establishing an instrument scan is imperative. Training in unusual attitude recovery techniques often and on a regular basis will help with the transition phase. When comfortable, begin a turn to the last known area where visual conditions exist. If conditions continue, its time to consider step two.
Step two is to “navigate”. It is at this stage that you should begin to implement your recovery plan created during your pre-flight planning phase. Have frequencies, approach plates, and maps readily available. It would be extremely useful to have some of this information committed to memory. Keep additional tasks to a minimum. This allows the pilot to focus on flying the aircraft. A well prepared and familiar plan of action facilitates a relaxed flight posture. Practice approaches should be encouraged by management. Set a course to your recovery airport and prepare to execute your planned instrument approach.
Step three is to “communicate”. Make contact with the controlling agency and advise them of your status as soon as possible. Remember, you are not filed on an IFR flight plan. Depending on the circumstances, consider declaring and emergency. You are in unfamiliar territory. The focus at this point should be getting the aircraft safely on the ground. Ask for help, they will give it to you. Alert your company base operations as to your situation.
Remember, maintain your focus. Stay calm, relaxed and fight that urge to panic. Rely on your training and do what you were taught. During your time, review scenarios constantly. Learn as much as you can about local weather patterns. Ask questions and listen to the experienced pilots. Inadvertent IMC recovery can be summed up in three simple words: aviate, navigate, and communicate. Good Luck and Good Flying!