Do Helicopters Have To File A Flight Plan?

The helicopter is a fine way to travel but it induces a view of the world that only God and CEO’s share on a regular basis - Morley Shafer 

The FAA’s (Federal Aviation Authority) non-discriminatory rules and practices don’t just apply on the ground, they’re also administered in the air.

They enforce the same flight rules for fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, which means that the flight plan rules that govern the filing of flight plans for airplanes are the same rules that govern flight plans for helicopters. 

And because of the way they fly and are generally flown, the vast majority of helicopter pilots don’t need to file flight plans before they take to the sky in a chopper. 

What Are The FAA Rules For Filing A Flight Plan? 

The FFA rules, regulations, and guidelines covering flight plans state that it isn’t necessary to file a flight plan if you’re going to be flying using VFR (Visual Flight Rules) and that the only time you’re legally obliged to file a flight plan is when you’re flying using IFR (Instrument Flight Rules).

As the vast majority of helicopter flights use VFR rather than IFR, their pilots don’t usually have to file a flight plan. 

What Are VFR Rules?  

Visual Flight Rules apply to almost every small or light aircraft flight in American airspace, which if you spend too long thinking about it, can seem a little crazy and more than a bit frightening, especially when you consider how many aircraft there are in the sky at any one time without permission to be there.

That’s one of the reasons why the FAA says that even if you don’t need to file a flight plan, it’s advisable to do so. That way, they’ll know who and what is flying at any given time. 

The rules concerning VFR are simple. VFR applies to flights that are made by a pilot using visual landmarks and the aircraft’s relative position to the ground as a means to navigate and safely fly their aircraft.

The weather conditions must be good enough to fly in and pilots must have a clear visual field of up to three miles in every direction (which gives them enough time to maneuver around any landmarks and to avoid any other aircraft).

And VFR flights can only be made up to an altitude of eighteen thousand feet - if you’re planning to fly above that ceiling, you’ll need to be instrument rated and IFR certified. 

Are All Helicopter Flights Made Using VFR Rules? 

That’s a good question, and the answer is no. No, they’re not, but the vast majority of them are.

One of the main reasons why a lot of helicopter flights are made using VFR instead of IFR is that the maximum operational altitude of helicopters is much lower than that of fixed-wing (airplanes) aircraft. 

The higher you fly, the thinner the air gets and because of the way that the engine on a helicopter works, when they reach a height of twenty-five thousand feet, the air is generally too thin for a helicopter’s engine to work properly or efficiently.

So most helicopter pilots tend to fly below that height in order to ensure that their engine doesn’t stop working and they don’t plunge out of the sky. 

Okay, so that was maybe a little overdramatic, but you get the point that we’re making. The operational ceiling that limits helicopter flights makes it much easier and safer to fly them within the boundaries of, and using, VFR rules. 

Do Helicopters Ever Need To File Flight Plans? 

Yes, they do.  If a helicopter pilot is planning on making an IFR flight, then they need to file a flight plan either online or with their local ATC (Air Traffic Control) and they can do this up to one hundred and twenty days before their flight. In reality, though, most pilots file their flight plans either a couple of hours prior to, or just before they, take off. 

Helicopter pilots also need to file a flight plan if they plan on exceeding their VFR boundary and are going to fly above eighteen thousand feet, if the weather conditions make VFR flight difficult or impossible (and as such necessitate the use of IFR rules) or if they’re planning on traveling through cloud cover for a prolonged period which, as they won’t be able to use any visual landmarks to navigate with, means that they’ll have to fly using IFR. 

And lastly, the only time when it is absolutely compulsory for a helicopter, or fixed-wing pilot, to file a flight plan even if they are going to be flying using VFR is if they’re planning on flying within sixty nautical miles of Washington DC.

Any pilot that flies that close to the nation’s capital, must file a flight plan or risk being pursued by the Air Force and spending their vacation in a federal penitentiary if they fly without filing the necessary paperwork first.