Helicopters On Board: Is Your Pilot Qualified?

17 June 2008 By Dan T. Deutermann

Here’s your scenario: You are the yacht’s master. It’s 2 am and the owner is having a heart attack.

The yacht is underway and you’re 100 miles from the nearest major medical facility.

You have a helicopter on board. Are you prepared to use it? You know the aircraft is capable, but is the pilot? Is your pilot really qualified for a night launch from your expensive helideck?

An increasing number of megayachts are equipped with expensive helicopters, but are they just decoration or can they be counted upon in a time of great need?

Aviation history teaches us that the expansion in any industry’s use of helicopters tends to outpace the necessary training of pilots to fly them.

The luxury yachting industry has awakened to this fact and quite rightly so. This nautical niche comprises some of the most prestigious yachts currently afloat.

The UK Maritime and Coast Guard Agency has amended its Large Yacht Code in 2007 to include an annex dedicated to helicopter operations. Any yacht crew conducting helicopter operations will have hopefully completed relevant training to prepare for operations, and more importantly, a crash.

But have you considered the other half of this operation -- The half that is not under the auspices of the maritime authorities?

As a yacht master what do you know about the most dangerous variable in this operation…the pilot?

According to international flight safety statistics, both civilian and military, the percentage of aviation accidents citing human factors as the primary causal factor “hovers” (excuse the pun) near 80 percent.

Even though modern helicopters are more reliable and sturdier than their predecessors, we still see “controlled flight into terrain” and “spatial disorientation” (vertigo) as the predominant human causal factors in fatal mishaps. These two factors are regularly cited in accidents involving helicopters over water, and even more commonly during night landings or takeoffs involving moving ships or high platforms at sea.

Pair this 80 percent figure with the increase in helicopter operations involving yachts, and the opportunity for disaster skyrockets.

How will you know if your pilot is fully qualified to fly the helicopter to and from your yacht?

Ratings and flight hours are the predominant measuring sticks, with flight hours being the most prevalent. However, even though a pilot’s flight hour count is important to gauge their level of “air sense,” the hours are often ambiguous.

One thousand flight hours going from Point A to Point B and back do not equal 1,000 flight hours of nighttime, over-water, all-weather shipboard landings and takeoffs.

Here’s what you should ask to determine if your pilot has the necessary skills to avoid danger:

1. How many total flight hours does the pilot currently have? Doing what?
The question has to be asked, and if the answer is less than 2,000 hours, then you may wish to steer clear of that pilot for insurance purposes if nothing else.

2. How many of those flight hours were in helicopters and as pilot in command?
You may find that prospective pilots have included fixed wing time to boost their total hours. Ask to see all their logbooks.

3. Has the pilot had any formal training in ship/yacht helicopter operations?
Formal training is different from being self-taught. Would you entrust a self-taught pilot with your life, the life of the yacht owner or your peers? It would also be good to know who provided this formal training if there was any.

If you have responsibility for the yacht, then you have the responsibility to know about the pilot’s qualifications and currency. If you feel unqualified to ask, then hire someone who can to ensure you are getting a professionally qualified aviator.

I offer these views as an aviator who has performed many different kinds of missions off many kinds of ship’s acting as the pilot in command for both U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters. I implore yacht owners, captains and crew to analyze the true capabilities of your aircrew and your own organic flight deck crew.

Strive to standardize how your deck and the helicopter crew work together to make onboard flight operations as safe as possible.

Dan Deutermann is an active duty U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter pilot and Flight Safety Officer. He has over accumulated nearly 5,000 flight hours and has more than 16 years experience flying helicopters to small and large ship decks. He may be reached for questions or comments at: