Very few companies that operate helicopters in their business flight operations ever first start flying with a helicopter- and then transition into fixed-wing aircraft. The converse of this situation is the norm - therefore the dynamics of the flight operation that elects to add a helicopter to its fleet must usually change quite considerably.

AvBuyer  |  01st February 2011
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Adding A Helicopter To Your Flight Department

Very few companies that operate helicopters in their business flight operations ever first start flying with a helicopter- and then transition into fixed-wing aircraft. The converse of this situation is the norm - therefore the dynamics of the flight operation that elects to add a helicopter to its fleet must usually change quite considerably.

The content of the following article looks at some of the key issues that need consideration by a flight department looking to add a helicopter to its operations.

The dynamics of such change include an increase in Risk; an adherence to a strict Maintenance (Pre- and Post-Flight) inspection regime- and an operational discipline specific to helicopter operations alone. Insurance companies appear less keen on helicopters from a risk standpoint- and it is therefore not unusual to find that you pay double - even triple - in premium cost- compared to your fixed-wing machine.

The risks that are often encountered in helicopter operations are:

• Negative public opinion due to noise and perceived privacy issues;
• Possible collision with terrain and obstacles both on take-off- landing and in-flight (electrical and telephone wires being the greatest hazard due to their size and color);
• Passenger safety issues when entering or leaving the helicopter while the rotors are running (never allow umbrellas on- or near a helicopter);
• Increased vigilance- and expended man-hours - both of which are required to safely maintain a helicopter in an Airworthy condition;
• Severe limitations imposed against operations during icing conditions;
• Potential spatial disorientation issues within reduced visibility and night conditions; and
• Rotor-speed limitations (especially at shut-down) during wind gust activity usually above 35 knots wind-speed.

After reading the above list- you are probably thinking that I am- in-general- against helicopters. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am amazed at how few of the major corporations around the world that have a flight department actually own and use helicopters. There are far too few when one considers the benefits that helicopter ownership would afford them.

The most popular ‘unique selling propositions’ that Business Aviation provides to its users are: Time- Mobility- and Security. Under most conditions on short-haul routes- a helicopter easily delivers all three of these benefits.

Examples include the need to commute to- or from the office to the airport during peak road traffic delays; immediate and direct transportation from your airport facility- office or home to a critical worksite- without delay; or safe and secure transportation over areas where kidnapping and robbery are everyday hazards.

Unfortunately most townships around the world have a very different perception of what a helicopter delivers to the community. Noise and privacy concerns are in the forefront of local government and council mindsets. So much so that most municipal areas have written local ordinances and laws that prohibit helicopter operations to occur within the boundaries of a local community. Even two of the world’s largest cities- New York and London are bound by extremely stifling restrictions set against private-business helicopter operations.

Mexico City (as an example) which is one of the homes to the World’s richest person- Mr. Carlos Slim- has a very different approach to helicopter operations. Most executives and wealthy people there do not travel by automobile- but instead they use a helicopter- both for traffic- and security-related reasons.

The optimum travel radius for helicopter operations to be viable is less than 200 miles.

Apart from bringing in a suitably qualified pilot to fly a newly acquired helicopter that is being incorporated into an existing flight department- there are other requirements that also must be considered and accounted for. This includes the need to provide obstruction- free and properly lit helipad areas that are conveniently located at each place where the helicopter shall be operating. Even though a helicopter is capable of vertical takeoff and landing capability- the margins of safety where engine power loss or total failure are concerned are severely reduced in direct relationship to forward speed.

Therefore the chosen helipad areas should allow for relatively shallow climb-out and approach angles that are clear of obstructions.

In addition- the funneling wind effect caused by the immediate local topography like buildings- escarpments and trees- etc. must be considered when a location is chosen. Lastly the location must be debris free- i.e. no small or light pieces of anything- which includes small stones- twigs- branches- mulch- rubbish skips or anything else that can be set into a swirling motion or made airborne thanks to the rotor wash.

The location and construction of a helipad is only half of your task. The biggest hurdle to overcome is that of receiving local city- county and state approval for your helipad to be used.

If you want to locate one atop your corporate headquarters- or within a municipal area- you may well have to be the subject of several public hearings. Unfortunately helicopters are none too popular with the general public- and at most public hearings the general view that emerges is that of “not in my back yard!”

It is not uncommon for many of the largest cities that do allow civilian helicopter operations within their city limits- to establish specific helicopter routes over and around the city. It is typical that a 2-000 foot minimum ceiling applies- while the routes follow the paths of rivers- coastlines- and largely unpopulated areas. There is also usually a ‘slot’ system imposed for helicopters arriving or departing a public heliport- mainly as a measure to cut down on traffic and also to ensure that the heliport has enough parking and maneuvering space.

The slots at the London heliport are issued in 15 minute units- while the heliport there itself is restricted by the City of London to 12-000 movements a year. Often there is also a curfew in effect for any movements at night. London is restricted to only one public heliport- while New York has three.

Unlike fixed-wing aircraft that normally can fly several hours in the air for every hour of maintenance- inspection and repair worked on the aircraft- a helicopter often will have an opposite ratio of maintenance man-hours versus flight hours. This is attributable to the high levels of vibration that are produced in-flight- and even when ground-running.

Virtually every component on a helicopter is a critical component- meaning that its failure would compromise the ability for the machine to continue flying. For instance- loss of main rotor control through either a swashplate malfunction due to cracks or pitch change rod separation- or because of a hydraulic system failure would result in a total loss of control. Also helicopter bolts are known to have a tendency to stretch- loosen- wear or crack more than the same types of hardware used on fixed wing aircraft.

Obviously with so much more maintenance- inspection and repair work required by a helicopter versus a typical fixed-wing aircraft- when a flight department is adding rotary wing capability to its normal flight operations- the biggest changes and additions will have to be made within the in-house maintenance department.

Your maintenance team of A&Ps- if you plan to maintain the helicopter in-house shall have to take a manufacturer’s maintenance familiarization course. If you are buying your helicopter new- then at least two training course slots will come with the new machine.

Furthermore- your maintenance folks should also be skilled with vibration detection and analysis equipment so that the helicopter can be kept in perfect trim and synchronization. Vibration analysis is a key component in maintaining the correct blade adjustment and tracking tolerances. It is also best if your mechanics are adept at nondestructive testing methods like ultrasound- eddy-current- and coin-tap so that the main and tail rotor blades can be constantly surveyed for any hidden defects.

As a specific example- there are 92 individual life-limited airframe and engine components on a Bell 407- and 78 separate maintenance/ condition inspections that must be performed mostly on a 100 hour to 300 hour- or six-month schedule. The much larger Sikorsky S76 has 172 individually tracked airframe and engine components that must be watched-over and cared for. Ultimately- helicopters are highly ‘maintenance intensive.’

Unless the helicopter that you are incorporating into your fleet is equipped with a wheeled undercarriage- and instead it is equipped with a ski-landing gear you will need to either purchase or construct a ground handling trolley/trailer. This is a flat platform that is built to withstand the deadweight- take-off and landing loads of the helicopter as it is in-fact the actual helipad- and is equipped with wheels to enable the helicopter to be stored in a hangar instead of having to stay outside.

Alternatively there are lift-tug systems and also ancillary ground movement wheels that can be fitted to the skis to enable the aircraft to be hangared - but from experience a purpose-built trolley/trailer is a superior ground movement system.

Lastly we shall consider what will be necessary to flight-crew your new helicopter. To add a Rotorcraft Rating to your fixed-wing commercial pilot certificate in the U.S.- you need to meet the following requirements:

• 20 hours of dual flight instruction in a helicopter;
• 10 hours of solo flight in a helicopter;
• Flight proficiency check-ride.

Further- to attain a Rotorcraft Commercial Pilot certificate (add-on to your fixed-wing certificate) you will need an additional 50 hours in a helicopter with at least 35 hours acting as the pilot in command - including five hours in a helicopter in VFR conditions at night and a cross-country flight of at least 50nm and with three landing points - before you can take instruction towards the commercial rating.

The add-on commercial rating then requires that you receive 20 hours of dual flight instruction which includes:

• 5 hours of instrument flying in helicopters;
• A 2 hour daytime cross-country flight of more 50nm;
• A 2 hour nighttime cross-country flight of more 50nm;
• Flight proficiency check-ride.

The Rotorcraft Instrument Rating requires that you undergo 15 hours of Simulated Instrument in a Rotorcraft (including a filed IFR Cross Country of 100nm)- and then a Flight proficiency check-ride. Helicopters are naturally unstable machines- and therefore the stick and rudder- or in this case- cyclic-collective-tail rotor pedals skills of a pilot must be honed and intuitive. It is not unusual for pilots that are adding on a rotorcraft rating- to actually need to fly twice the number of required hours in order to achieve a comfortable level of proficiency.

Since most- if not all of the time spent at the controls of a helicopter is ‘hands-on’ without the aid of an autopilot- the cockpit workspace should be uncluttered while everything needed to make the flight (frequency controls- approach plates- charts- pens- note pads and the like) should all be close at hand for the pilot.

Further- helicopter flying requires an elevated state of attention and activity- and this- coupled with the normal vibration levels created by a helicopter- dictates that the relationship between rest and workload must be properly managed before it becomes a problem.

Helicopter flying is intensely tiring. Often it is customary for the pilot/pilots to wear a flight helmet- both to isolate ambient noise from the helicopter during radio communications- but also to make it easy to shield the pilot’s eyes from sunlight and glare by use of an integral sliding glare-shield. A helmet also becomes the mounting base for several tools that may become necessary- especially at night.

These tools include a flashlight and possibly a set of night vision goggles which have crossed over from the military and police world- into the civil helicopter world. The use of night vision goggles has dramatically lowered the number of wire-strike and controlled flight into terrain accidents that are rife during night-time helicopter operations.

In conclusion- it is obvious that adding a helicopter to your existing corporate flight department is not too difficult. The biggest hurdles that must be crossed in doing so- are the proper design and location of your helipads; providing sufficient maintenance capability to keep the helicopter in tip-top condition- providing your pilots and mechanics with the right equipment and training necessary for them to be successful- and lastly to be mindful of the intense negative thinking that exists out in the public domain regarding helicopters.

Jeremy Cox draws on a wealth of experience as a pilot- an aircraft engineer/ mechanic and an aviation writer. He currently serves as Vice President at JetBrokers- Inc - a professional aircraft sales company. More information from


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