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Altitude Insight


TimW68
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Since I started training I've observed quite a few low flying helicopters that were clipping along at a decent speed maybe 300-500ft agl. These were primarily EMS ships and they were not on approach, just level flight. Question is, what advantage is there to flying that low? I can see the obvious such as avoidance of controlled airspace and fixed wing traffic in general, but I don't otherwise see why this is done.

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2 things come to thought....

one, bouncing from here to there in a helicopter is usually short distance...(less than 25 miles) and flying at a higher altitude doesn't offer any speed advantage as it would in a fixed wing aircraft. climb=time

two, the people looking out the window feel like they're going real fast when they're down low.

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Ditto the first couple answers.

 

My number ONE reason for flying low is to try to avoid FW traffic. Flying along Malibu last month at 300 AGL, I had a FW at 12 o clock come at me flying 100 agl over the water. ...guess I wasnt low enough to get under him ! Of course, not monitoring the low altitude frequency.

 

2 weeks later flying thru Malibu Canyon, again about 300 AGL and looking at shining the power lines under me, FW at 12 o clock shows up, this time, 100 feet above me. And again, not monitoring the low altitude frequency.

 

Climb time is true, but also airspace. We fly under FW altitudes all the time at the direction of ATC. Under Class B, low level transitions, etc, that REQUIRE us to be low. Class B transition along the beach near LAX REQUIRES flight at 150 AGL or below.

 

And this is where speed can be your friend. I would rather be 100 knots at 150 and lose an engine, than 45 knots at 150 feet. At least with the extra speed I can explore a larger area for an auto. Besides, time is money. Most of us try to get to point X as quickly as possible.

 

Goldy

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Ditto the first couple answers.

 

My number ONE reason for flying low is to try to avoid FW traffic. Flying along Malibu last month at 300 AGL, I had a FW at 12 o clock come at me flying 100 agl over the water. ...guess I wasnt low enough to get under him ! Of course, not monitoring the low altitude frequency.

 

2 weeks later flying thru Malibu Canyon, again about 300 AGL and looking at shining the power lines under me, FW at 12 o clock shows up, this time, 100 feet above me. And again, not monitoring the low altitude frequency.

 

Climb time is true, but also airspace. We fly under FW altitudes all the time at the direction of ATC. Under Class B, low level transitions, etc, that REQUIRE us to be low. Class B transition along the beach near LAX REQUIRES flight at 150 AGL or below.

 

And this is where speed can be your friend. I would rather be 100 knots at 150 and lose an engine, than 45 knots at 150 feet. At least with the extra speed I can explore a larger area for an auto. Besides, time is money. Most of us try to get to point X as quickly as possible.

 

Goldy

 

Hey Goldy how's it been?

 

I too have had several close calls with planes flying pretty low. It's easy to get complacent and not always be thinking about airplanes when we are at 500agl or less. However, it happens more offten than we like to admit. Both of mine were in the Channel on my way to or from the Island.

 

Now, I don't advocate low flying. There are things to keep in mind. If you don't have a reason to be below 500agl then don't be. For me I prefer 1000agl. That's just me and I'll tell you why.

 

1: More time and spots to reach in an auto or other emergency

2: Towers, wires, kites, balloons and kite boarders at the beach. Keep in mind towers can get pretty tall!

3: Noise. Simple enough.

 

Those are my main reasons. Having said that there may be times we need to fly at 500agl or even lower. As Goldy pointed out, LAX shoreline transition is 150' or below. So, just keep that in mind if the engine fails it's going in the water. I have flown offshore at 300' due to weather. Again, it's a little easier when I have a nice big ocean to land in. Onshore you won't see me that low for sure. Avoiding airspace is a good reason but why not just call TWR or APP and get the clearance, it's easier that way honestly. But, with good planning and knowledge of the area it can be done safely.

 

As you can see I am not really a fan of low flying unless there is a good reason. It's all about risk vs reward. I try to stack as many cards in my favor as I can, that way should something happen I have more options.

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Since I started training I've observed quite a few low flying helicopters that were clipping along at a decent speed maybe 300-500ft agl. These were primarily EMS ships and they were not on approach, just level flight. Question is, what advantage is there to flying that low? I can see the obvious such as avoidance of controlled airspace and fixed wing traffic in general, but I don't otherwise see why this is done.

 

You also have the perception of most of the non-flying public. And, most people can't tell actual altitude due to their reference.

 

As for why? I fly planes and helos... I can fly all day long at 10,000 agl + in FW. Now put me 6,000 or so agl in a small helicopter...that sucks. Feels like I'm falling backwards, especially in low viz.

 

On the air show circuit, our box was 50' - 199'. Now, you'll find me all day long between 500 - 750 agl. Even when I'm at a different altitude, I will drift back to 750' agl without much effort. Just my comfort zone. You get used to the "look" at a certain altitudes after awhile.

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Ok, given clearances and FW traffic and for that matter a nice clear day w/10sm vis. I got that. My point is that two ships have recently went down and some good people lost their lives and these were both low flying at night w/poss wx issues. I know you can get clearance for medevac thru most B,C, & D airspace. These were seasoned pilots who probably forgot more than I will ever know about flying helicopters, what keeps bugging me thou is with as much is there is to deal with (especially 1 pilot) why bring obstructions (i.e. towers, terrain, etc.) into play. It's clearly marked on the sectionals what altitude to fly at to avoid. I can't buy that it's a time issue, hell I can be 1000 ft agl without leaving the pattern in a 22, ascending or descending on departure or approach can't really make a significant difference, were only talking about 1000 ft. Maybe I'm just asking a question that doesn't need to be answered.

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Tim, you are right.

 

Complacency kills. As I pointed out there can be towers and other obstructions that can be quite high. Sure, we can get comfortable with flying around at a particular altitude, say 500'agl. However, it takes just one distraction and next thing you know you've hit something or came close to it. Pilots can't assume since they are flying low that means you won't see an airplane. Goldy and I both have had experiance with that.

 

You may know that those pilots that have survived wire strikes and after investigating those who didn't, it was found that they knew the wire was there. So, why did they hit it if they knew it was there? Easy answer, complacency and loss of situational awareness.

 

It's easy to find some towers at 500'agl and higher. Even more so in the Midwest which is where the most recent accident happened.

 

Here's my question. As we know most anything over 200' is charted. Do all towers have to have lights? Or do they just need to be charted? At night, an unlit tower is very hard to see.

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Ok, are we actually talking about being 1000 agl in the pattern? Which pattern? FW? I hope not. If I'm in a FW and find an R22 in the airplane pattern with me, he's gonna get an earfull. Plus he's violating FAR's. Nothing is more fun than trying to slow a mooney down to avoid a slow helicopter. Where are you finding helicopter altitudes into an airport above 500'?

 

Granted, one altitude will not work for every situation in every single part of the world. A guy that flies offshore everyday from the beach does not need to worry about towers (me). A guy that flies his ranch everyday at 300' in the middle of nowhere doesn't need to worry about towers. An ag pilot? etc.

 

I understand that guys are flying into terrain or towers. Sure, if you are in unfamilar territory, you should use the sectional chart altitudes. But, poor flight planning and poor navigation into these towers or whatever is the pilots' fault.

 

 

No one was talking about night...I think we can all agree to always fly higher at night.

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I don't know who is flying a helicopter at 1000' in the pattern either. It's not the norm but for training we do sometimes go higher. BTW it's not really in violation of the FARs. You can fly at 1000'agl in the oposite pattern as the fixedwingers. All you have to do is avoid the flow.

 

You are right, there is no perfect altitude. It's not a one fits all and that is the point I was making.

 

Speaking of AG pilots. I was driving to Yuma the other day and saw a fixedwing AG pilot dusting the fields, only it was at night. It was interesting to watch. That guy has some guts.

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JD,

 

Thank you, I appreciate your candor. I know in the future how much I will rely on the information obtained in some of these discussions.

 

Boat,

 

At the airport I primarily use they have a noise abatement altitude they prefer we fly at. My point was time to climb or descend not really being a big factor as far as time of the mission since we are only talking about an extra 1000 ft. I was asking in general about all conditions however it seems it would make even more sense at night or in questionable wx.

 

At my limited time behind the stick I prefer to understand with as much clarity as possible why experienced pilots do certain things and avoid others that my not seem dangerous.

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I am one of those "higher is better" guys. Our company policy is no lower than 1000' AGL whenever possible. Problems with FW? When was the last time a helo collided with a FW? I can give you a list of helo CFIT's as long as my arm. but I can't produce one mid-air between a RW and FW (I'm sure there have been, but it is very rare). This is particularly true when flying unaided. Helos need to get away from this "Nap of the earth" mentality. There's just no good reason for it....unless bullets are flying :)

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if i get over about 2000 agl in a schweizer, i feel funky! bigger helicopters arent that bad, but in the schweizer, 500-1000 agl is where i stay outside the airport, at 500 in the pattern.

Edited by clay
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You make some good points. The terminal environment is much different from the enroute environment. And flying around in downtown Los Angeles (or Denver) would also pose certain challenges. I guess my comments mostly addressed the 30-90 mile route we fly during EMS flights.

 

It is my personal feeling that the need to be low is why too many helo drivers descend when they enounter IIMC. I will always contend that a helo is much more likely to fly into an immovable object than one that is moving. I think the statistics support that.

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I agree that higher would always be better especially on a cross country, to a limit. Statistically speaking, I'd say that the reason we don't have a bunch of helo vs FW crashes is because both drivers are at their respective altitudes. A 500' margin in the airport environment is more than enough. RW @ 500' and FW at 1000'. I also believe that en route this helps. It is hard enough to see an airplane at the same altitude, let alone a helicopter. Another reason I don't fly at VFR altitudes. I know tons of pilots that love to fly a 206 at 6,000'. Not me. I feel like I'm falling backwards even at 100 knots! ok, 90 knots...I'm in a 206. I like to dream.

 

As far as the ems CFIT problem... let's see... Just my 2 cents: most EMS pilots are lucky if they fly 2 hours a week (unless on a patient transfer/taxi route), then they make you fly at night, poor viz, poor weather, into a hazardous condition and all while the skills just aren't as sharp as they used to be. A recipe for disaster. I know several EMS drivers that fly only 4 hours a month. I'm lucky that I get a ton of time in the gulf. But I'll tell you, on the first day of the hitch after 14 days off, I'm not as sharp as the last day of my hitch. Anyone that says they are is fooling themselves. An EMS guy that gets woke up at 3 am and hasn't flown in a month is not going to be on his/her best game.

 

Fly at the altitude that is safest for the enviroment you operate in. Just please, stay out of the trees (copyright: John King).

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Maybe I'm just asking a question that doesn't need to be answered.

 

Absolutely not. Great question and discussion. We have certainly talked about it before, yet we continue to lose lives, so apparently we haven't discussed it enough as a community.

 

I certainly fly higher at night, 1000 AGL minimum and I know where to avoid in L.A.....heck there are buildings and cranes taller than 1000 feet around here !! I am most comfortable at night though....you can usually spot another aircraft miles away. I have never been "surprised" by a FW at night, yet it happens way too often during the day.

 

Quite simply, this is a huge safety issue for me. There is no reason why a FW should be allowed to fly under 500 AGL...period. Just can't think of any good reason...and if they do, they should at least be required to monitor a common talk freq. In fact, all of us should. Its just too easy to miss something head on. I know from first hand experience, how close I came to being a statistic. Unfortunately I don't see any movement or acknowledgement by the FAA that low flying aircraft are even a concern for them. Yet, we have mid airs and near misses.

 

You wouldnt have to change the reg's much to make a huge difference in safety. Just mandate a damn radio, on a common channel when flying below 1000 AGL (assume you are not talking to ATC).

Sounds simple to me!

 

Anyway, off the subject. I believe the last CFIT was the EMS ship in Illinois. I believe it hit a guy wire, not the tower itself. Impossible to see, and the guy wire comes out at a 45 degree angle away from the top of most towers. I have caught myself flying too close to one and diverted away from it (Fox Field...you probably know the tower if you fly So Cal)

 

Anyway, altitude is always your friend. Its always safer, but having been close enough to a head on to reach out and touch a wingtip, well, after that you start thinking 50 feet is too high.

 

Goldy

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I certainly fly higher at night, 1000 AGL minimum and I know where to avoid in L.A.....heck there are buildings and cranes taller than 1000 feet around here !! I am most comfortable at night though....you can usually spot another aircraft miles away. I have never been "surprised" by a FW at night, yet it happens way too often during the day.

 

Haha, that reminds me, me instuctor always used to say, "Dark air doesnt produce lift."

 

Anyway, flying under 500 is a dumb risk, i was tought that was the minimum safe auto hight, and why cut that close the the LIMIT. More time to auto means more years to live.

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if i get over about 2000 agl in a schweizer, i feel funky! bigger helicopters arent that bad, but in the schweizer, 500-1000 agl is where i stay outside the airport, at 500 in the pattern.

 

Well, flying a schweizer at over 2000 is like driving a smart car on the autobahn, its uncomfortable and designed for a simpler task.

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every pilot is going to feel comfortable at different altitudes, i think it depends on area, terrain, weather, familiarity with the area, etc, etc..... I think Boatfixer can attest that out to the east of KAPA , and south of DIA, 500 ft AGL is not a big deal (its a big flat nothing forever) now would i go fly over downtown Denver at 500? nah..... I'll bump it up to 700 - 1000 ft agl.

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Absolutely not. Great question and discussion. We have certainly talked about it before, yet we continue to lose lives, so apparently we haven't discussed it enough as a community.

 

I certainly fly higher at night, 1000 AGL minimum and I know where to avoid in L.A.....heck there are buildings and cranes taller than 1000 feet around here !! I am most comfortable at night though....you can usually spot another aircraft miles away. I have never been "surprised" by a FW at night, yet it happens way too often during the day.

 

Quite simply, this is a huge safety issue for me. There is no reason why a FW should be allowed to fly under 500 AGL...period. Just can't think of any good reason...and if they do, they should at least be required to monitor a common talk freq. In fact, all of us should. Its just too easy to miss something head on. I know from first hand experience, how close I came to being a statistic. Unfortunately I don't see any movement or acknowledgement by the FAA that low flying aircraft are even a concern for them. Yet, we have mid airs and near misses.

 

You wouldnt have to change the reg's much to make a huge difference in safety. Just mandate a damn radio, on a common channel when flying below 1000 AGL (assume you are not talking to ATC).

Sounds simple to me!

 

Anyway, off the subject. I believe the last CFIT was the EMS ship in Illinois. I believe it hit a guy wire, not the tower itself. Impossible to see, and the guy wire comes out at a 45 degree angle away from the top of most towers. I have caught myself flying too close to one and diverted away from it (Fox Field...you probably know the tower if you fly So Cal)

 

Anyway, altitude is always your friend. Its always safer, but having been close enough to a head on to reach out and touch a wingtip, well, after that you start thinking 50 feet is too high.

 

Goldy

 

 

I couldn't agree more about mandating radios. It just blows my mind that radios are not required in ALL aircraft, ALL airpsaces, All altitudes, ALL THE TIME!!

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Everything is a tradeoff. The altitude I fly at depends on lots of things. If I'm only flying a few miles, it doesn't make sense to climb up high. 300'AGL is perfectly safe as long as the visibility is good and I know the area. At night it's too low. If I have a critical patient and a strong headwind, I may stay low to keep the groundspeed up to a reasonable level. I've seen 20+ knots difference between 500' & 1000', and that can be a significant time difference. I prefer higher, all things being equal, but they seldom are, so I fly at whatever altitude I think gives me the best risk/benefit ratio at the time. One altitude doesn't work for everyone all the time, or even for one pilot all the time.

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I like to be 1500-3000 feet, it gives you more time and distance to pick a landing spot in case of an engine failure. Like someone else said though it depends on the terrain you fly over. Here it is mountainous and there may not be a lot of spots to land an auto. With that said, the last cross country I did we had a 30 knot headwind at 3000 feet, it gave us a fantastic 60 knot ground speed the entire way to destination.

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Some interesting things in here.

 

Many great points. It's clear that the altitude that we fly at will depend on a number of factors.

 

Not in any particular order

 

1: mission/job being flown

2: weather(I'd climb higher for a bigger tailwind, better visibility)

3: Obstructions(even at 500' there can be some obstructions)

4: Safety(autos and forced landing areas)

5: Noise abatement(there are so many restrictions already, why give the public more ammo?)

 

I am still an advocate for flying higher. It is clear that mid airs and wire strikes or colisions with obstructions are more likely in the day. So don't let the fact that it's day VMC fool you into thinking it's OK to be low. At night it is better to be higher as a general rule.

 

The most recent accident in IL is interesting. In order to hit a guy wire coming from a tower at a 45 degree angle you would have to be both pretty low and close to the tower. Just food for thought.

 

One last thing, the VFR crusing altitude is as much for airplanes as it is helicopters. If you are going to be up there I would be at a VFR altitude. If not, while slim, you have just reduced your 500' seperation with IFR traffic and increased chances of a close encounter with another VFR guy. That "rule" only works if everyone follows it. Many helicopters are just as fast or even faster than a Cesna. I can cruise at 140knots, sometimes faster in the A119. Even the R-44 isn't to bad.

 

Like everything else in aviation, it's not a one size fits all. Each situation and pilot is going to be different. As long as we keep the above list in mind and do a risk assesment, what more can we do?

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