Controlled flight into terrain is the technical term for crashing your helicopter into the earth. This is not just into the ground-it can also man into a hill or mountain. And it happens quite often to both fixed and rotor-wing aircraft, although we’ll be focusing on the helicopter aspect of things, obviously. CFIT accidents are a major safety concern for helicopter pilots, and yet these accidents are often quite difficult to explain because they involve a pilot being aware of the impending disaster.
The most common factor in CFIT accidents is that the outside visibility is limited, or the accident occurs at night, and you can’t see the terrain features due to darkness until you’re moments away from impacting it. Another common factor with CFIT accidents is a lack of situational awareness, but vertical awareness as well. Knowing not only where your helicopter is in relation to the ground, but the terrain features around your flight areas, is the best way to prevent a CFIT accident.
The best defenses a pilot can have to avoid a CFIT accident is Training, Planning, and Preparation. Taking a few minutes before takeoff to become familiar with the proposed flight and any terrain obstacles in the flight path can go a long way towards preventing a CFIT accident. Pilots must also ensure they have adequate visibility to fly their aircraft safely. Whether this means that they can see with the naked eye, or have suitable instruments on board, or even night vision equipments, if you can’t see the terrain and obstacles around you, you’re flying into a CFTI-conducive condition.
Practicing flying with instruments while you can see with the naked eye is the best way to get comfortable with potentially needing to rely on instruments alone to guide you safely. Pilots should practice immediate CFIT avoidance procedures, such a rapid altitude increases and aerial avoidance maneuvers, in an area free of actual hazards. Pilots should also ensure that their altimeter works properly before takeoff.
Today’s modern aircraft have sophisticated electronic safety and autopilot, auto throttle, flight director, and flight management systems. No matter how face your helicopter is, however, ultimately, the pilot is responsible for CFIT avoidance. If you rely on an autopilot, crosscheck it with your instruments and your eyeball frequently failure to do so is practically begging for a CFIT accident). Caution should also be used while using illumination inside the aircraft, for certain colored lenses and lights could bleach out symbols on a map, or blind the pilot from seeing outside obstacles.
The FAA has a CFIT avoidance checklist, published by the NTSB, available on its website. I highly encourage you to download it and keep it handy. Remember, there’s no cute bear that says “only you can prevent CFIT accidents!” However, if you enjoy the controlled landing part of a helicopter flight, be responsible and know your surroundings. Fly only in conditions you’re comfortable with, and ensure your instruments work properly before flight. Safe flying is in your hands. I might not be a bear, but I’ll remind you anyways!