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The Precautionary Helicopter Landing

Helicopter Navigation:  Why Learn Helicopters | Costs | Private Pilot Helicopter | Commercial Pilot Helicopter | Glossary | Helicopter Lesson Guides | Helicopter Ground School | SFAR73
by Darren Smith, CFII/MEI
from PocketLearning, August 2005
CFIDarren Newsletter, May 31, 2011
I was reminded recently of one of my early helicopter experiences in which I made an off-airport precautionary landing.  As in all flying, distraction is the birthplace of the best disasters.  I was in a rush to get to a remote landing area to pick up a document then return to the downtown airport.  Instead of solid calculations which consider distance, winds, and aircraft performance, I let the urgency of the trip affect my judgement.  As a result, fuel wasn't what it should have been, the power setting wasn't what it should have been, and the weather conditions did not cooperate with my viewpoint.  As I finished the return leg of the trip, a certain panic set in when I saw the fuel gauge near zero.  It defied explanation as I had considered winds, distance, trip time, and fuel available.  As I set to determine the reasons why the fuel was becoming critical, I noticed that my power was set higher than I planned for.  I immediately thought I had found the culprit robbing me of fuel. 

The hardest decision in the world for a pilot was facing me:  the off-airport landing. 

As I started the process of looking for potential landing sites, I noticed that my direction of travel was into the wind.  I had planned for a tailwind based on available information!  This had certainly affect my ability to complete the flight as planned.  Strike two. 

After locating several suitable landing zones in front of me, I set up for a straight-in landing to a large open field.  Was I familiar with this landing zone?  Did I know where the obstacles were? 
Strike three!!  An off-airport landing should be treated as a confined area with the associated precautions taken.  I wasn't "out" because I caught my error in time and performed a high & low reconnaisance for the landing zone,  considering surface conditions and escape routes. 

My decision was even more difficult as I was only 4 miles away from the airport.  Any landing zone I picked other than the airport would result in the off-airport delivery of fuel.  
That 4 miles didn't seem too far so it was awefully tempting to continue the flight.  As I had been over that ground track on the previous leg of the trip, I knew what faced me was water and powerline hazards if I continued.  I figured a landing in my own hands was far better than a landing in the hands of Dr. Autorotate.  The decision to make the precautionary landing resulted in a safe, under-control landing to an adequate landing zone. 

A quick phone call back to base brought fuel to me in under 30 minutes.  During that time, I had an opportunity to give tours of the helicopter to folks who had never been so close to one, let alone see one land in the field next to their office.  As it turns out, I probably had enough fuel to reach the airport.  But I'll stand on my decision to land as the most safe & conservative choice that could have been made. 

In all we do as pilots, decision-making is by far the most important.  From our preflight planning to the completion of the flight, our ability to  build safeguards and alternatives into our efforts gives us the best chance of success.  Pilot in command responsibilities also include planning alternatives should the flight being undertaken can not be completed as expected. 

Safety Resources

IFR Risk Management
16 Things Helicopter Pilots Must Learn
Making Safe Choices
Flying Discipline
Hazardous Attitudes
Things Your Flight Instructor Worries About
Aviation Safety Programs
Personal Minimums Checklist (Airplane)
Flight Profile Flying - how to improve safety flying the profile
Introduction to Aeronautical Decision Making
    Hazardous Attitudes le

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