Let’s Get High!
Calm down, get a grip. No, I am not advocating the use or distribution of drugs. The high I speak of involves altitude, height above the ground, the distance between the aircraft and the real estate below. Also known as your safety margin.
I think we can all agree that, in general, flying lower than the mission requires is not a good thing. The higher you are, the better off you are — this seems like a basic premise of flight.
In our industry, there are some situations where low-level flight is necessary because of mission requirements or other reasons:
- Aerial applications
- Aerial firefighting
- Airspace limitations
- Air traffic control (ATC)
- External loads
- Search and rescue
- Weather conditions
- Utility and pipeline patrol and repair.
The good news is that pilots who conduct such operations on a regular basis normally undergo additional training. Because of the increased risks associated with low-level flight, they make a point to know the operating area and to utilize additional safety measures on these missions, such as wire cutters, wire detection/warning systems, and dedicated observers.
Except for such situations, I think you would be hard-pressed to justify low-level flight operations. This is confirmed by the various accident reports that indicate that controlled flight into terrain, water, or obstacles is often the result of unnecessary low-altitude operations. If you can explain why you fly low level when you do not have to, I would really like to hear from you.
The logical question you should ask yourself is this: why put yourself at low altitudes in an obstacle-rich environment when you do not have to? At low altitude, you can run into all kinds of nasty things like birds, kites, wires, towers, and terrain, to name a few. In addition, other aircraft are more difficult to see at such altitudes because of background clutter.
Higher altitude also provides you with additional time to react to in-flight emergencies such as engine failures in a single-engine aircraft. The pilot flying at higher altitude has more time to set up an autorotation and find a suitable emergency landing area. Additionally, your ability to communicate with ATC or other third parties is enhanced at higher altitudes.
Despite all these advantages, some pilots still make the astonishing decision to operate at low altitude, even though the mission, weather, or ATC did not require it. The results are often fatal.
In one accident, a pilot was conducting an air tour of a corporate facility in visual flight rules weather and struck wires that were 65 feet above the ground. That’s right, 65 feet off the ground. Everyone on the aircraft was killed.
In another incident, a helicopter air ambulance pilot returning to base with no patient went low level to demonstrate nap-of-the-earth flying, hoping to impress the medical crew. I bet they were really impressed when they hit wires.
A charter pilot went low level on a sunny day along a beach to give his passengers the opportunity to observe sunbathers and swimmers in the surf. Great idea — until he hit a kite being flown with high-strength fishing line that wrapped around the control linkage and caused the aircraft to crash.
Then there is the old standard of flying your friends or yourself low over your respective houses and hitting an obstacle while your family observes the whole event.
When are we pilots finally going to get it? Flights should be conducted in a professional manner, with safety first, above all else. The excitement aspect, wow factor, or desire to impress passengers should not be part of aeronautical decision making.
I hate to break the news, but the average passenger is extremely excited, definitely wowed, and certainly impressed with the pilot who takes them up in a helicopter, flies at a safe altitude so that they can experience wonderful panoramic views, and then returns them safely to earth.
What we should not be doing is treetop, nap-of-the-earth, low-level aerobatic terror rides, with white-faced passengers exiting the helicopter, saying “I thought we were going to die.” Such flights often do end in death. For no good reason.
Be a professional. Let’s get high and fly high. And land safely, every time.
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, fly safe and fly neighborly.
Matt Zuccaro is president of HAI.