Helicopter VFR Minimums
Helicopters have the same VFR minimums as airplanes with two exceptions. In Class G airspace or under a special visual flight rule (SVFR) clearance, helicopters have no minimum visibility requirement but must remain clear of clouds and operate at a speed that is slow enough to give the pilot an adequate opportunity to see other aircraft or an obstruction in time to avoid a collision. Helicopters are also authorized (14 CFR Part 91, appendix D, § 3) to obtain SVFR clearances at airports with the designation NO SVFR on the sectional chart or in the Chart Supplement (CS). Figure 7-7 shows the visibility and cloud clearance requirements for VFR and SVFR. However, lower minimums associated with Class G airspace and SVFR do not take the place of the VFR minimum requirements of either Part 135 regulations or respective OpSpecs.
Knowledge of all VFR minimums is required in order to determine if a PinS approach can be conducted or if a SVFR clearance is required to continue past the (MAP). These approaches and procedures are discussed in detail later.
Helicopter IFR Takeoff Minimums
14 CFR Part 91 imposes no takeoff minimums on the helicopter pilot. However, Rotorcraft Flight Manuals may require the helicopter to attain at least Vmini before entering IMC. For most helicopters, this requires a distance of approximately 1⁄2 mile and an altitude of 100 feet. If departing with a steeper climb gradient, some helicopters may require additional altitude to accelerate to VMINI. To maximize safety, always consider using the Part 135 operator standard takeoff visibility minimum of 1⁄2 statute mile (SM) or the charted departure minima, whichever is higher. A charted departure that provides protection from obstacles has either a higher visibility requirement, climb gradient, and/or departure path. Part 135 operators are required to adhere to the takeoff minimums prescribed in the instrument approach procedures (IAPs) for the airport.
Helicopter IFR Alternates
The pilot must file for an alternate if weather reports and forecasts at the proposed destination do not meet certain minimums. These minimums differ for Part 91 and Part 135 operators.
Part 91 Operators
Part 91 operators are not required to file an alternate if, at the estimated time of arrival (ETA) and for 1 hour after, the ceiling is at least 1,000 feet above the airport elevation or 400 feet above the lowest applicable approach minima, whichever is higher, and the visibility is at least 2 SM. If an alternate is required, an airport can be used if the ceiling is at least 200 feet above the minimum for the approach to be flown and visibility is at least 1 SM, but never less than the minimum required for the approach to be flown. If no instrument approach procedure has been published for the alternate airport, the ceiling and visibility minima are those allowing descent from the MEA, approach, and landing under basic VFR.
Part 135 Operators
Part 135 operators are not required to file an alternate if, for at least one hour before and one hour after the ETA, the ceiling is at least 1,500 feet above the lowest circling approach minimum descent altitude (MDA). If a circling instrument approach is not authorized for the airport, the ceiling must be at least 1,500 feet above the lowest published minimum or 2,000 feet above the airport elevation, whichever is higher. For the IAP to be used at the destination airport, the forecasted visibility for that airport must be at least 3 SM or 2 SM more than the lowest applicable visibility minimums, whichever is greater.
Alternate landing minimums for flights conducted under 14 CFR Part 135 are described in the OpSpecs for that operation. All helicopters operated under IFR must carry enough fuel to fly to the intended destination, fly from that airport to the filed alternate, if required, and continue for 30 minutes at normal cruising speed.
Helicopter Instrument Approaches
Many new helicopter IAPs have been developed to take advantage of advances in both avionics and helicopter technology.
Standard Instrument Approach Procedures to an Airport
Helicopters flying standard instrument approach procedures (SIAP) must adhere to the MDA or decision altitude for Category A airplanes and may apply the 14 CFR Part 97.3 (d-1) rule to reduce the airplane Category A visibility by half but in no case less than 1⁄4 SM or 1,200 RVR. [Figure 7-8] The approach can be initiated at any speed up to the highest approach category authorized; however, the speed on the final approach segment must be reduced to the Category A speed of less than 90 KIAS before the MAP in order to apply the visibility reduction. A constant airspeed is recommended on the final approach segment to comply with the stabilized approach concept since a decelerating approach may make early detection of wind shear on the approach path more difficult. [Figure 7-9]
When visibility minimums must be increased for inoperative components or visual aids, use the Inoperative Components and Visual Aids Table (provided in the front cover of the U.S. Terminal Procedures) to derive the Category A minima before applying any visibility reduction. The published visibility may be increased above the standard visibility minima due to penetrations of the 20:1 and 34:1 final approach obstacle identification surfaces (OIS). The minimum visibility required for 34:1 penetrations is 3⁄4 SM and for 20:1 penetrations 1 SM, which is discussed in the Improvement Plans category of this section. When there are penetrations of the final approach OIS, a visibility credit for approach lighting systems is not allowed for either airplane or helicopter procedures that would result in values less than the appropriate 3⁄4 SM or 1 SM visibility requirement. The 14 CFR Part 97.3 visibility reduction rule does not apply, and you must take precautions to avoid any obstacles in the visual segment. Procedures with penetrations of the final approach OIS are annotated at the next amendment with “Visibility Reduction by Helicopters NA.”
Until all the affected SIAPs have been annotated, an understanding of how the standard visibilities are established is the best aid in determining if penetrations of the final approach OIS exists. Some of the variables in determining visibilities are: decision altitude (DA)/MDA height above touchdown (HAT), height above airport (HAA), distance of the facility to the MAP (or the runway threshold for non- precision approaches), and approach lighting configurations.
The standard visibility requirement, without any credit for lights, is 1 SM for non-precision approaches and 3⁄4 SM for precision approaches. This is based on a Category A airplane 250–320 feet HAT/HAA; for non-precision approaches a distance of 10,000 feet or less from the facility to the MAP (or runway threshold). For precision approaches, credit for any approach light configuration; for non-precision approaches (with a 250 HAT) configured with a Medium Intensity Approach Lighting System (MALSR), Simplified Short Approach Lighting System (SSALR), or Approach Lighting System With Sequenced Flashing Lights (ALSF)-1 normally results in a published visibility of 1⁄2 SM.
Consequently, if an ILS is configured with approach lights or a non-precision approach is configured with MALSR, SSALR, or ALSF-1 lighting configurations and the procedure has a published visibility of 3⁄4 SM or greater, a penetration of the final approach OIS may exist. Also, pilots are unable to determine whether there are penetrations of the final approach OIS if a non-precision procedure does not have approach lights or is configured with ODALS, MALS, or SSALS/SALS lighting since the minimum published visibility is 3⁄4 SM or greater.
As a rule of thumb, approaches with published visibilities of 3⁄4 SM or more should be regarded as having final approach OIS penetrations and care must be taken to avoid any obstacles in the visual segment.
Approaches with published visibilities of 1⁄2 SM or less are free of OIS penetrations and the visibility reduction in Part 97.3 is authorized.