Rotorcraft Rookie: New landing sites

April 23, 2014

I think it was the second lesson when I mentioned to my instructor that I had a major goal in training—to land off-airport. This week I finally got to do this solo—sort of.

Understandably the flight school doesn’t encourage students to squeeze the helicopter into anywhere they can. Off-airport landings are allowed, but generally only after earning a certificate, and even then the site must be approved by an instructor. After experiencing the differences in fixed-wing flying between flight training and real-world flying, I wanted to do what I could within reason to replicate the capabilities of the helicopter while still in training. A heliport is the next best thing.

Public-use heliports are few and far between. Although Helicopter Association International maintains a database, it’s generally organized by name or state. And what’s not few and far between are private heliports. That means sifting through hundreds of listings to find maybe one heliport—or not. I switched over to AirNav, which has a nifty function that enables a search of public-use heliports by state. And luckily for me, there’s one fewer than 25 miles away.

An earlier story discussed the ways in which a helicopter pilot assesses an off-airport landing site. Even though I was planning to go to a charted, public-use heliport, I didn’t want to take any chances. So I did what I could beforehand to stalk it over the Internet. Google Earth is an incredible resource. Satellite views clearly show the approach and departure path, and if there are street-level photos even standard rural telephone poles are easy to spot. Obviously you can’t rely on this information, but it’s an excellent first step to determine if a landing is even possible, and it gives a great mental picture if you decide to go.

I also used the tried-and-true method of calling to get local information. This is a great tactic for anything other than a long paved runway, and it’s practically essential for airplanes using grass runways, airports with special procedures, and newbie helicopter pilots.

P98, the Southern Adams County HeliportUnfortunately they never answered the phone, but I felt confident of being able to make the approach and a safe landing based on the satellite photos. This particular heliport, Southern Adams County (P98), has a landing pad located in an open field, allowing for really gradual descents and fairly easy departures. There are some low wires a few hundred feet to one side, but even in an R22 it’s easy to clear these without cheating into the height-velocity diagram too much.

Conveniently, I still needed .9 of cross-country time to meet the three-hour requirement. Helicopters are only required to fly 25 miles for a cross-county, but the heliport is a bit less than that. So I planned to overfly it, make a quick approach and set-down in Gettysburg, and then come back to the heliport. This allowed for another quick survey from the air as I cruised overhead. That pass was enough to confirm that the satellite photos were pretty accurate and the site was worth a closer look. After a quick stop at Gettysburg I was on my way back.

Helicopter traffic patterns are only about 500 or 600 feet above the ground, which allows for a close look at the landing site, but also puts you closer to towers and wires. I waited until I got close, then ventured down for the first pass, what’s called a high recon. Then it was down to a lower recon at 300 feet above the ground and a setup for the approach.

The clearing for P98 is large enough that the approach can be made in a profile somewhere between normal and steep, which is a perfect illustration of why this kind of exercise is important regardless of the type of aircraft being flown. The process of gathering information, making a decision, creating alternative plans, factoring in a safety protocol, and then adapting a technique to suit the conditions is infinitely more important than executing a perfect technique at a familiar airport. Accidents are predominately caused by a lapse in judgement, not technique or ability.

After a quick set-down and take off I was out of there, back to home and with another requirement knocked off. As I write this, I’m 0.8 hours short of the 10 hours of required solo with a checkride imminent.

Next time: Checkride prep.

Read all the stories in the Rotorcraft Rookie series.