Winter wonderland – staying safe during winter operations

As most of us know, Northern Europe and especially Norway, is a demanding environment for helicopter operations. There are many factors involved, especially during the winter season.

Think about factors like the weather, ice, white outs, snow landing, flame outs, fuel, starting the helicopter in cold weather, parking outside, skids stuck to the ground, frozen ground and more.

It is very important to plan the flight in detail. What type of operations, and where to fly/land in case of an emergency situation. What is the experience of the student/pilot who controls the helicopter? What type of training is conducted? Which helicopter is used?  With the R44/R22 with carb heat (not fuel injected), can experience carb icing. Proper use of this is vital.

For a navigation flight in a remote area for “white out” training, proper clothing must be worn at all times. In case of an emergency, the rule of thumb is: one minute of  flight time is equivalent to one hour walking in the snow. Something to remember If for some reason you have to land somewhere and get to a cabin or higher ground to be able to communicate and get help.

When conducting winter training or operations, the pilot should follow different procedures depending on the complexity of the activities, the risk involved and the potential consequences of the operation.

White out conditions
The white out is a condition when a pilot loses orientation capability due to missing contrast in the surroundings because of snow and fog. It may occur on snow covered terrain, but also on a cloudy day, in falling snow or with snow surrounding the helicopter due to the helicopter downwash (self-induced white-out). This may provoke dangerous flying conditions and total loss of the control of the helicopter.

It is important to be aware of these phenomena and avoid weather conditions that may be dangerous.

To avoid white out it is important to:

  1. Avoid flying at low altitude over snow covered surfaces without proper references.
  2. Do not fly into heavy snow showers.
  3. If it is not possible to see the difference between ground and horizon, turn around or land.

Different techniques may be used to reduce the risk of entering self-induced white out conditions:

  1. If possible stop in a high hover and try to blow the snow away. Be aware of different snow types, and that the snow may start to recirculate suddenly when the helicopter is close to the ground.
  2. Do not attempt to land if there is no object you can use as a reference during landing.
  3. Perform a fast approach with a slightly forward movement and avoid low hovering.
  4. Turn the nose of the helicopter, so the reference is visible at all times and fly close to it.
  5. Make use of landing lights.
  6. At take-off, lift the helicopter slowly to light on skids. If white out conditions occur land immediately, if not a maximum performance take off shall be performed with a slightly forward movement and always keep a point as a reference. Avoid hovering.

Note: During the low reconnaissance check, make sure that the take-off path is free from obstacles, in case of white out occur during landing and an abort is necessary.

Flat light conditions
This phenomenon is almost the same as white out, but may occur over snowy terrain on a cloudy day, or a sunny day when entering shadow areas. Under these conditions, it will be difficult to see contrasts like height, sloping terrain and the difference between horizon and terrain. When flying in these conditions, check the altimeter and instruments more often. Landings shall not be performed without proper references. Before landing, make sure the tail is clear and ground suitable for landing.

Landing and pick-up on soft surface
Prior to landing on snow, the pilot shall always have a reference. This could be a rock, a tree, skid marks etc. Always check that the area is more or less flat. This could be checked with a landing light on skids, then lift up again and see that you can see both skids marks in the snow. At the same time check that the tail rotor is clear.

When landing, slowly lower the collective with a slightly forward cyclic to get the front of the helicopter lower than the back of the skids. During the landing, and slightly before collective full down, move the collective up and down to check the snow and the risk for breaking through. When lifting up the helicopter, lift the nose slightly first if the helicopter is parked with nose down.

Check both skids are free from the snow before take-off.

Note: No helicopters shall land in snow depth over 30 cm without bearpaws installed.

Start up and shut down on a slippery surface
When starting up or shutting down the helicopter on a slippery surface, it is important to maintain focus on the instruments and keep both feet and hands on the flight controls.

If possible park the helicopter so it can turn 360 degrees without interference with obstacles.  Nobody on the ground shall be within 10 metres from the helicopter during start up and shut down.

If possible, the landing spot shall be cleaned or salted, and must be clear at all permanent landing sites.

Pre-ice and anti-ice
Be careful when removing ice and snow. Only use your hands, towels, brush and warm water if necessary.

Take precautions if the helicopter is parked outside, and use covers, tie downs etc.

The helicopter shall be free from all ice and snow before take-off.

Icing in flight
If encountering icy conditions, symptoms may be:

  1. Ice present and visible on the helicopters windshield, skids, mirror etc.
  2. Vibrations
  3. Higher need for power or torque than normal

Note: Operations in known icy conditions are prohibited.

Emergency procedures
The standard emergency procedures described in the emergency checklist for the helicopter type in use, is applicable.

  1. White out: If these conditions occur, the procedures depend on the flying situation.
  2. Self-induced white out during landing: Immediately abort the landing and continue the take-off according to normal procedures.
  3. Self-induced white out during take-off: Immediately land the helicopter, if this is not possible immediately transfer your attention to the instruments and continue the take off until normal references are recovered.
  4. White out during flight: Immediately turn 180 degrees and try to recover your references, and make use of your instruments to maintain control over the helicopter.

Many of the Leading Helicopter Academies offer training specific to winter conditions, including EHC, Heli Austria, Mountainflyers and Superior Air. Check them out here: LHA Academies