Welcome to the fast lane — now slow down! Andy Roe explains why.
Many low-time pilots try to rush into a confined area as if it were the newly vacated parking spot near the front entrance to the multiplex. This always results in a poorly controlled approach, an abrupt landing and a departure plan over the trees ahead that doesn’t exist. An instructor can correct this tendency during training, but show this sort of flying to a prospective employer or seasoned customer, and you will soon find yourself back on the street again.
Good confined area work is what helicopter flight is all about. For customers, smoothly controlled and well-defined approach sequences make them feel safe, and they see this as good helicopter flying. Low-timers in a hurry, though, lack smooth control and are not able to handle the extra work load of a pending emergency or unanticipated wind change because all of their concentration is devoted to flying the helicopter.
I once asked some customers of mine if they would consider flying with a low-time pilot who was able to put together smooth and accurate approaches, landings and departures, but took some extra time to compose them. Without any hesitation, their answer was yes. Customers want to be safe, end of story.
To ensure controlled and efficient landings and departures when doing confined area work, there is a procedural aspect that needs to be practised and refined. All fight schools have a formal reconnaissance procedure designed to assess an enclosed area prior to setting up the first approach. In a nutshell, these can be summarised in three questions. Is the area suitable given the size and height of the obstructions? How will we get in and out? Do we have enough power to exit?
The best approach path will not have a sign stating, “Helicopters through here!” You must look for the most suitable approach. This is best done by circling 360 degrees around the area, far enough away to view all the gaps and openings leading into the vicinity. If there is a wind, the approach possibilities will be limited to the 180-degree arc on the downwind side. Golfers often hold their putter up in front of them to sight the curves, bumps and wind influences that might affect their ball on the way to the cup. All this effort simply to knock a dimpled ball toward a hole in the ground. As helicopter pilots, we need to have the same effort, and more, considering our human cargo on board.
On initial base leg, a good pilot can sometimes see the best into-wind approach ahead, determine that power and departure performance is adequate, and then turn onto the approach with a soft touchdown at the best location inside the area, all in one continuous sequence. Customers tell everyone at home that the pilot took them into the area without hesitation. In this case, the pilot was able to put together a comprehensive reconnaissance leading up to a good approach and landing in a timely manner. At the next location, though, more time may be needed to accomplish the same thing.
New pilots often choose the first approach they see or the one that seems obvious, and are frequently hard pressed to put together a short landing sequence. Plan one or more practice approaches from different vantage points to find the best one and to solve any problems associated with an area. Eventually, one of the practice approaches will become the final one. Don’t go in until you are ready, and give yourself the option of overshooting if the approach is poorly managed.
There are also two additional common low-time concerns that should be covered. First, the continuous, long, oval-shaped circuits to and from an area, where most of the air time is spent viewing the local scenery. Spend the same amount of time keeping the landing area in view and the customers will be able to size it up as well. If they want a scenic tour, they can go to Sydney Harbour.
Second, the really good approaches that begin to fall apart half way down are because the pilot abandons the approach and shifts all concentration to where the landing should take place. A variation on this is the approach that doesn’t take full advantage of the length of an area, because the pilot is too focused on the great-looking spot on the upwind side at the beginning of the area. The resulting steep and uncontrolled approaches have the customers grabbing for anything that will help them brace for impact. Finish the approach to a hover using the available length, then taxi inside to find the best touchdown location. It’s just that easy!
It is important to visualise all the events leading up to a successful confined area landing. When you learned to fly a basic circuit pattern during initial training, you needed to visualise all of the sequences ahead of you, all the way around to the landing where you are about to depart from. The same is true of any confined area landing. When you can visualise exactly how the approach, landing and departure are going to play out ahead of you, then and only then is it time to go in. The helicopter is an extension of your feet, arms and the large grey mass inside your head. You must be in complete control of both the machine you are in and the situation that surrounds you at all times. Control is everything. And don’t forget that the pilot slinging the Port-a-Potty around the movie set is the one who hasn’t yet learned how to properly land in a confined area.