Why do pilots continue to inadvertently fly into IMC?

Inadvertent Instrument Meteorological Conditions leading to pilot spatial disorientation continue to be a leading cause of fatal helicopter accidents.

From 2000 to 2019 in the United States, there were 130 fatal accidents directly linked to the issue of spatial disorientation. These accidents occurred regardless of pilot experience and they cut across all industries, including Emergency Medical Services, law enforcement, tour operations, utility flights, corporate flying, and personal/private flights, according to officials with the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team.

“For decades, studies, articles, research papers, and discussions have been published theorizing why accidents related to degraded visual environments consistently occur and it has been hard to find clear answers that can slow or stop these tragic accidents,” explains Nick Mayhew, industry co-chair of the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team. “In part, the accidents stem from failed planning, lack of understanding, or poor decision-making. All pilots have the option to turn down a flight before launch, turn around, proceed to an alternate, or land in a safe place if the weather deteriorates below company or personal minimums, yet we continue to see these types of accidents.”

In response to this situation, the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team developed a new Recommended Practices document focusing on “Spatial Disorientation Induced by a Degraded Visual Environment” and offering training and decision-making solutions.

“We are proposing a shift in the way we discuss, train, and react to deteriorating or unplanned weather conditions,” adds Mayhew.

The Recommended Practices document (ushst.org/56secs/) focuses on these training and decision-making actions:

Avoidance of IIMC Preflight planning that includes enroute decision processes In-aircraft training that simulates a lack of visibility Training of recovery techniques and committing to instruments Avoidance of IIMC

Avoidance is the best defense, officials note. There are several tools at a pilot’s disposal to ensure they put themselves, the crew, and the safety of their passengers in the best position for a successful flight. Often, that may be opting to delay or cancel the launch based on conditions present or anticipated during the flight. These decisions can be difficult to make, but when a pilot conducts a thorough preflight analysis, the preponderance of evidence can make that risk management decision straightforward and data-based.

Preflight Planning that Includes Enroute Decision Processes

Enroute Decision Triggers can be defined as a pre-determined set of conditions that “trigger” a decision point in the flight. When a preset decision trigger is reached, the pilot executes

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