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, 2020 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ As a controller I talk to helicopters flying IFR on a daily basis $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2020 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ The news service wouldn't send a helicopter out to film the inside of clouds. $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2020 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, 2020 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, 2020 at 12:30

4 Answers 4


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? $\endgroup$ Jun 19, 2020 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, 2020 at 0:33
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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, 2020 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, 2020 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ As I said it's a gray area. The .65 4–2–8d only says we have to withhold an IFR clearance if the pilot is unable to maintain their own terrain sep until the MVA. Otherwise we can still give the clearance, but again the assigned altitude will be at or above the MVA which will be in Class E by necessity. See also 4–3–2b1 and 4–3–2c1(c); take those together and you see we can issue a clearance that is effective within Class G. You're correct that traffic separation is not guaranteed, because G is uncontrolled. $\endgroup$
    – randomhead
    Mar 1, 2021 at 11:14

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, 2020 at 1:12

Oh my goodness, I do not understand the lack of knowledge of the logic for use of helicopters in IFR operations among my fellow pilots. As “Fletch” said in the movie of the same name, “guys, do I have to teach you a lesson!?” Haha.

Okay gents, here’s the condensed version. And let’s use Part 135 helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operations as an example of effectively utilizing helicopters in an IFR capacity.

Bottom line, up front—-an IFR helicopter can do more flights than a VFR-only rotorcraft. Lots more. And I’ll argue, far more safely.

Here goes the basics… first off, both a VFR helo (helicopter) and an IFR helo can conduct VFR revenue flights. So far, so good on my logic, right? But next up are the additional flights you’ll capture with an IFR helo: (1) the actual IFR flights you plan and fly and (2) the “gray area” flights that may not require an IFR helo, but are often declined by prudent pilots when weather is too close to VFR minimums to safely prosecute the flight. Likewise, oftentimes, the gray area flights add up to a few flights per pilot per month (x4 pilots at a given HAA base) which results in somewhere between 4-6 flights per pilot that can be flown in VFR conditions (if desired) but when the pilot can easily pickup an IFR clearance if desired or when prudent (maybe conditions worsened or perhaps one piece of the VFR puzzle looks questionable). In any case, the additional IFR flights and “gray area” flights add up to a “bunch” of additional flights per month, a “load” of additional revenue per month, and of course altruistically speaking, a greater patient care opportunity for the residents of each IFR helicopter’s radius of action.

Speaking off the cuff, I’d wager that each SPIFR (single pilot IFR) at every base that actually has weather conditions frequently experiencing IFR weather conditions may pickup anywhere between 10-15 additional flights per month.

Of course, not every location has IFR weather very often, but that’s a scenario that is outside the scope of my argument. The thing is, SPIFR opening HAA helos results in far more flights per base in areas with actual weather conditions

Is it easy? Yes. Terribly easy. And is it fun and safe flying? You betcha. This is because SPIFR pilots are flying very well equipped IFR machines (e.g., EC135s, EC145s, etc.) and the airframes are just absolutely solid and brilliantly designed for every aspect of IFR flight.

Stability and automation in SPIFR is held at a high standard and frankly goes beyond the hurdle of safe flying to the higher level of enjoyable safe flight operations. It’s just as easy as I’m saying. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t be right or worth the hassle, expense or trouble.

How is it done? The SPIFR pilot is well trained in the helo, yes. But the methodology for SPIFR operations is kind of a key to each pilot’s success. Every SPIFR pilot becomes aquatinted with the IFR route they may need on any given instance and become intimate with every IFR departure type at every likely departure point (certainly his own base or airport), then studies every IAP (instrument approach procedure) he or she may need to execute, then starts the shift with “what can I do today? Where can I go? How can I potentially accommodate each county, city, EMS agency, fire department or hospital—that might need IFR helo services?”

Yes, it becomes that deep of a thought process. The SPIFR runs scenarios and looks at potential leg patterns (e.g., IFR departures,IAPs, transitions, fuel spots and IFR alternates). And before you think, “there’s a lot of flying you can’t do, mister”, I’ll go ahead and agree but add, there’s a lot of revenue flying that can be flown safely that would otherwise resulted in a non-flying alternative.

The point of my argument is not ‘whether or not every flight request “should fly” with respect to medical conditions’, but rather, ‘what is the mindset of HAA SPIFR operators and how it’s thought about by those who do it. It’s really just as easy as I’m telling you.

Sidebar: I’m not going to delve into the obvious increased safety factor of having IFR systems and autopilots as well as a 2nd engine to fly you away from a forced landing or continue flight with the remaining engine after one engine fails. Nope. We’ll save that argument for a different day.

But if the question is, “would an IFR helo bring my HAA company more patient care and more revenue whilst increasing the safety of my crews simultaneously, the answer is an easy— yes.

Tim Grimes ATP helicopter 12 years SPIFR

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    $\begingroup$ The third paragraph seems to summarize the content of this answer. Very interesting -- but aimed perhaps at a different question than the one that was asked? $\endgroup$ Oct 15, 2022 at 8:05

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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