Helicopter Pinnacle and Ridgeline Operations

A pinnacle is an area from which the surface drops away steeply on all sides. A ridgeline is a long area from which the surface drops away steeply on one or two sides, such as a bluff or precipice. The absence of obstacles does not necessarily decrease the difficulty of pinnacle or ridgeline operations. Updrafts, downdrafts, and turbulence, together with unsuitable terrain in which to make a forced landing, may still present extreme hazards.

Approach and Landing

If there is a need to climb to a pinnacle or ridgeline, do it on the upwind side, when practicable, to take advantage of any updrafts. The approach flightpath should be parallel to the ridgeline and into the wind as much as possible. [Figure 1]

Helicopter Advanced Flight Maneuvers
Figure 1. When flying an approach to a pinnacle or ridgeline, avoid the areas where downdrafts are present, especially when excess power is limited. If downdrafts are encountered, it may become necessary to make an immediate turn away from the pinnacle to avoid being forced into the rising terrain

Load, altitude, wind conditions, and terrain features determine the angle to use in the final part of an approach. As a general rule, the greater the winds are, the steeper the approach needs to be to avoid turbulent air and downdrafts.

Groundspeed during the approach is more difficult to judge because visual references are farther away than during approaches over trees or flat terrain. Pilots must continually perceive the apparent rate of closure by observing the apparent change in size of the landing zone features. Avoid the appearance of an increasing rate of closure to the landing site. The apparent rate of closure should be that of a brisk walk. If a crosswind exists, remain clear of down-drafts on the leeward or downwind side of the ridgeline. If the wind velocity makes the crosswind landing hazardous, it may be possible to make a low, coordinated turn into the wind just prior to terminating the approach. When making an approach to a pinnacle, avoid leeward turbulence and keep the helicopter within reach of a forced landing area as long as possible.

On landing, take advantage of the long axis of the area when wind conditions permit. Touchdown should be made in the forward portion of the area. When approaching to land on pinnacles, especially manmade areas such as rooftop pads, the pilot should determine the personnel access pathway to the helipad and ensure that the tail rotor is not allowed to intrude into that walkway or zone. Parking or landing with the tail rotor off the platform ensures personnel safety. Always perform a stability check prior to reducing rpm to ensure the landing gear is on firm terrain that can safely support the weight of the helicopter. Accomplish this by slowly moving the cyclic and pedals while lowering the collective. If movement is detected, reposition the aircraft.


A pinnacle takeoff is considered an airspeed over altitude maneuver which can be made from the ground or from a hover. Since pinnacles and ridgelines are generally higher than the immediate surrounding terrain, gaining airspeed on the takeoff is more important than gaining altitude. As airspeed increases, the departure from the pinnacle is more rapid and helicopter time in the “avoid” area of the height/velocity decreases. [Figure 2 In addition to covering unfavorable terrain rapidly, a higher airspeed affords a more favorable glide angle and thus contributes to the chances of reaching a safe area in the event of a forced landing. If a suitable forced landing area is not available, a higher airspeed also permits a more effective flare prior to making an autorotative landing.

Helicopter Advanced Flight Maneuvers
Figure 2. Height/velocity chart

On takeoff, as the helicopter moves out of ground effect, maintain altitude and accelerate to normal climb airspeed. When normal climb speed is attained, establish a normal climb attitude. Never dive the helicopter down the slope after clearing the pinnacle.

Common Errors

1. Failing to perform, or improper performance of, a high or low reconnaissance.
2. Flying the approach angle too steep or too shallow for the existing conditions.
3. Failing to maintain proper rpm.
4. Failing to consider emergency landing areas.
5. Failing to consider how wind and turbulence could affect the approach and takeoff.
6. Failure to maintain pinnacle elevation after takeoff.
7. Failure to maintain proper approach rate of closure.
8. Failure to achieve climb airspeed in timely manner.