Helicopter Emergencies During Instrument Flight

Emergencies during instrument flight are handled similarly to those occurring during VFR flight. A thorough knowledge of the helicopter and its systems, as well as good aeronautical knowledge and judgment, is the best preparation for emergency situations. Safe operations begin with preflight planning and a thorough preflight inspection. Plan a route of flight to include adequate landing sites in the event of an emergency landing. Make sure all resources, such as maps, publications, flashlights, and fire extinguishers, are readily available for use in an emergency.

During any emergency, first fly the aircraft. This means ensure the helicopter is under control, and determine emergency landing sites. Then perform the emergency checklist memory items, followed by items written in the rotorcraft flight manual (RFM). When all these items are under control, notify air traffic control (ATC). Declare any emergency on the last assigned ATC frequency. If one was not issued, transmit on the emergency frequency 121.5. Set the transponder to the emergency squawk code 7700. This code triggers an alarm or special indicator in radar facilities.


When experiencing most in-flight emergencies, such as low fuel or complete electrical failure, land as soon as possible. In the event of an electrical fire, turn off all nonessential equipment and land immediately. Some essential electrical instruments, such as the attitude indicator, may be required for a safe landing. A navigation radio failure may not require an immediate landing if the flight can continue safely. In this case, land as soon as practical. ATC may be able to provide vectors to a safe landing area. For specific details on what to do during an emergency, refer to the RFM for the helicopter.


Both straight-ahead and turning autorotations should be practiced by reference to instruments. This training ensures prompt corrective action to maintain positive aircraft control in the event of an engine failure.

To enter autorotation, reduce collective pitch smoothly to maintain a safe rotor RPM and apply pedal trim to keep the ball of the turn-and-slip indicator centered. The pitch attitude of the helicopter should be approximately level as shown by the attitude indicator. The airspeed indicator is the primary pitch instrument and should be adjusted to the recommended autorotation speed. The heading indicator is primary for bank in a straight-ahead autorotation. In a turning autorotation, a standard rate turn should be maintained by reference to the needle of the turn-and-slip indicator.

Common Errors During Autorotations

  1. Uncoordinated entry due to improper pedal trim
  2. Poor airspeed control due to improper pitch attitude
  3. Poor heading control in straight-ahead autorotations
  4. Failure to maintain proper rotor RPM
  5. Failure to maintain a standard rate turn during turning autorotations

Servo Failure

Most helicopters certified for single-pilot IFR flight are required to have autopilots, which greatly reduces pilot workload. If an autopilot servo fails, however, resume manual control of the helicopter. The amount of workload increase depends on which servo fails. If a cyclic servo fails, a pilot may want to land immediately because the workload increases tremendously. If an antitorque or collective servo fails, continuing to the next suitable landing site might be possible.

Flight Literacy Recommends

William Kershner's Instrument Flight Manual - Everything you need to know to obtain an FAA instrument rating, or a great refresher for existing instrument pilots. Covered subjects include airplane performance and basic instrument flying, navigation and communications, clearances, planning IFR flight, and carrying out the instrument flight itself from preflight, takeoff and departure, en route, through to the approach and landing phases.