In almost any airplane commercial operation, unless you’re doing something very short haul daytime ops, an Instrument Rating is all but required with airplanes(it’s even in the FARs). Generally the weather won’t stay nice enough for you not to use it, and most airlines and other commercial operations will avoid VFR all together, leaving VFR mostly for recreational pilots. In helicopters however it seems much different. Even in professional settings like news services, 135s Helicopter operations, and even essential services like fire rescue, will try and stay VFR at all costs, and will avoid flying if the weather is not VFR, even if they have an Instrument Rated helicopter pilot. VFR has a lot of limitations that would have a large chance of losing money for a helicopter service. Why is IFR so much more taboo and/or dangerous in helicopters compared to airplanes?

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    $\begingroup$ Your premise isn't true. There are many happy pilots without instrument ratings and they are able to do plenty of flying. $\endgroup$ – GdD Jun 19 '20 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ As a controller I talk to helicopters flying IFR on a daily basis $\endgroup$ – expeditedescent Jun 19 '20 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ The news service wouldn't send a helicopter out to film the inside of clouds. $\endgroup$ – Simon Richter Jun 19 '20 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ Although there might be a rare few commercial pilots out there that are not instrument rated, I personally don’t know any helicopter pilots exercising the privileges of their commercial license that are not. Not being Instrument rated would be very limiting when carrying persons or property for hire. As far as nice weather, my location gets almost 300 days of sunshine a year. Wind and turbulence have far more affect on flying than IMC does here. The same weather that would ground a Bell 206 would also ground a Cessna 182. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jun 20 '20 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ Helicopters are used in different scenarios than fixed wing aircraft. Flights between (for example) the ILS-equipped airports of Berlin and Cologne are typically performed by fixed wing aircraft. Helicopter are typically used where no runways are available. For example, D-HHSD (yep, the very helicopter we saw in the first TV series "Airwolf") was used for a flight from Berlin to Cologne for a transport directly to the University Clinic Cologne. An IFR-only landing might not feasible there (medfacilities.de/projekt/herzzentrum). It crashed on the IFR return flight. $\endgroup$ – Klaws Jun 20 '20 at 12:30

Helicopters do not avoid IFR. They will, however, try to avoid IMC for safety reasons. The same is true for airplanes in the same weight class. Just because the pilot is IFR rated and the aircraft is IFR certified, it does not mean they will always fly IFR, whether they are fixed or rotary wing. Light aircraft in general don’t do well in extreme IMC, whether they are fixed or rotary wing. And, many of the same FARs in Parts 61, 91, 119, 135, 136 and 137 that would require an instrument rating apply almost the same to rotary-wing as they do to fixed-wing.

The main difference between fixed and rotary wing would be their environments of operation. Altitude would be a major factor. The majority of airspace below 1200-1500 feet AGL is uncontrolled airspace. You can not get an IFR clearance unless you are in controlled airspace. Since Part 91.119(d) allows helicopters to operate at reduced altitudes and distances from persons or property, they will specifically be used in applications not conducive to IFR flight.

If a helicopter were to fly IFR,they would be restricted to at least an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal distance of 4 nautical miles from the course to be flown by Part 91.177. This would greatly reduce the usability of helicopters. The increased restrictions of IFR flight means that there is much more opportunity to make money in VFR flight with a reduction of risk.

§91.119 Minimum safe altitudes: General.
(d) Helicopters, powered parachutes, and weight-shift-control aircraft. If the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface—

(1) A helicopter may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (b) or (c) of this section, provided each person operating the helicopter complies with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA; and

(2) A powered parachute or weight-shift-control aircraft may be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in paragraph (c) of this section.

As far as your assertion that commercial fixed wing operations are almost exclusively IFR, that is not a completely true statement. While I will agree with you that may apply to Part 121 operations. That is not necessarily the case for all other operations. Many commercial operations depend exclusively on flying VFR.

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    $\begingroup$ Which airspace class forbids IFR flight? $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Jun 19 '20 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @VladimirF - You can not receive IFR clearance in uncontrolled airspace. Class G airspace is uncontrolled airspace. While flight in IMC in Class G airspace is not expressly forbidden, ATC does not provide aircraft separation. See the following link regarding the FAA’s opinion on legality. ntsb.gov/legal/alj/OnODocuments/Aviation/3935.PDF $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jun 20 '20 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ It did not occur to me you were thinking of USA because I remembered US was class G below FL180. Wrongly. However, it is still possible to fly IFR from uncontrolled aerodromes even in USA ifr-magazine.com/charts-plates/uncontrolled-ifr "If you have received an IFR clearance at a Class G airport and wondered at the “upon entering controlled airspace…” phrasing, this is the reason". There other less populated areas in the world where there is much more uncontrolled airspace. There also used to be class F. $\endgroup$ – Vladimir F Jun 20 '20 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ @VladimirF - Yes, I was thinking of the US. You can file your IFR flight plan from a Class G airport and/or to a Class G airport. You can get your clearance and release by phone, RCO, etc. But, you will remain uncontrolled (and VFR supposedly) until reaching controlled airspace. ATC separation services begin upon entering and end upon leaving controlled airspace. Once your destination is insight, ATC will issue you a clearance for a frequency change to CTAF, remain VFR, and the choice to close your flight plan either in the air prior to changing frequencies or on the ground by phone, RCO, etc. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jun 20 '20 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ @VladimirF - Hence the “upon entering controlled airspace…” phrasing in the clearance. ATC has to make it clear to pilots that their IFR clearance starts in controlled airspace. Pilots are on their own until then. And, since the “See and Avoid” doctrine requires the pilot to be able to see, flying IFR in uncontrolled airspace can be strongly discouraged using Title 14 CFR Part 91.13 as being careless and/or reckless. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jun 20 '20 at 18:14

Helicopter IFR operations do exist, but the short answer to the thrust of your question is: helicopter IFR is inherently more dangerous than fixed-wing IFR due to the lack of stability. A properly trimmed fixed-wing aircraft in good conditions could fly upwards of 30 seconds without pilot intervention, whereas a helicopter needs almost continual control inputs, thus leaving less margin for error.

To help overcome this risk, the certification requirements for helicopters are more onerous than fixed-wing aircraft, such as stability augmentation systems and autopilots. The effect of this historically has meant only the bigger and more expensive helis were actually IFR capable, so the pool of rotary pilots with IFR experience is much lower than fixed-wing pilots.

Finally, the obvious risks associated with helicopter operations - low to the ground, close to buildings, etc - do not work well with bad weather.

Here is a really interesting article which talks about these problems in depth.

  • $\begingroup$ Good article. Although the Robinson R44 is IFR equipped for training IFR, it is only certified to fly in VMC. You can get the rating and currency under the hood, but no actual IMC time. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Jun 20 '20 at 1:12

There's another consideration: cost. Specifically, company overhead cost.

If you're flying commercially (let's focus on Part 135 to keep it simple), you cannot just "do an IFR flight" if/when A) the pilot is qualified and current, and B) the helicopter is certified and capable. Just because the FARs say you can, doesn't mean you can.

Every operator (no matter what Part) must have an Operations Specification (OpSpec), issued by the FAA. These OpSpecs will go into the minutia on what you can or cannot do, what airports you can or cannot use, if/when/how you can or cannot conduct an IFR flight, etc. (hundreds of pages of this stuff). These OpSpecs are then reviewed periodically, revised as needed, and "continuously monitored" by that operator's POI (Principal Operations Inspector) at the FAA.

So, back to the question (kind of). In order to conduct an IFR flight, it must be specifically stated in the OpSpecs that the company can do that IFR flight. In order for that authorization to make its way into the OpSpecs, the FAA must see that the company is maintaining a certain level of training for the pilots and a certain level of maintenance for the helicopters. These are expensive!! The costs of these mandatory requirements are not worth the benefit of being able to do the random IFR flight on those blue moon occasions when your point-to-point flight is going to be going through IMC and you need to get "into the system".

It's simply much more cost effective for most helicopter operators to say they just won't do IFR flights, and have that authorization withheld from their OpSpecs.


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