Poor Decisions Made


I am looking forward to this flying season as it is already shaping up to be a busy year for helicopter flight training. I think that I must have the best job in the world, and that is helping folks reach their dreams of being able to fly their own helicopters. By providing both initial and advanced helicopter flight instruction in a wide range of different helicopter models, both certified and experimental I have seen many students achieve their goals of becoming private and commercial helicopter pilots and even Certified Flight Instructors in Helicopters. Two of my former beginner Rotorway students are now helicopter Designated Pilot Examiners, John McLaughlin who owns Iowa Helicopters in Des Moines, Iowa and Steve Foster who owns Bull Dog Helicopters in Searcy, AR.

As I look back over the past few years there have been several notable happenings. One happened while I was standing 30 yards in front of a beautiful new Rotorway 162f when the engine quit and it crashed into a bean field due to fuel exhaustion. This helicopter was on approach to land when all at once the engine went silent and it slammed tail first into the ground. It then hit on the rear of the skids and did a forward summersault onto it’s nose, the main rotor blades hitting the ground. The pilot was a Certified Flight Instructor and the passenger was a high-time Rotorway pilot. Neither of them had dipped the fuel tank prior to the flight to verify fuel quantity before they took off.

I was the third person to reach the scene of the accident, the first and second being the pilot and the CFI who were in the helicopter when it crashed. Shortly after assisting the occupants from the wreckage, I learned that the helicopter had run out of fuel, something that should never happen but all too often does. Both of these pilots were highly experienced in helicopters but when the fuel is gone, the engine will quit.

I have also been instructing in several Hughes, Schweizers, and Robinsons in between my Rotorway flight instructing trips. I was able to provide Helicopter flight instruction in 21 Rotorway Helicopters including one Jet Exec, several Exec 152’s and Exec 90’s, and the remainder being Exec 162F’s in the past 12 months.

This past year we also purchased a complete helicopter dynamic balancing system that I take with me on my flight instruction trips. Quite often a builder’s just-completed helicopter is far out of main and tail rotor balance and tracking. We can now get all systems running smooth prior to beginning our flight training. Having a properly tuned rotor system is critical in keeping maintenance costs down.

We had a number of guests come to our facility in West Plains Missouri for flight training in their own helicopters which they trailered in. Most of them stayed with us in our home and it was a real pleasure to get to know them as we shared meals, did ground schooling, and flew helicopters together. When I did not have students at our home base, I traveled across the country providing flight training at the students location.

I was at our local airport recently giving some flight instruction in a Rotorway 162F when a friend and helo pilot, Fred, landed in his Hughes 269B. We landed and visited while Fred waited for his passenger for a flight up to the Lake of the Ozarks to check out some business property. The weather was looking marginal in the direction that Fred was heading and I asked him if he thought it wise to continue in such poor visibility. He told me that he had called flight service and the report was for VFR conditions all along his route so he felt that making the flight would be safe. I had concerns about the weather and expressed them to Jim.

He then related how he had done his first actual solo night cross country flight just a few days prior. He had been in St. Louis on business and by the time he was ready to fire up his helicopter and leave the airport it was dark. There was a slight mist falling but he could see well enough. His flight would be a distance of around 200 miles at night with overcast skies and light drizzle. The direct route that he chose took him over a very large and mountainous wilderness area where any lights were few and far between. The sky was obscured but he had found enough ground lights that allowed him to maintain visual reference with the ground.

I was perplexed by Fred’s seeming lack of judgment in conducting that flight in the conditions that existed, i.e: night time, after a long and tiring day, overcast skies, mist and drizzle, and over a remote area with very few ground lights that are critical to maintaining attitude awareness. Fred had a classic case of “get-home-it is” which has often proven fatal to those who succumb to it’s temptations. There is always that temptation to launch out in our machines to get home but sometimes that decision can get us into situations that we are ill equipped to handle and many pilots have paid the ultimate price for making it.

Fred seemed emboldened by the experience of successfully making it home. He felt that his piloting skills were to such a caliber that such flights should be no problem now or in the future. There is an old adage that applies as much today as it did many years ago when I first heard it: “There are OLD pilots and there are BOLD pilots, but there are very few OLD-BOLD pilots”. Fred has been flying helicopters for about 2 years now and seems to feel a bit of invincibility due to his piloting skills. His flying skills may be quite good but I sometimes question his decision making.

After our conversation at the airport Fred and his passenger got into the Hughes and headed north. My student and I decided that it was time to put the helicopter up as the conditions were deteriorating. Within 5 minutes Fred had turned around and returned to the airport stating that he just could not see more that a few hundred yards in front of him and was forced to fly lower than he felt was safe.

Every one of us that flies helicopters, whether experimental or certified, will be at some point be faced with the decision of “should I go or not?” If you answer that question with “I am pretty sure that I can make it” it most likely would be safest to stay on the ground. Which is safer? To be on the ground wishing you were in the air, or to be in the air wishing you were on the ground.

No Matter which helicopter you are planning on flying, avail yourself of the many avenues of flight training that are available to you. There are instructors that will come to you and instruct you in your own helicopter, helicopter flight schools that you can attend, and articles such as this one in which you can learn from the experiences of others.

I encourage every one of you to look up the NTSB accident database online at and read about the many helicopter accidents and their causes. The vast majority of those accidents were caused by pilot error and many of those involved CFI’s with students who are not as prepared as they should be for the situations that they find themselves in. There are some very good Certified Flight Instructors out there and there are some that are less than adequate for you needs. Get references from recent students that the CFI has trained to insure that the money that you are investing is well spent. Good training is going to cost you something, be sure that you are getting what you are paying for.

Getting the best training that you can find is the cheapest insurance that you can buy.

Orv Neisingh
Helicopter Certified Flight Instructor