Many runways follow highly prescriptive rules during construction, including surface type, obstacle clearance areas, approach paths, and more. This results in a nationwide network of runways that look remarkably similar, with predictable approach paths, a lack of dangerous obstructions, and reliably smooth surfaces.
Helicopter, seaplane, and backcountry pilots don’t always have this luxury of expectations. Their runways and touchdown zones are what they make them. They must be airport planner, designer, regulator, inspector, and pilot—all at once. Land-based fixed-wing pilots could learn from their experience when visiting the thousands of nonstandard runways dotting the countryside.
Evaluating a landing site is all about gathering as much information as possible. If someone lives or works at the strip you can call and ask about conditions, obstructions, and weather. If it’s a popular backcountry strip or an airpark, chances are there’s information online and searching it will give you some information. Google Earth, and now ForeFlight’s 3D Review tool, can give a nice broad overview of the general layout and approach and departure paths. But there’s no substitute for putting eyes on the strip.
Helicopter pilots use a two-step process for evaluating a landing zone. It begins with a high recon pass between 300 and 500 feet above the ground. On that pass many pilots use an acronym to help identify the potential risk. One example is WOFEEL.
Instead of assuming that everything is the same, seaplane and helicopter pilots must assume that every landing site is unique.
W: Wind. What direction is the wind coming from? How strong is it? Are there gusts? Is it conducive to landing at that site? Airplane pilots usually check windsocks at airports, but a quick glance at the speed and strength doesn’t give the whole picture. You can evaluate gusts with the sock, as well as variability. Changing direction can mean wind shear, which would be helpful to know long before you are on short final. If there isn’t a sock, use the trees, water, smoke, crop fields, or anything else you can find to make the evaluation.
O: Obstacles or obstructions. The high recon pass is a big-picture view. Look at the approach and departure paths for any sort of obstruction, be it a mountain, a house, trees, a road, or any number of hazards. This is also a time to look for power lines, which can be virtually invisible unless you know what to look for. Don’t expect to find orange balls. Instead, look for utility poles near the landing site, or strips of trees that have been cut down to clear an area for the lines.
F: Forced landing. If things go bad on the approach or departure, what will you do? At your home airport you likely have this mapped out in your mind, but while you’re still at a comfortable altitude and with time to slow down and think about your options, make a mental map of where you would go if things got bad in a hurry.
E: Entry. Picture the approach path and look for obstructions, signs of turbulent wind, and an area that allows for a stable approach.
E: Exit. We tend to focus on the approach when planning, but especially if it’s a short strip, take the time to consider the departure path as well. Is it clear of obstructions and does your airplane have the performance to take off? Look for areas that give off turbulent winds. This also gives another chance to examine areas for any potential forced landing, or a path to follow if the performance isn’t what you expect.
L: Landing site. Helicopter pilots check for the slope, surface type, and nearby obstructions, but airplane pilots can spend time considering the length and width of the runway, any overrun areas, and the surface type and condition. Excess water will reflect back at you, tall grass will make the strip look like a wheat field, and a combination of green and brown might indicate ruts or a rough surface. This is the time to do a last gut check and make sure what you are seeing also corresponds with what you calculated in the performance charts.
Although helicopter pilots perform the high recon only a few hundred feet above the surface, it probably makes sense to do it in an airplane at around 1,000 feet. If you’re on a backcountry strip, or an airport with minimal traffic, you can make the pass however you like. But at an airport with more traffic, follow a normal traffic pattern and then overfly the runway instead of descending for landing to stay out of everyone’s way.
After the high recon helicopter pilots often descend in one continuous maneuver for the approach and a low recon. This is where you verify what you have already seen, and most important, take a look for obstacles that may not have been visible higher up. It’s also a time that you may be able to initiate a go-around from a strip where it’s otherwise not possible on short final.
Ultimately, it’s a different mindset. Instead of assuming that everything is the same, seaplane and helicopter pilots must assume that every landing site is unique. Whereas a land-based airplane pilot typically only considers wind, that one constantly changing ingredient, helicopter and seaplane pilots must consider everything anew. Even landing sites they’ve visited before change. Logs float in, water levels change, power lines are constructed, surfaces change, and each day the environment is new.
When you approach an area with that mindset, things such as forced landing options and obstructions magically begin to appear.
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