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With the crash of Kobe Bryant's helicopter, it seems a lot of focus has been placed on the helicopter flying low in fog (under "special VFR"). However, I've seen several suggestions that the helicopter should not have been flying at all

Weather reports indicated that a low cloud cover was present on the day of the crash, further complicating flying. Bryant's pilot was operating the craft under a special clearance for poor weather conditions and reportedly had experience in such situations.

The pilot was IFR rated, but if the investigation proves pilot error it raises the question if helicopters should be more limited in fog. Wired makes it sound even more dire

Flying without sight of the ground or other landmarks can quickly become dangerous, Whitcomb says, because helicopters are not inherently stable. Just staying level and on course demands working four controls at once, using your hands and feet, and keeping track of how each input affects all the others. If you lose sight of where you are and you don’t use your instruments properly, you may not realize you’re turning, or dropping, or even upside down. “You’ll get disoriented within seconds,” Whitcomb says.

Navigating by instrument can also be mentally taxing, says Scott Shappell, who chairs the Department of Human Factors and Behavioral Neurobiology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He compares visual flight conditions to driving down a familiar highway. Flying by dashboard is more like driving through Rome for the first time—while working a stick shift. “It’s definitely more work,” Shappell says. “The risk goes up.”

Are helicopters really that much more impacted than airplanes by fog?

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  • $\begingroup$ I would have put another introduction as it may bring speculation about an ongoing investigation. $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Jan 29, 2020 at 12:02

2 Answers 2

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No. If anything, given a helicopter can fly a much slower cruise speed than an airplane typically does, they do not require the visibility minimums which fixed wing aircraft do. VFR weather minimums for a helicopter in uncontrolled airspace are 1/2 mile versus 1 mile for airplanes. Be that as it may, a helicopter is still vulnerable to Loss of Control Inflight (LOCI) due to pilot error just like any other aircraft.

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  • $\begingroup$ Flying speed has nothing to do with how quickly you find yourself disoriented in whiteout conditions. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jan 29, 2020 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ No but it does allow a helo to fly slower and increases available time to react to hazards, thereby allowing for more restrictive visibility minimums under Visual Flight Rules, which I think my post clearly spelled out. $\endgroup$ Jan 29, 2020 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ I will up-vote anyways for the first paragraph. Speculation is a hard pill though. $\endgroup$
    – Skyhawg
    Jan 29, 2020 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ I'm under the impression that speculating on accidents that are still under investigation is totally out of bounds here. Correct me if I'm wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Jan 29, 2020 at 6:33
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    $\begingroup$ Please avoid speculating on on-going investigations! Note I've removed the last paragraph $\endgroup$
    – Jamiec
    Jan 29, 2020 at 8:30
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Yes, wired is spot on. Helicopters are more unstable than fixed wing aeroplanes, especially at low speeds. The instability has a relatively large period, so helicopter pilots can attain the feedback skills in order to actively maintain attitude and position - if the visual feedback cues are from peripheral vision, which is our quick motion detection mechanism. Central vision is more accurate but slower to detect changes, and instrument flying without the help of peripheral vision is challenging.

Having said that, the S76 has a Stability Augmentation System which helps in retaining helicopter attitude, by providing swashplate inputs if attitude changes while not being commanded by the pilot. Whether an instrument rated helicopter pilot with SAS engaged should be more limited than a fixed wing pilot, remains an open question.

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    $\begingroup$ how is a Helicopter "More unstable" than a fixed wing? Especially at low speeds. $\endgroup$
    – Skyhawg
    Jan 29, 2020 at 4:14
  • $\begingroup$ only one can stop and hover if confused, I think. $\endgroup$
    – Skyhawg
    Jan 29, 2020 at 4:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Skyhawg In low visibility, you may not realize you aren't flying straight and level. This is especially true while hovering, as it is easy to start drifting in some direction, doubly so if you have no visual cues. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Jan 29, 2020 at 6:10
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    $\begingroup$ @skyhawg The tail and wings of most fixed wing aircraft provide a natural stabilizing force. Even without autopilot you can let go of the stick and it will be ok for quite a while in good conditions. A helicopter is nothing like that, it needs near constant corrections. This tendency makes IFR in helicopters much more dangerous IMO. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Jan 29, 2020 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Skyhawg A helicopter can hover and a fixed wing cannot. But the hover is an unstable event: the pilot needs to provide continuous stick inputs in order to keep the helicopter level, it wants to fall away in pitch and roll all the time. $\endgroup$
    – Koyovis
    Jan 29, 2020 at 6:43

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