I MUST CONTINUE
By Jannie Matthysen
IMC is the acronym for ‘Instrument Meteorological Conditions' and not ‘I Must Continue' as many helicopter pilots would like to believe. Bad weather or reduced visibility and the associated IMC conditions pose a significant flight hazard to any airborne craft. With most sophisticated aircraft, appropriately equipped and manned by a properly trained crew, these hazards are largely negated.
What makes helicopters different under IMC conditions then? The simple answer is: stability. A helicopter does not want to fly unsupervised. Any aeroplane that is properly trimmed will fly straight and level for several minutes without any pilot input. However, if you dare release the controls in a helicopter, your life expectancy is suddenly measured in seconds. It will beat itself to pieces long before you even reach the crash site. The simple solution is to fit an autopilot. Good idea, but the execution is a bit more complex - something like a million dollars more complex. An inherently unstable craft such as a helicopter requires a very advanced autopilot system to continuously monitor, correct, and stabilize this flying wonder. Such systems are only available on very sophisticated and expensive helicopters, and yes, a million dollars for an autopilot system in a new single-engine turbine helicopter is not far fetched.
What's the alternative? Helicopter pilots soon become expert scud-runners. Helicopters are mostly operated within 1000 - 2000ft of the surface, thereby flying below most weather. A reducing cloud base still leaves the option of slowing down, and unlike aeroplanes, helicopters have infinitely more precautionary landing sites available at any given time. These combined factors contribute to the fact that helicopter pilots tend to push the limits of IMC much further than we're supposed to.
IMC is not only confined to bad weather. Helicopters also come to grief at night when sudden darkness or just common disorientation in low light conditions or even blowing dust in broad daylight cause a very unexpected loss of all outside visual references. A freshly qualified night- or instrument rated pilot will tell you that inadvertent IMC should not pose a significant problem. There are a number of holes in that theory. When faced with inadvertent IMC, human beings take several seconds to correctly interpret the information that the instruments are trying very hard to convey. The instability of the helicopter further reduces your chances of survival, and the helicopter's close proximity to the surface accelerates your meeting with instant mortality.
My own story on the topic still gives me a very cold chill, even some fifteen years after the fact. I was flying in Northern Natal in a Police MBB Bo105. The aircraft was twin engine and IFR equipped, although it was not approved for IFR flight due to, amongst other reasons, its lack of an autopilot. The particular operation called for passengers to be air-lifted into remote mountainous areas that are not accessible by any means other than on foot or by helicopter. The operation continued for most of that particular day, with a take-off and landing every ten minutes under very challenging conditions. I had to contend with severe slopes at the landing sites, low cloud, strong winds, high mountains... I was having a ball.
My freshly acquired instrument rating and the ever present ‘back door' of being able to land anywhere if the weather deteriorated, meant that I was very motivated to complete the mission. I was even wearing the obligatory Ray-Bans for reasons other than perpetual coolness. The low cloud cover caused very bright light conditions which lead me to believe that the cloud layers were not more than a couple of hundred feet thick. I did not panic immediately when I found my return flight path down a valley to be obstructed by low cloud. I simply turned around to fly back to where I had just dropped the last load higher up the valley. It took me some fifteen seconds before flying in to a soft drizzle. I looked for a landing site, but the dense bush and severe slopes meant that the option of landing anywhere in the vicinity was not realistic. The horizon was also nowhere to be found. I promptly discovered that staring into a mountainside under low cloud cover, renders very few clues of where up or down is. I took one more look at the thin layer of cloud, clenched my jaw Top Gun-style, and pointed the helicopter down the valley and set maximum power at 60 knots for a very convincing rate of climb into the cloud. My altitude was around 3000ft, and I expected to see blue sky very soon. The plan was to break clear into the bright blue sky, and to later find a gap in the cloud that would put me below the weather again to resume my exciting operation.
Self-doubt began to manifest itself when the altimeter passed 5500ft. The cloud above seemed much brighter now, and therefore the beautiful blue sky could not be too far away. Several minutes later I found myself passing 10000ft, my senses working over-time, and my religious convictions at an all-time high. The first glimpse of the beautiful blue eventually occurred at nearly 12000ft. I had been in cloud for several minutes, and I had by that time received a few more chances of survival by actually being able to see outside the cockpit once again. The immediate danger was gone, but I soon realised that my problems were far from over. Apart from the beautiful blue sky, I could see nothing but a soft white layer of cloud in all directions. I had no idea of where I was, as GPS was nothing more than just another acronym at the time, and even worse, I had nobody to talk to. My desperate calls on the VFR frequencies were met with absolute silence (I was the only VFR sucker flying in those conditions), and I had no other resources such as maps or frequency charts in the cockpit as my intended operation was to be confined within a very small area. I guessed that the weather should be worse towards Durban, and that I should head north. The ‘Juliet Sierra' beacon near Jan Smuts Airport (as it was then known) was one of the strongest at the time, and I dialed its frequency on the ADF. It was one of the very few navigation aids that we regularly used to point us home, and I was relieved to remember its frequency under my extreme duress.
I settled into a nervous cruise and it then occurred to me that due to my inability to communicate with any air traffic controller, I could have a Cessna 210 or some Seneca ram into me flight level 120! I began cursing my own stupidity that left me in this dire situation. After another fifty minutes at this altitude, I was ecstatic to eventually see terra firma through a gap in the cloud, and I needed no further encouragement to drop through.
I opted to continue IFR (the I Follow Roads variety) and, thanks to a large road sign, I expertly pinpointed my position near Secunda. I still had enough fuel to return to our HQ near Swartkops AFB. Upon my arrival, I had some serious explaining to do on why I had returned from my operation two days early, and sans my luggage!
This little experience turned out to be one of those defining moments in my aviation career. I faced my own misplaced confidence, stupidity, mortality, and luck within the space of an hour or two. I have in recent years analyzed my actions in great detail. It does not take an expert to identify my lack of planning, poor judgement, inflated confidence, and plain stupidity. That's the good news. The bad news is that I see these same qualities in pilots every day. A simple word of caution, or even an expanded lecture often does little to change the way of the pilot who believes he is immune to the same mistakes. The one who won't opt for the safe alternative, the on who believes: ‘I Must Continue'.