features Learning about the weather from a pilot’s perspective

How do helicopter pilots learn about the challenges presented by different weather phenomena?
Avatar for Ed Brotak By Ed Brotak | November 12, 2021

Estimated reading time 14 minutes, 4 seconds.

Weather conditions play a crucial role in any flight. Inclement weather — extremes of temperature, precipitation, wind, or any number of other factors — can make a flight infinitely more challenging than it would be on a clear warm day. 

A student pilot and instructor get to grips with a 30-knot wind during a training session in a Robinson R22. Heath Moffatt Photo

“Weather is a huge item of interest and concern,” said Clarke Pleasants, rotor program chair in the Department of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Weather affects your power, your fuel calculation, how many passengers you can have onboard, [and whether] you can effect a safe landing at your destination.”

There are three major components in a helicopter pilot’s weather education: looking at the major weather threats to a safe flight; how atmospheric conditions affect the aerodynamics of flight; and how to find pertinent weather information and decipher it. 

The first element can be further broken down into two parts: how do you avoid hazardous weather conditions, and if you do encounter them, what should you do?

Pilots should acquire this knowledge through basic training. “Quality training is the first line of defense against accidents and incidents,” Terry Eichman, head of training operations at Leonardo Helicopters, told Vertical. “Your best counter measures to any of those avoidable incidents is a solid training program.” 

First, there is the “book learning.” This is typically done in ground school. All pilots, whether fixed-wing or rotary-wing, will learn the basics of how the atmosphere works and weather systems. 

“It’s not that you’re going to be a weather forecaster, but you need to understand what a meteorologist is telling you,” said Pleasants. Pilots must be able to look at weather maps and other weather information and understand what it means.

This ground school work would be analogous to a college level introductory course in meteorology for the general student. But the student pilot would then learn more about the specific weather effects on aircraft — and here we would start to see a difference between fixed-wing and helicopter student pilots.

Tim Tucker leads a class of students during Robinson Helicopters’ three day Pilot Safety Course. Guy Maher Photo

One of the primary references for helicopter pilot education is the FAA Helicopter Flying Handbook 2019. According to the handbook, besides the weight of the aircraft, the two most important factors affecting performance are wind (direction and speed) and air density.

Another good reference is the FAA Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. Although designed for fixed-wing pilots, this handbook goes into much greater detail about weather elements that would also pertain to the flying of helicopters. There are chapters on aeronautical decision-making, which deals with a wide variety of weather hazards; principles of flight, covering aeronautics and lift; aircraft performance, emphasizing the importance of wind and air density on takeoff and landing; weather theory, providing a wide overview of weather elements and their effect on aircraft; and aviation weather service, which explains weather information and how to get it.

Besides typical pilot training schools, some colleges also offer full pilot training as well as college degrees. At the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, students can major in Aeronautical Science-Helicopter, through which they can get standard pilot training plus additional classes to obtain a full college degree. Majors in this option must take three weather classes: WX 201 Survey of Meteorology, a WX 203L Lab, and WX 301 Aviation Meteorology. Under the Aeronautical Science heading, there are a number of courses that deal with weather, including AS 252 Instrument Helicopter Operations, AS 309 Aerodynamics, and AS 408 Flight Safety. “Our students are getting weather from all sides,” said Pleasants.

Ongoing training

After basic training, there are various opportunities to complete more specialized training where weather issues are further emphasized. 

The AW169 full flight simulator installed at the Leonardo Training Academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Leonardo Photo

Airbus Helicopters North America (AHNA), for example, offers a two-day Inadvertent Instrument Meteorological Conditions [IIMC] and Unusual Attitude Recovery Training Course at its training center in Grand Prairie, Texas. It includes analysis of pertinent weather information to avoid IIMC, the results of getting into IIMC (such as spatial disorientation and unusual attitude), and how to recover. 

Leocopter Air Services, located in Switzerland, offers a number of advanced courses and seminars, often with Claude Vuichard — president of non-profit organization Vuichard Recovery Aviation Safety Foundation — as the instructor. 

Leonardo’s Eichman said weather is covered as a key element of flight instruction at the company’s newly-opened training academy in Philadelphia. “Crew decision-making in terms of risk management in terms of weather conditions. IIMC is a large part of all of our discussions, decision-making, [and we practice] upset recoveries.” 

Robinson Helicopters’ three-day Pilot Safety Course, led by Tim Tucker, involves an examination of helicopter accidents — including those caused by weather. “During the safety course, we stress ‘avoidance,’ ” said Tucker. Also covered are “personal weather minimums, ‘get-home-itis,’ ‘lose visibility-lose control,’ enroute decision points, and finally ‘land the damn helicopter.’ ”

Finding the information

There are many sources of aviation weather information online. In the U.S., the National Weather Service’s Aviation Weather Center has all the latest information, including current conditions and forecasts. It also has the HEMS Tool, which was specifically designed for helicopter operations. 

FAA Weather Services provides weather information through its Flight Service Stations and online through Leidos Flight Service. In Canada, Nav Canada provides the aviation weather website. Other countries have similar support facilities. 

Pilots are taught to decipher current aviation weather observations (METARS), and aviation forecasts (Terminal Aviation Forecasts or TAFs, and Area Forecasts or FAs). They should be able to understand current weather maps such as the Surface Analysis Chart, the Radar Summary Chart, and the Winds and Temperature Aloft Charts. Crucial forecast charts include the Significant Weather Prognostic Chart and the Convective Outlook Chart. 

The goal is to make an informed “go/no-go” decision. When the current and/or forecast weather conditions indicate no problems or show that conditions are clearly below minimums, then the decision should be easy. It’s when conditions are marginal that the pilot’s judgment becomes critical. Even when the situation is above set minimums, does the pilot feel confident flying? Here, personal minimums come into play.

A simulated effect

Learning from a book about dangerous weather situations may help you to see them in advance and hopefully avoid them. But if you still wind up in such a situation, practical experience can be hugely helpful. “You can pass the weather exam but have never experienced the weather situation,” said Vuichard. However, deliberately taking a helicopter into dangerous weather is risky in most situations, and could be potentially deadly. 

Simulators offer a safer way to experience flight in challenging weather conditions, and with the equipment now available, just about any situation can be accurately replicated. “Simulators do a great job enabling pilots to practice and train in areas that are too dangerous to do in flight,” said Tim Tucker. 

Simon von Niederhäusern, head of marketing for VRM Switzerland, said the company’s virtual reality VRM R22 sim, which simulates a Robinson R22, is capable of recreating a number of weather challenges. “[We can create] any visibility down to zero; ceiling and top of an overcast sky with gradual transition; flying on top of an overcast cloud layer; day and night.”

The Thales H145 Level D full flight simulator was inaugurated in the Helisim Simulation Center, located inside the Airbus Helicopters Inc. facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, in May 2021. Airbus Helicopters Photo

He said the sim can also replicate severe turbulence, with changes in speed, direction, and vertical variation. “This gives the opportunity to train the wind effects during turns around the yaw axis, which can cause, depending on the pilot’s reaction, a loss of yaw control,” said von Niederhäusern.

Joël Flinois, helicopter simulation product line manager in Thales’s training and simulation business, said the company’s new H145 full flight simulator “allows pilot training on all weather conditions as required by the highest level of FAA qualification [FAA FFS Level D] with a very immersive experience. It guarantees good mission preparation, whatever it takes, and improves the safety of flights.” 

These conditions include several cloud layers that can be defined by altitude, thickness, density, and visibility in the layer; fog, defined by level of visibility and thickness; all types of precipitation (including rain, snow and hail); and changes in wind direction, speed, and altitude. It can also create individual clouds (including those with lightning), has some pre-set weather conditions, and can recreate different runway conditions (such as wet or icy). This simulator is now being used in the Helism Simulation Center inside the Airbus Helicopters, Inc. facility in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Leonardo Helicopters’ Eichman said: “Weather is a base part of our simulation in the synthetic environments as well. [It] creates situational awareness, [but] avoidance is your first line of defense.”

Tim Tucker thinks simulators will only get better. “Simulators are somewhat like GPS was a few years ago — whatever the state-of-the-art is today, it will be better tomorrow. Virtual reality, higher fidelity, and lower cost will surely make simulation a big part of the training and recurrent training landscape.”

After a helicopter pilot gets their license, it is crucial that they stay current on weather knowledge. First, to prevent getting “rusty” or forgetting parts of their training, but also to keep up on the latest developments. “Helicopter pilots must stay proficient,” said Vuichard.

And they must keep making good decisions, as Tucker highlighted.

“I think instructors do a pretty good job teaching where to get weather information when planning a ‘cross-country flight,’ since nowadays there are so many sources available that getting good reports/forecasts is fairly easy,” said Tucker. “With new sources such as webcams and the HEMS Weather Tool becoming more available to the helicopter pilot, lack of good weather information is becoming less and less an issue. The issue is, even with up-to-date weather info, pilots are still making bad decisions.”

Pilots train in the snow at the International Test Pilots School in London, Ontario. Eric Dunnigan Photo

Besides taking additional courses and training, groups such as the International Helicopter Safety Foundation, the US Helicopter Safety Team, and Helicopter Association International are excellent sources of the latest weather safety information, and are repositories for weather education materials. 

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