Pilot Proficiency

Helicopters of the same make and model may have variations in installed avionics that change the required equipment or the level of augmentation for a particular operation. The complexity of modern AFCS, AP, and FD systems requires a high degree of understanding to safely and efficiently control the helicopter in IFR operations. Formal training in the use of these systems is highly recommended for all pilots.

VMINI limitations, maximum IFR approach angles and G/A mode speeds for selected IFR certified helicopters
Figure 1. VMINI limitations, maximum IFR approach angles and G/A mode speeds for selected IFR certified helicopters

During flight operations, you must be aware of the mode of operation of the augmentation system and the control logic and functions employed. [Figure 1]

Helicopter VFR Minimums

Helicopters have the same VFR minimums as airplanes with two exceptions. In Class G airspace or under a special visual flight rule (SVFR) clearance, helicopters have no minimum visibility requirement but must remain clear of clouds and operate at a speed that is slow enough to give the pilot an adequate opportunity to see other aircraft or an obstruction in time to avoid a collision. Helicopters are also authorized (14 CFR Part 91, appendix D, § 3) to obtain SVFR clearances at airports with the designation NO SVFR on the sectional chart or in the Chart Supplement (CS). Figure 2 shows the visibility and cloud clearance requirements for VFR and SVFR. However, lower minimums associated with Class G airspace and SVFR do not take the place of the VFR minimum requirements of either Part 135 regulations or respective OpSpecs.
Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 2. Helicopter VFR minimums
Knowledge of all VFR minimums is required in order to determine if a PinS approach can be conducted or if a SVFR clearance is required to continue past the (MAP). These approaches and procedures are discussed in detail later.

Helicopter IFR Takeoff Minimums

14 CFR Part 91 imposes no takeoff minimums on the helicopter pilot. However, Rotorcraft Flight Manuals may require the helicopter to attain at least Vmini before entering IMC. For most helicopters, this requires a distance of approximately 1⁄2 mile and an altitude of 100 feet. If departing with a steeper climb gradient, some helicopters may require additional altitude to accelerate to VMINI. To maximize safety, always consider using the Part 135 operator standard takeoff visibility minimum of 1⁄2 statute mile (SM) or the charted departure minima, whichever is higher. A charted departure that provides protection from obstacles has either a higher visibility requirement, climb gradient, and/or departure path. Part 135 operators are required to adhere to the takeoff minimums prescribed in the instrument approach procedures (IAPs) for the airport.

Helicopter IFR Alternates

The pilot must file for an alternate if weather reports and forecasts at the proposed destination do not meet certain minimums. These minimums differ for Part 91 and Part 135 operators.

Part 91 Operators

Part 91 operators are not required to file an alternate if, at the estimated time of arrival (ETA) and for 1 hour after, the ceiling is at least 1,000 feet above the airport elevation or 400 feet above the lowest applicable approach minima, whichever is higher, and the visibility is at least 2 SM. If an alternate is required, an airport can be used if the ceiling is at least 200 feet above the minimum for the approach to be flown and visibility is at least 1 SM, but never less than the minimum required for the approach to be flown. If no instrument approach procedure has been published for the alternate airport, the ceiling and visibility minima are those allowing descent from the MEA, approach, and landing under basic VFR.

Part 135 Operators

Part 135 operators are not required to file an alternate if, for at least one hour before and one hour after the ETA, the ceiling is at least 1,500 feet above the lowest circling approach minimum descent altitude (MDA). If a circling instrument approach is not authorized for the airport, the ceiling must be at least 1,500 feet above the lowest published minimum or 2,000 feet above the airport elevation, whichever is higher. For the IAP to be used at the destination airport, the forecasted visibility for that airport must be at least 3 SM or 2 SM more than the lowest applicable visibility minimums, whichever is greater.

Alternate landing minimums for flights conducted under 14 CFR Part 135 are described in the OpSpecs for that operation. All helicopters operated under IFR must carry enough fuel to fly to the intended destination, fly from that airport to the filed alternate, if required, and continue for 30 minutes at normal cruising speed.

Helicopter Instrument Approaches

Many new helicopter IAPs have been developed to take advantage of advances in both avionics and helicopter technology.

Standard Instrument Approach Procedures to an Airport

Helicopters flying standard instrument approach procedures (SIAP) must adhere to the MDA or decision altitude for Category A airplanes and may apply the 14 CFR Part 97.3 (d-1) rule to reduce the airplane Category A visibility by half but in no case less than 1⁄4 SM or 1,200 RVR. [Figure 3]

Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 3. Part 97 excerpt
The approach can be initiated at any speed up to the highest approach category authorized; however, the speed on the final approach segment must be reduced to the Category A speed of less than 90 KIAS before the MAP in order to apply the visibility reduction. A constant airspeed is recommended on the final approach segment to comply with the stabilized approach concept since a decelerating approach may make early detection of wind shear on the approach path more difficult. [Figure 4]
Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 4. Helicopter use of standard instrument approach procedures
When visibility minimums must be increased for inoperative components or visual aids, use the Inoperative Components and Visual Aids Table (provided in the front cover of the U.S. Terminal Procedures) to derive the Category A minima before applying any visibility reduction. The published visibility may be increased above the standard visibility minima due to penetrations of the 20:1 and 34:1 final approach obstacle identification surfaces (OIS). The minimum visibility required for 34:1 penetrations is 3⁄4 SM and for 20:1 penetrations 1 SM, which is discussed in Improvement Plans post. When there are penetrations of the final approach OIS, a visibility credit for approach lighting systems is not allowed for either airplane or helicopter procedures that would result in values less than the appropriate 3⁄4 SM or 1 SM visibility requirement. The 14 CFR Part 97.3 visibility reduction rule does not apply, and you must take precautions to avoid any obstacles in the visual segment. Procedures with penetrations of the final approach OIS are annotated at the next amendment with “Visibility Reduction by Helicopters NA.”Until all the affected SIAPs have been annotated, an understanding of how the standard visibilities are established is the best aid in determining if penetrations of the final approach OIS exists. Some of the variables in determining visibilities are: decision altitude (DA)/MDA height above touchdown (HAT), height above airport (HAA), distance of the facility to the MAP (or the runway threshold for non- precision approaches), and approach lighting configurations.

The standard visibility requirement, without any credit for lights, is 1 SM for non-precision approaches and 3⁄4 SM for precision approaches. This is based on a Category A airplane 250–320 feet HAT/HAA; for non-precision approaches a distance of 10,000 feet or less from the facility to the MAP (or runway threshold). For precision approaches, credit for any approach light configuration; for non-precision approaches (with a 250 HAT) configured with a Medium Intensity Approach Lighting System (MALSR), Simplified Short Approach Lighting System (SSALR), or Approach Lighting System With Sequenced Flashing Lights (ALSF)-1 normally results in a published visibility of 1⁄2 SM.

Consequently, if an ILS is configured with approach lights or a non-precision approach is configured with MALSR, SSALR, or ALSF-1 lighting configurations and the procedure has a published visibility of 3⁄4 SM or greater, a penetration of the final approach OIS may exist. Also, pilots are unable to determine whether there are penetrations of the final approach OIS if a non-precision procedure does not have approach lights or is configured with ODALS, MALS, or SSALS/SALS lighting since the minimum published visibility is 3⁄4 SM or greater.

As a rule of thumb, approaches with published visibilities of 3⁄4 SM or more should be regarded as having final approach OIS penetrations and care must be taken to avoid any obstacles in the visual segment.

Approaches with published visibilities of 1⁄2 SM or less are free of OIS penetrations and the visibility reduction in Part 97.3 is authorized.

Copter Only Approaches to An Airport or Heliport

Pilots flying Copter SIAPs, other than GPS, may use the published minima with no reductions in visibility allowed. The maximum airspeed is 90 KIAS on any segment of the approach or missed approach. Figure 5 illustrates the COPTER ILS or LOC RWY 13 approach at NewYork/La Guardia (LGA) airport.

Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 5. The COPTER ILS or LOC RWY 13 approach at New York/La Guardia (LGA) airport
Copter ILS approaches to Category (CAT) I facilities with DAs no lower than a 200-foot HAT provide an advantage over a conventional ILS of shorter final segments and lower minimums (based on the 20:1 missed approach surface). There are also Copter approaches with minimums as low as 100-foot HAT and 1⁄4 SM visibility. Approaches with a HAT below 200 feet are annotated with the note: “Special Aircrew & Aircraft Certification Required” since the FAA must approve the helicopter and its avionics, and the flight crew must have the required experience, training, and checking.The ground facilities (approach lighting, signal in space, hold lines, maintenance, etc.) and air traffic infrastructure for CAT II ILS approaches are required to support these procedures. The helicopter must be equipped with an AP, FD, or head up guidance system, alternate static source (or heated static source), and radio altimeter. The pilot must have at least a private pilot helicopter certificate, an instrument helicopter rating, and a type rating if the helicopter requires a type rating. Pilot experience requires the following flight times: 250 pilot in command (PIC), 100 helicopter PIC, 50 night PIC, 75 hours of actual or simulated instrument flight time, including at least 25 hours of actual or simulated instrument flight time in a helicopter or a helicopter flight simulator, and the appropriate recent experience, training and check. For Copter CAT II ILS operations below 200 feet HAT, approach deviations are limited to 1⁄4 scale of the localizer or glide slope needle. Deviations beyond that require an immediate missed approach unless the pilot has at least one of the visual references in sight and otherwise meets the requirements of 14 CFR Part 91.175(c). The reward for this effort is the ability to fly Copter ILS approaches with minima that are sometimes below the airplane CAT II minima. The procedure to apply for this certification is available from your local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).

Copter GPS Approaches to an Airport or Heliport

Pilots flying Copter GPS or WAAS SIAPs must limit the speed to 90 KIAS on the initial and intermediate segment of the approach and to no more than 70 KIAS on the final and missed approach segments. If annotated, holding may also be limited to 90 KIAS to contain the helicopter within the small airspace provided for helicopter holding patterns.

During testing for helicopter holding, the optimum airspeed and leg length combination was determined to be 90 KIAS with a 3 NM outbound leg length. Consideration was given to the wind drift on the dead reckoning entry leg at slower speeds, the turn radius at faster airspeeds, and the ability of the helicopter in strong wind conditions to intercept the inbound course prior to the holding fix. The published minimums are to be used with no visibility reductions allowed. Figure 6 is an example of a Copter GPS PinS approach that allows the helicopter to fly VFR from the MAP to the heliport.

Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 6. COPTER RNAV (GPS) 291° at Indianapolis Downtown Heliport
The final and missed approach protected airspace providing obstacle and terrain avoidance is based on 70 KIAS, with a maximum 10-knot tailwind component. It is absolutely essential that pilots adhere to the 70 KIAS limitation in procedures that include an immediate climbing and turning missed approach. Exceeding the airspeed restriction increases the turning radius significantly and can cause the helicopter to leave the missed approach protected airspace. This may result in controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) or obstacles.If a helicopter has a VMINI greater than 70 knots, then it is not capable of conducting this type of approach. Similarly, if the autopilot in “go-around” mode climbs at a VYI greater than 70 knots, then that mode cannot be used. It is the responsibility of the pilot to determine compliance with missed approach climb gradient requirements when operating at speeds other than VY or VYI. Missed approaches that specify an “IMMEDIATE CLIMBING TURN” have no provision for a straight ahead climbing segment before turning. A straight segment results in exceeding the protected airspace limits.

Protected obstacle clearance areas and surfaces for the missed approach are established on the assumption that the missed approach is initiated at the DA point and for non-precision approaches no lower than the MDA at the MAP (normally at the threshold of the approach end of the runway). The pilot must begin the missed approach at those points. Flying beyond either point before beginning the missed approach results in flying below the protected obstacle clearance surface (OCS) and can result in a collision with an obstacle.

The missed approach segment U.S. Standard for Terminal Instrument Procedures (TERPS) criteria for all Copter approaches take advantage of the helicopter’s climb capabilities at slow airspeeds, resulting in high climb gradients. [Figure 7] The OCS used to evaluate the missed approach is a 20:1 inclined plane. This surface is twice as steep for the helicopter as the OCS used to evaluate the airplane missed approach segment. The helicopter climb gradient is, therefore, required to be double that of the airplane’s required missed approach climb gradient.

Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 7. Obstacle clearance surface (OCS)
A minimum climb gradient of at least 400 ft/NM is required unless a higher gradient is published on the approach chart (e.g., a helicopter with a ground speed of 70 knots is required to climb at a rate of 467 fpm (467 fpm = 70 KIAS × 400 feet per NM/60 seconds)). The advantage of using the 20:1 OCS for the helicopter missed approach segment instead of the 40:1 OCS used for the airplane is that obstacles that penetrate the 40:1 missed approach segment may not have to be considered. The result is the DA/MDA may be lower for helicopters than for other aircraft. The minimum required climb gradient of 400 ft/ NM for the helicopter in a missed approach provides 96 feet of required obstacle clearance (ROC) for each NM of flightpath.

Helicopter Approaches to VFR Heliports

Helicopter approaches to VFR heliports are normally developed either as public procedures to a PinS that may serve more than one heliport or as a special procedure to a specific VFR heliport that requires pilot training due to its unique characteristics. These approaches can be developed using very high frequency omni-directional range (VOR) or automatic direction finder (ADF), but area navigation (RNAV) using GPS is the most common system used today. RNAV using the WAAS offers the most advantages because it can provide lower approach minimums, narrower route widths to support a network of approaches, and may allow the heliport to be used as an alternate. A majority of the special procedures to a specific VFR heliport are developed in support of HAA operators and have a “Proceed Visually” segment between the MAP and the heliport. Public procedures are developed as a PinS approach with a “Proceed VFR” segment between the MAP and the landing area. These PinS “Proceed VFR” procedures specify a course and distance from the MAP to the available heliports in the area.

Approach to a PinS

The note associated with these procedures is: “PROCEED VFR FROM (NAMED MAP) OR CONDUCT THE SPECIFIED MISSED APPROACH.” They may be developed as a special or public procedure where the MAP is located more than 2 SM from the landing site, the turn from the final approach to the visual segment is greater than 30 degrees, or the VFR segment from the MAP to the landing site has obstructions that require pilot actions to avoid them. Figure 8 is an example of a public PinS approach that allows the pilot to fly to one of four heliports after reaching the MAP.

Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 8. COPTER RNAV (GPS) 250° at New York/La Guardia Airport
For Part 135 operations, pilots may not begin the instrument approach unless the latest weather report indicates that the weather conditions are at or above the authorized IFR or VFR minimums as required by the class of airspace, operating rule and/or OpSpecs, whichever is higher. Visual contact with the landing site is not required; however, prior to the MAP, for either Part 91 or 135 operators, the pilot must determine if the flight visibility meets the basic VFR minimums required by the class of airspace, operating rule and/or OpSpecs (whichever is higher). The visibility is limited to no lower than that published in the procedure until canceling IFR. If VFR minimums do not exist, then the published MAP must be executed. The pilot must contact air traffic control (ATC) upon reaching the MAP, or as soon as practical after that, and advise whether executing the missed approach or canceling IFR and proceeding VFR.To proceed VFR in uncontrolled airspace, Part 135 operators must observe minimum regulatory VFR conditions, but under some conditions, such as provided for in 14 CFR 135.613 for HAA operators, specific weather minimums are required when near the MAP and the heliport of intended landing. These minimums apply regardless of whether the approach is located on the plains of Oklahoma or in the Colorado mountains. However, for heliports located farther than 3 NM from the heliport, Part135 HAA operators are held to an even higher standard and the minimums and lighting conditions contained in Figure 9 apply to the entire route. Mountainous terrain at night with low light conditions requires a ceiling of 1,000 feet and either 3 SM or 5 SM visibility depending on whether it has been determined as part of the operator’s local flying area.
Helicopter Instrument Procedures
Figure 9. Point-in-space (PinS) approach examples for Part 91 and Part 135 operations
In Class B, C, D, and E surface area airspace, a SVFR clearance may be obtained if SVFR minimums exist. On your flight plan, give ATC a heads up about your intentions by entering the following in the remarks section: “Request SVFR clearance after the MAP.”

Approach to a Specific VFR Heliport

The note associated with these procedures is: “PROCEED VISUALLY FROM (NAMED MAP) OR CONDUCT THE SPECIFIED MISSED APPROACH.” Due to their unique characteristics, these approaches require training. They are developed for hospitals, oil rigs, private heliports, etc. As Specials, they require Flight Standards approval by a Letter of Authorization (LOA) for Part 91 operators or by OpSpecs for Part 135 operators. For public procedures, the heliport associated with these procedures must be located within 2 SM of the MAP, the visual segment between the MAP and the heliport evaluated for obstacle hazards, and the heliport must meet the appropriate VFR heliport recommendations of AC 150/5390-2, Heliport Design.

The PinS optimum location is 0.65 NM from the heliport. This provides an adequate distance to decelerate and land from an approach speed of 70 KIAS. Certain airframes may be certified to fly at reduced VMINI or below VMINI speeds as a result of flight control design or adherence to AC 29-2, Certification of Transport Category Rotorcraft. In these cases, an approach procedure stating the minimum certified airspeed or flight below VMINI should be annotated on the approach procedure. The distance also permits optimal blending of obstacle clearance criteria with non-instrument heliport approach areas.

The visibility minimum is based on the distance from the MAP to the heliport, among other factors (e.g., height above the heliport elevation when at the MAP MDA). The pilot is required to acquire and maintain visual contact with the heliport final approach and takeoff (FATO) area at or prior to the MAP. Obstacle or terrain avoidance from the MAP to the heliport is the responsibility of the pilot. Pilots need to level off when reaching the MDA, which may occur before arriving at the MAP, until reaching the visual approach angle on the approach path to clear the obstacles. If the required weather minimums do not exist, then the published MAP must be executed at the MAP because IFR obstruction clearance areas are not applied to the visual segment of the approach and a missed approach segment protection is not provided between the MAP and the heliport. As soon as practicable after reaching the MAP, the pilot advises ATC whether cancelling IFR and proceeding visually or executing the missed approach.

Inadvertent IMC

Whether it is a corporate or HAA operation, helicopter pilots sometimes operate in challenging weather conditions. An encounter with weather that does not permit continued flight under VFR might occur when conditions do not allow for the visual determination of a usable horizon (e.g., fog, snow showers, or night operations over unlit surfaces such as water). Flight in conditions of limited visual contrast should be avoided since this can result in a loss of horizontal or surface reference, and obstacles such as wires become perceptually invisible. To prevent spatial disorientation, loss of control (LOC) or CFIT, pilots should slow the helicopter to a speed that provides a controlled deceleration in the distance equal to the forward visibility. The pilot should look for terrain that provides sufficient contrast to either continue the flight or to make a precautionary landing. If spatial disorientation occurs and a climb into IMC is not feasible due to fuel state, icing conditions, equipment, etc., make every effort to land the helicopter with a slight forward descent to prevent any sideward or rearward motion.

All helicopter pilots should receive training on avoidance and recovery from inadvertent IMC with emphasis on avoidance. An unplanned transition from VMC to IMC flight is an emergency that involves a different set of pilot actions. It requires the use of different navigation and operational procedures, interaction with ATC, and crewmember resource management (CRM). Consideration should be given to the local flying area’s terrain, airspace, air traffic facilities, weather (including seasonal affects such as icing and thunderstorms), and available airfield/heliport approaches.

Training should emphasize the identification of circumstances conducive to inadvertent IMC and a strategy to abandon continued VFR flight in deteriorating conditions. This strategy should include a minimum altitude/airspeed combination that provides for an off-airport/heliport landing, diverting to better conditions, or initiating an emergency transition to IFR. Pilots should be able to readily identify the minimum initial altitude and course in order to avoid CFIT. Current IFR en route and approach charts for the route of flight are essential. A GPS navigation receiver with a moving map provides exceptional situational awareness for terrain and obstacle avoidance.

Training for an emergency transition to IFR should include full and partial panel instrument flight, unusual attitude recovery, ATC communications, and instrument approaches. If an ILS is available and the helicopter is equipped, an ILS approach should be made. Otherwise, if the helicopter is equipped with an IFR approach-capable GPS receiver with a current database, a GPS approach should be made. If neither, an ILS or GPS procedure is available use another instrument approach.

Upon entering inadvertent IMC, priority must be given to control of the helicopter. Keep it simple and take one action at a time.

  • Control. First use the wings on the attitude indicator to level the helicopter. Maintain heading and increase to climb power. Establish climb airspeed at the best angle of climb but no slower than VMINI.
  • Climb. Climb straight ahead until your crosscheck is established. Then make a turn only to avoid terrain or objects. If an altitude has not been previously established with ATC to climb to for inadvertent IMC, then you should climb to an altitude that is at least 1,000 feet above the highest known object and that allows for contacting ATC.
  • Communicate. Attempt to contact ATC as soon as the helicopter is stabilized in the climb and headed away from danger. If the appropriate frequency is not known, you should attempt to contact ATC on either very high frequency (VHF) 121.5 or ultra high frequency (UHF) 243.0. Initial information provided to ATC should be your approximate location, that inadvertent IMC has been encountered and an emergency climb has been made, your altitude, amount of flight time remaining (fuel state), and number of persons on board. You should then request a vector to either VFR weather conditions or to the nearest suitable airport/heliport that conditions will support a successful approach. If unable to contact ATC and a transponder code has not been previously established with ATC for inadvertent IMC, change the transponder code to 7700.

A radio altimeter is a necessity for alerting the pilot when inadvertently going below the minimum altitude. Barometric altimeters are subject to inaccuracies that become important in helicopter IFR operations, especially in cold temperatures.

IFR Heliports

AC 150/5390-2, Heliport Design, provides recommendations for heliport design to support non-precision, approach with vertical guidance (APV), and precision approaches to a heliport. When a heliport does not meet the criteria of AC 150/5390-2, FAA Order 8260.42, United States Standard for Helicopter Area Navigation (RNAV), requires that an instrument approach be published as a Special procedure with annotations that special aircrew qualifications are required to fly the procedure. Currently, there are no operational civil IFR heliports in the U.S., although the U.S. military has some non-precision and precision approach procedures to IFR heliports.