Mixing Airplanes and Helicopters: Safe VFR Airport Operations in Class G
Wilson Gilliam, Jr.
A small, white helicopter floats across the sky, practicing different types of approaches to the Class G airport in Virginia. The student pilot pulls the red trigger switch on the cyclic, still timid with inexperience.
“November 2045 Romeo turning right base, 28, Hampton Roads Airport.”
The pilot of an incoming twin engine airplane, hearing the first radio call and unfamiliar with the area, maneuvers into a right-hand traffic pattern for the same runway a few moments later. The pilot is late to a meeting and still has to grab a rental car.
“November 8077 Papa entering a right downwind, Runway 28, Hampton Roads.”
UNICOM quickly pipes up over the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency).
“November 8077 Papa, this is Hampton Roads UNICOM. We have a right-hand traffic pattern for helicopters only. Fixed-wing aircraft are to use a standard traffic pattern.”
These types of radio exchanges are sometimes followed by a few choice words that are broadcast to the public thanks to tense hands and inadvertently open mics. Airplanes and helicopters are both ingenious marvels of the modern world, but inherently possess different flying characteristics. These variations must be planned for, especially at airports without an operating control tower, in order to maximize safety and efficiency.
I have flown both airplanes and helicopters commercially for twenty-five years. I’ve seen my fair share of helicopter versus airplane arguments, near collisions and foot races across the ramp to prove the point in person (you should plan on being out of the aircraft by the time the other pilot gets there). Can’t we all just get along? Yes, we can.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided pilots with general rules pertaining to operations within Class G (uncontrolled) airspace. The FAA has a strong commitment to safety and is a regulatory agency. So, let’s use their position on the matter as a starting point for this discussion about airplanes and helicopters sharing the skies at uncontrolled airports.
The FAA’s 14 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 91 (General Operating and Flight Rules) states:
- 91.126 Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace.
- (a) General. Unless otherwise authorized or required, each person operating an aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a Class G airspace area must comply with the requirements of this section.
- (b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower in Class G airspace—
- (1) Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right; and
- (2) Each pilot of a helicopter or a powered parachute must avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft.
Note that 14 CFR 91.126 (2) does not specifically indicate “how” the helicopter should avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic. This provides helicopter pilots with some flexibility while remaining compliant.
Tips for Airplanes and Helicopters Sharing the Skies
Here are a few tips for helicopter pilots at Class G airports, with 91.126(2) in mind. Remember that communication and avoidance are key elements in successful coexistence with fixed-wing aircraft.
- Familiarize yourself with the Airport Facility Directory (AFD) prior to making your trip.
Note any instructions regarding helicopter operations, non-standard fixed-wing traffic instructions, taxiway diagrams, FBO location(s) and any nearby obstacles.
- Listen to AWOS, ASOS or other advisory service.
Note the wind direction and any special instructions regarding landing information for helicopters. If the wind is different than forecast, don’t be afraid to change FBOs (or other landing areas) if the decision safely creates less interference with other airport users.
- Request an airport advisory approximately ten miles away.
“Hampton Roads traffic, November 2045 Romeo, small white helicopter, 700’ 10 miles north, airport advisory, please.”
Adjust altitude to preclude interference with airplane traffic pattern altitudes. Note any possible traffic conflicts and turn your landing light on. Be sure to use the terms “copter” or “helicopter” during all radio transmissions to avoid confusion over aircraft type. If you have questions about acceptable landing areas, ask UNICOM (if available).
- Your approach path must avoid landing airplanes.
“Hampton Roads traffic, copter 45 Romeo, one mile north, will make approach to taxiway Charlie, remaining north of runway 28.”
The slower approach speeds of helicopters make them especially vulnerable to being overrun. Utilize an approach path well clear of airplane traffic and plan on landing in an area that minimizes rotor wash to parked or taxiing fixed-wing. Be very specific during traffic updates regarding your approach path relative to the active runway. Acknowledge nearby traffic to help alleviate collision concerns. Don’t forget to look out for other helicopters, too.
I have found it usually best to plan the helicopter approach directly to my final destination at the airport. This permits efficiency for paying customers, while minimizing the impact of my operations across the airfield.
Remember that helicopter pilots are taxpayers, too. As long as helicopters are not impeding the flow of airplane traffic established in the pattern for the “purposes of landing,” helicopters have a right to use the normally smooth, wide runway surface. Sometimes, this is preferred when practicing run on landings or full touchdown autorotations from altitude. Fixed-wing airplanes waiting on the taxiway for take-off do not have the right of way over a helicopter on final approach or on the runway. FAR 91.113(g) clearly indicates that:
- g) Landing. Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface…
Airplane pilots waiting for departure should comply with 91.113(g) and not incorrectly invoke 91.126(2) to try and force helicopters off of the active runway. Helicopter pilots should clear the active runway as soon as safely possible.
- If it’s necessary to cross a runway after completing the approach, utilize sound runway incursion avoidance techniques.
Remain clear of any hold short lines for the runway while making a radio call prior to crossing. Avoid radio transmissions while crossing since this does not allow for possible warnings via radio prior to runway encroachment. Position your helicopter so that rotor wash does not create turbulence on the runway (note wind and traffic conditions). If there is a passenger or second pilot, confirm tail rotor clearance during pedal turns and that the runway is clear prior to crossing.
- Use care during hover taxiing.
Hovering helicopters can make ground bound airplanes dance in the wind, pelting them with loose debris. Believe me; this does not foster warm and fuzzy feelings between swing-wing and fixed-wing.
Be careful not to taxi behind large airplanes performing engine run ups (or any condition requiring thrust). These situations can create possible loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE) or hitting cyclic control stops.
- Use caution if operating near self-serve fuel pumps.
Helicopters landing and taking off near fuel facilities have substantial potential for creating conflict. Be aware of your rotor wash. If in doubt, land nearby, throttle down and wait for a safe opportunity to use that credit card. Pilots of smaller helicopters may be able to land a short distance away and push the aircraft to the pump with ground handling wheels. That’s a better option than making airplane drivers so upset that you can’t even sit at the restaurant lunch table. If it does happen by accident, buy your fellow pilot lunch. A nice lunch. Steak if they have it. Remember, as in life – your reputation follows you around.
- If operating at the airport on a routine basis, sit down with the facility manager and develop a plan.
Meeting with the airport manager about routine helicopter operations is some of the best advice I can offer. Creating well-developed helicopter operating procedures for the airport will enhance overall safety and enjoyment. Discuss traffic patterns, reasonable landing sites based on wind and traffic conditions and recommend that other helicopter operators abide by the same guidelines. Encourage airport management to distribute helicopter recommendations via updates to the AWOS/ASOS recording, AFD commentary and written dissemination among airport based rotorcraft operators. Helicopter flight schools should consider including the resulting operational plan as part of their standard operating procedures (SOPs) provided to employees, students and renters.
Remember, it’s a big sky with room for both airplanes and helicopters, but a small airport. Safety and communication are the keys to the facilities.
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