This past summer there were several accidents in which there were
multiple fatalities resulting from the helicopter pilot’s decision
to fly into night time conditions that resulted in the loss of control
of the helicopter. In one case the private pilot was non instrument
rated, in the second, the pilot was a Certified Flight Instructor,
and in the third case the pilot was a Certified Flight Instructor
certified for Instrument training in helicopters. Each of these
pilots made the decision to fly their helicopters into IMC (Instrument
Meteorological Conditions) at night and the results were the deaths
of every person on board.
Is it unsafe to fly at night? Night flight in helicopters is safe
as long as the pilot receives proper training in night helicopter
operations and the pilot has the discipline to make intelligent
and informed go-no go decisions.
We fly our R22 at night for pleasure and flight training but have
several conditions that must be met prior to taking such a flight.
The first condition is that the weather report from Flight Service
shows NO POSSIBILITY of clouds along the proposed flight path. You
notice the statement “no possibility”, not probability. If there
is any possibility that clouds could be encountered along our flight
route, we do not fly at night. The second condition that is required
is that we have adequate ground lights in the area we are planning
to flying over. And the third requirement is that we have adequate
fuel, flashlights, etc. to make the flight safely.
At Homer Bell’s fly in this past summer I was chatting with a group
of pilots and at least 2 other helicopter flight instructors about
the three fatal accidents involving the R44’s that were flew at
night into IMC. I posed the question “what would you do if you are
flying at night and suddenly you loose all outside reference due
to flying into a cloud?” Every one of them agreed that the proper
response would be to immediately execute a 180 degree turn and exit
the cloud in the direction from which you entered it.
This might be the proper response in a fixed wing airplane but
not in a non-instrument certified helicopter. Although most helicopter
flight instructors teach that a 180 degree turn is the safe way
to get out of a cloud, that decision will most likely be a fatal
mistake if the pilot is not current on flying by his instruments.
The only way to safely execute a 180 degree turn in a helicopter
without outside reference is by the use of the gyroscopic instruments
installed in some helicopters. Without a directional gyro and an
artificial horizon it would be near impossible to maintain flight
for more than a short time.
Airplanes are inherently stable. If you take your hands off the
controls of most airplanes, they will continue to fly due to their
built in aerodynamic stability.Helicopters are inherently unstable.
The only stability in a helicopter is the pilot at the controls.
The pilot keeps the helicopter stable by visual reference to cues
coming from outside of the cockpit. If the helicopter pilot were
to let go of the controls, in only a very few seconds the helicopter
would go totally out of control and self destruct. Bearing this
in mind, if the helicopter pilot losses his outside visual reference
cues, he is unable to keep the helicopter stable. The better a helicopter
pilot is trained in instrument flight in light helicopters like
the Rotorway, Safari, Hughes, Robinson, etc, the longer he may be
able to keep the helicopter right side up, to a limit, providing
the helicopter is equipped with the appropriate gyros. If a pilot
of a non-gyro equipped helicopter were to enter a 180 degree turn
without outside reference, the helicopter could very quickly go
out of control.
Of the 3 fatal accidents that we mentioned above, (all were in
heavier R44 4 place helicopters which are more stable than the light
helicopters that most of us fly) one pilot was an instrument instructor
and another was instrument rated. All on board all three helicopters
Recently a student of mine and I made a ferry flight from San Antonio,
TX to Missouri in a Hughes 269B that he had just purchased. We decided
that this long trip would be a great opportunity for some cross
country flight training. The flight was progressing uneventfully
and we stopped in Clarksville, Arkansas to refuel for the night
portion of the trip. After topping off our tanks and checking our
flashlights, we called flight service to check on the weather along
our proposed 2 hour leg. Flight service reported that there were
no clouds along the route and it looked like it would be a perfect
night flight to bring us on our final leg home. My student was enjoying
the view of the stars and scattered lights from various towns and
ranches on the ground as he piloted the helicopter along our route.
About 20 minutes into our night flight we lost all outside visibility
without warning. The millions of stars and numerous ground lights
just suddenly disappeared from view. Instantly I recalled the three
recent fatal accidents involving experienced pilots in their R44
helicopters that flew into IMC at night with fatal results.
I have always taught my students “if in doubt, auto out” . Although
we never expected to fly into a cloud at night much thought had
been invested on that subject. The decision was made that the best
way to stay alive, should one totally loose outside visual reference,
would be to immediately enter an auto-rotation descent. While the
helicopter is in an autorotation, it is in the most stable flight
configuration that it can attain. The up-flow of air through the
rotors keeps the rotor system facing up and the helicopter hanging
below it until the pilot is able to see the ground and flair. At
least it was a plan of action to take should one ever loose outside
visibility although up to this point I had never been in a situation
to put my theory to the test.
On this particular flight we encountered that very situation. There
were no clouds at all predicted along our route of flight. The sky
was perfectly clear allowing visibility for miles in the perfectly
clear air. When visibility was suddenly lost I immediately lowered
the to place the helicopter into an auto-rotational descent.
It seemed like we were in that auto for a full minute but it was
probably more like 20 seconds. This particular helicopter was not
equipped with an artificial horizon, directional gyro, or even a
vertical speed indicator. By focusing on the rotor rpm and the airspeed
indicator I was able to keep both within their limits. We both kept
a watch outside hoping to see a glimpse of the ground or trees so
that a flare could be made prior to impact.
As we continued to head earthward in a very stable and upright
auto-rotation, the smell of wood smoke filled our nostrils. We had
flown into a cloud of smoke that flight service did not know would
be there. All at once the lower portion of the wind screen filled
with numerous ground lights and even more bright orange bands that
turned out to be flames from a controlled burn being conducted by
the Arkansas Division of Forestry. With outside visual reference
restored I added power and collective pitch and we resumed normal
We realized that we had unwittingly entered a very dangerous situation,
one that could have produced fatal results, and yet we had survived.
The reason that we did survive was that I had a plan of escape already
thought out and decided upon should we enter a cloud at night. When
the unexpected finally happened I was able to react immediately
Once we were clear of the smoke cloud we executed a 180 degree
turn, and headed for the nearest airport. We set down, parked the
helicopter, borrowed a courtesy car and went into town for a meal
and a motel. I was convinced that we both had experienced enough
night flight for that particular evening.
The next day we got up early, had a great breakfast at the local
diner, and then returned the courtesy car and headed home. When
we got to the area where we had encountered that killer smoke cloud,
I looked down at the rough terrain below us and thanked God that
we were not the subject of a Civil Air Patrol search for missing
red and white helicopter. I am now convinced more than ever before
that if I ever again loose outside visual reference (I don’t plan
on it ever happening again!) I will once again immediately enter
an autorotation and live to tell about it.
Refer back to the question that I posed to the CFI’s and pilots
at Homer’s last year: “what would you do if you are flying at night
and suddenly you loose all outside reference due to flying into
a cloud?” Their unanimous answer was to immediately execute a 180
degree turn to fly out the way they came in. What would you do?
Orv Neisingh is an FAA certified Helicopter Flight Instructor with
Sho-Me Helicopters, LLC. He offers helicopter flight training in
your own helicopter either at your location or at his facility in
the beautiful Ozarks of Missouri. He also can assist you in the
rigging and balance your rotor system as well as instruct you in
maintenance procedures for your helicopter while you are receiving
your flight training. Sho-Me Helicopters welcomes you to come to
their helicopter flight training facility in Missouri where they
provide full RV hook-ups and also offer free room and board to their
students in the family home. Orv schedules one on one instruction
meaning when you hire Orv, you are the only student that he works
with during that time period.
Sho-Me Helicopters, LLC