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US Helicopter Safety Team Issues Blueprint to Prevent VFR Into IMC and Spatial Disorientation

Helicopters were involved in 130 fatal accidents between 2000 and 2019. (Fas Khan/Unsplash/)

Inadvertent VFR flight into IMC weather and the resulting fatal accidents are not simply a problem for aircraft pilots, but also for those flying helicopters. In a news release, the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) said, “Between 2000 to 2019 in the US, there were 130 fatal accidents directly linked to the issue of spatial disorientation. These accidents occurred regardless of pilot experience and they cut across all industries, including emergency medical services, law enforcement, tour operations, utility flights, corporate flying and personal/private flights.”

“For decades, studies, articles, research papers, and discussions have been published theorizing why accidents related to degraded visual environments consistently occur and it has been hard to find clear answers that can slow or stop these tragic accidents,” explained Nick Mayhew, industry co-chair of the USHST. “In part, the accidents stem from failed planning, lack of understanding, or poor decision-making. All pilots have the option to turn down a flight before launch, turn around, proceed to an alternate, or land in a safe place if the weather deteriorates below company or personal minimums, yet we continue to see these types of accidents.”

In response to these accidents, the USHST has developed a new Recommended Practices document focusing on “Spatial Disorientation Induced by a Degraded Visual Environment” and offering training and decision-making solutions. We are proposing a shift in the way we discuss, train and react to deteriorating or unplanned weather conditions,” added Mayhew.

The Recommended Practices document focuses on avoidance of IIMC, as well as preflight planning that includes enroute decision processes, in-aircraft training that simulates a lack of visibility and training of recovery techniques and committing to instruments. This USHST Recommended Practice document was created to provide an initial framework for future comprehensive training packages aimed at reducing helicopter accidents stemming from spatial disorientation. It is one of several significant safety initiatives developed by the USHST to reduce the number of fatal accidents. The blueprint comes at a time when the industry has marked a little more than a year since the fatal VFR-into-IMC accident that took the lives of nine people in California, including Kobe Bryant.

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