Helicopter Preflight - Ground Procedures and Flight Preparations

Once a pilot takes off, it is up to him or her to make sound, safe decisions throughout the flight. It is equally important for the pilot to use the same diligence when conducting a preflight inspection, making maintenance decisions, refueling, and conducting ground operations. This site discusses the responsibility of the pilot regarding ground safety in and around the helicopter and when preparing to fly.

Before any flight, ensure the helicopter is airworthy by inspecting it according to the rotorcraft flight manual (RFM), pilot’s operating handbook (POH), or other information supplied either by the operator or the manufacturer. Remember that it is the responsibility of the pilot in command (PIC) to ensure the aircraft is in an airworthy condition.

In preparation for flight, the use of a checklist is important so that no item is overlooked. [Figure 1] Follow the manufacturer’s suggested outline for both the inside and outside inspection. This ensures that all the items the manufacturer feels are important are checked. If supplemental equipment has been added to the helicopter, these procedures should be included on the checklist as well.

Helicopter Ground Procedures and Flight Preparations
Figure 1. The pilot in command is responsible for the airworthy condition of the aircraft and using checklists to ensure proper inspection of the helicopter prior to flight

Minimum Equipment Lists (MELs) and Operations with Inoperative Equipment

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) requires that all aircraft instruments and installed equipment be operative prior to each departure. However, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adopted the minimum equipment list (MEL) concept for 14 CFR part 91 operations, flights were allowed with inoperative items, as long as the inoperative items were determined to be nonessential for safe flight. At the same time, it allowed part 91 operators, without an MEL, to defer repairs on nonessential equipment within the guidelines of part 91. There are two primary methods of deferring maintenance on rotorcraft operating under part 91. They are the deferral provision of 14 CFR part 91, section 91.213(d) and an FAAapproved MEL.

The deferral provision of 14 CFR section 91.213(d) is widely used by most pilot/operators. Its popularity is due to simplicity and minimal paperwork. When inoperative equipment is found during preflight or prior to departure, the decision should be to cancel the flight, obtain maintenance prior to flight, determine if the flight can be made under the limitations imposed by the defective equipment, or to defer the item or equipment.

Maintenance deferrals are not used for in-flight discrepancies. The manufacturer’s RFM/POH procedures are to be used in those situations. The discussion that follows is an example of a pilot who wishes to defer maintenance that would ordinarily be required prior to flight.

If able to use the deferral provision of 14 CFR section 91.213(d), the pilot determines whether the inoperative equipment is required by type design or 14 CFR. If the inoperative item is not required, and the helicopter can be safely operated without it, the deferral may be made. The inoperative item shall be deactivated or removed and an INOPERATIVE placard placed near the appropriate switch, control, or indicator. If deactivation or removal involves maintenance (removal always does), it must be accomplished by certificated maintenance personnel.

For example, if the position lights (installed equipment) were discovered to be inoperative prior to a daytime flight, the pilot would follow the requirements of 14 CFR section 91.213(d). The pilot must then decide if the flight can be accomplished prior to night, when the lights will be needed.

The deactivation may be a process as simple as the pilot positioning a circuit breaker to the OFF position, or as complex as rendering instruments or equipment totally inoperable. Complex maintenance tasks require a certificated and appropriately rated maintenance person to perform the deactivation. In all cases, the item or equipment must be placarded INOPERATIVE.

When an operator requests an MEL, and a Letter of Authorization (LOA) is issued by the FAA, then the use of the MEL becomes mandatory for that helicopter. All maintenance deferrals must be accomplished in accordance with the terms and conditions of the MEL and the operator-generated procedures document.

The use of an MEL for rotorcraft operated under part 91 also allows for the deferral of inoperative items or equipment. The primary guidance becomes the FAA-approved MEL issued to that specific operator and N-numbered helicopter.

The FAA has developed master minimum equipment lists (MMELs) for rotorcraft in current use. Upon written request by a rotorcraft operator, the local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) may issue the appropriate make and model MMEL, along with an LOA, and the preamble. The operator then develops operations and maintenance (O&M) procedures from the MMEL. This MMEL with O&M procedures now becomes the operator’s MEL. The MEL, LOA, preamble, and procedures document developed by the operator must be on board the helicopter when it is operated.

The FAA considers an approved MEL to be a supplemental type certificate (STC) issued to an aircraft by serial number and registration number. It therefore becomes the authority to operate that aircraft in a condition other than originally type certificated.

With an approved MEL, if the position lights were discovered inoperative prior to a daytime flight, the pilot would make an entry in the maintenance record or discrepancy record provided for that purpose. The item is then either repaired or deferred in accordance with the MEL. Upon confirming that daytime flight with inoperative position lights is acceptable in accordance with the provisions of the MEL, the pilot would leave the position lights switch OFF, open the circuit breaker (or whatever action is called for in the procedures document), and placard the position light switch as INOPERATIVE.

There are exceptions to the use of the MEL for deferral. For example, should a component fail that is not listed in the MEL as deferrable (the rotor tachometer, engine tachometer, or cyclic trim, for example), then repairs are required to be performed prior to departure. If maintenance or parts are not readily available at that location, a special flight permit can be obtained from the nearest FSDO. This permit allows the helicopter to be flown to another location for maintenance. This allows an aircraft that may not currently meet applicable airworthiness requirements, but is capable of safe flight, to be operated under the restrictive special terms and conditions attached to the special flight permit.

Deferral of maintenance is not to be taken lightly, and due consideration should be given to the effect an inoperative component may have on the operation of a helicopter, particularly if other items are inoperative. Further information regarding MELs and operations with inoperative equipment can be found in AC 9 1-67, Minimum Equipment Requirements for General Aviation Operations Under FAR Part 91.

Engine Start And Rotor Engagement