What is IFR?
IFR stands for "Instrument Flight Rules". When pilots and other aviation professionals use the term IFR, they are referring to times when the aircraft is flying in the clouds.
Normally pilots control the aircraft using a combination of outside references and tools in the cockpit, such as GPS. This is very much the same as how we all navigate in our cars. When the aircraft is in the clouds, the pilots must rely solely on the information displayed on the cockpit instruments. This type of flying takes a significant amount of extra training and practice.
Most people are used to flying in the clouds when riding on airliners, however, it is much less common to find a helicopter capable of this type of operation. This is due to the inherent instability of helicopters. The Agusta AW109 is capable of IFR flight due to the addition of its autopilot and redundant systems. Autopilots enhance the pilot's ability to navigate in IFR weather conditions and increase the helicopter's stability in flight. System redundancy ensures a higher level of safety, because there are two of all the helicopter's systems, ie engines, electrical power supply, airspeed and altitude instruments etc.
LifeFlight pilot Pete Cartmell, preparing for an instrument approach during IFR flight.
Another thing that sets LifeFlight's A109 Helicopters apart from other helicopters and even airliners, is their ability to perform GPS instrument approaches to hospital helipads. One of the reasons why it is easy for airplanes to perform IFR flight, is that they are taking off and landing at airports. This allows for them to descend out of the clouds, avoiding obstacles and landing on runways. The LifeFlight helicopters need to be able to descend out of the clouds to hospitals which are confined spaces with more obstacles. With support from bond funding, LifeFlight of Maine has been able to invest in establishing special approaches that create a safe corridor for the helicopter to descend down through the clouds and arrive safely at the hospital helipad with the use of the GPS and aircraft autopilot.
On approach, the helicopter descends through the clouds and the runway at Brunswick Airport becomes visible.