Never let the aircraft take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes ago. This holds especially true when operating in wintery conditions.
As I watched the first snow flurries fall in middle TN the other day, I was reminded of a story an old Army instructor pilot shared with me. He was assigned to a Blackhawk unit in Korea that was scheduled to fly an early morning mission. The unit’s aircraft were normally kept in a heated hangar overnight, but for reasons he could not recall, the aircraft were left tied-down outside. The following morning, the crew went out and performed a preflight inspection before sunrise. Snow found on the aircraft was cleared away, but ice on the rotor blades went unnoticed. Nothing seemed unusual about the start sequence, until they noticed the ground personnel diving for cover and heard a loud thud from the rear of the aircraft. After exchanging a “what the hell was that?” expression with his co-pilot, he performed an emergency shutdown. Walking back to the tail rotor, he discovered that the undetected ice had shed off the rotor as it spun up, resulting in a softball (or maybe snowball?) size hole in the tail rotor pylon.
Winter weather requires that certain considerations be given to possible consequences before attempting a flight maneuver. For example, you wouldn’t want to bring the helicopter to a stationary hover over a fresh blanket of snow. This could potentially result in a whiteout condition, requiring an instrument takeoff (ITO)-type maneuver to climb above your self-inflicted IMC situation. Were this to happen at a controlled airfield, it could result in some unnecessary tap-dancing by ATC to maintain traffic separation. The safest approach is to expect the worst when preparing to hover in snowy conditions. Always assume a whiteout condition will result from your actions, and leave yourself an out. This mindset, coupled with proper preparation, will make for a safer flight. Pilots should also take the time to consider the surface they are landing on. Snow can make a sloped surface appear level, and mask obstacles like rocks, logs, holes or small children. Again though, if you prepare for the worst and treat all landings as possible slopes you’ll be prepared to react accordingly.
It’s too late to talk about training when you’re white-knuckling the cyclic and praying you didn’t just go inverted because you’ve got Spatial-D over a snowy field. The time to review hazards associated with winter flying is now, while you’ve got a beverage of your choice in hand and Mr. Gravity doesn’t seem like such an angry guy. Identify the hazards to your flight, and then develop control measures that will effectively mitigate these risks.
If you would like to know more about Jason Shaffer, Winter Flying, aviation insurance, helicopter insurance or aircraft insurance, please don’t hesitate to call him at CS&A Aviation Insurance, 800.999.1109. Don’t forget to check out or web site, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Channel.