Can helicopters only fly in nice weather?


Helicopter pilots spend a good amount of time planning their flights around weather systems. A smart pilot always has at least a general understanding of the weather forecast for a certain area that he or she is flying through. As you can probably imagine, flying on a sunny, clear, cloudless day is something that we look forward to, but pilots must be ready with a plan for unexpected weather.

Some helicopters are certified by the FAA for flight into clouds where there is limited or zero outside visibility, just like airlines are allowed to do. However, others are not and must stay away from the clouds at all times. Pilots who fly helicopters that are permitted to fly into the clouds do so only by looking at the instrument cluster in the aircraft.

All helicopters are able to fly in the rain, the water droplets do basically nothing to the aircraft and the machines ability to fly is not inhibited at all. The rain does however affect the pilot’s ability to see outside depending on the rain’s intensity. This concept is known as ‘flight visibility’. The FAA requires that pilots fly in weather where their flight visibility is at least a half mile to three miles or more depending on how high up they fly. The weather reports and forecasts that pilots analyze before a flight, which include tools such as METARs, TAFs, and the GFA, contain information about what level of visibility can be expected at a certain time, but, as pilots, we know that weather conditions are always changing so we need to be prepared.

A major part of the flight lessons we cover throughout the year here at the Hillsboro Heli Academy helicopter flight school is how to safely fly in varying weather conditions so that our helicopter student pilots can gain real-world understanding of what the changing flight visibility can look like from day to day and season to season. This experiential knowledge is of massive importance to their ability to first analyze the situation, second to mitigate risk, and third to make safe decisions during their future careers.

Now about storms. Rain is one thing, but more often than not storms are another animal altogether. We learn in our weather-related flight lessons that storms present a notable level of unpredictability to a pilot and the helicopter. Factors like wind and turbulence, intense rain and lightning, hail or snow, and updrafts or downdrafts need to be carefully considered. A good rule of thumb is to stay at least 20 miles away from the edge of a storm system to maintain safety. We never fly near thunderstorms because the risks presented outweigh any possible rewards from a certain flight lesson. This actually highlights another very important skill that we instill in our student pilots: the ability to say ‘no’ to a dangerous flight. This is a truly lifesaving skill for a helicopter pilot to have.

To learn more about our helicopter training and how to incorporate weather-related lessons in a training program to improve the overall skills of the pilot, contact us at Hillsboro Heli Academy.