Archive for November, 2012

Moral Courage Award

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Moral Courage can be thought of as the willingness to make sound safety decisions even when they are difficult or unpopular. Many times the pilot that exercises the courage to turn a flight down is making a tough decision, and in many cases their actions go unnoticed. Although it is impossible to know about the accident that didn’t happen, it is a reasonable assumption that a certain percentage of no-go decisions have prevented accidents and possibly saved lives.  Mr. D Smith, Senior Air Safety Investigator with the DOT/Transportation Safety Institute, believes that although these types of decisions are ones without fanfare, they are no less heroic than the more visible actions of other aviators. As such, he is looking for nominations for a new Moral Courage Safety Award. The award is aimed at recognizing individuals and organizations in the helicopter industry that make operational decisions based on sound safety risk management principles.  

According to Mr. Smith, “The award was inspired from the true story of an EMS pilot who told of his decision to abort a critical neonatal transport after encountering un-forecasted bad weather.  It was a very tough call; he had to weigh the safety of the crew with the life of a patient.  In the end he aborted the transport knowing it was the right decision for the safety of everyone.  His organization supported the decision and even went so far as to recognize him for making that tough call.  Sometimes choosing the safest course of action can cost time or money, but in the long run it saves time, money, reputation, and possibly lives.  It takes moral courage to do the right thing.  We believe there are many individuals and organizations making these tough calls every day.  We want to recognize them for their contribution to promoting a positive safety culture in the rotorcraft community.” 

Helicopter crew members, maintenance personnel, managers, and their organizations are eligible for the award. If you are interested in nominating someone please draft a short narrative of the event(s) and send it to d.smith@dot.gov . The award will be presented during the annual HAI Heli-Expo.

Flight controls and passengers

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

I was at a state fair several years ago where a pilot was giving helicopter rides in a Bell 206 JetRanger (a 5-seat single engine turbine powered helicopter). What caught my attention was that the dual controls were installed and passengers were being loaded into the left front seat. Allowing strangers access to the flight controls, like when giving rides, is very risky. Even when a pilot knows the passenger, they need to be extremely cautious and give serious consideration as to whether someone is provided access to the flight controls. For example consider the following accident that happened February 14th, 2010.

According to the NTSB, a ranch foreman who observed the flight preparations saw the helicopter owner board the helicopter through the left forward cockpit door and occupy the left front cockpit seat. The helicopter owner’s 5-year old daughter also boarded the helicopter through the left forward cockpit door and sat on her father’s lap. The pilot, who had 11,045 hours of total flight time, all in rotorcraft-helicopters, 824 hours of which were in the EC135 T1, was already seated in the right front cockpit seat. Both the left and right front cockpit seats were equipped with dual flight controls. Operator personnel revealed that the helicopter owner’s daughter had sat on her father’s lap occasionally during flights, that the owner liked to fly the helicopter, and that it was common for him to fly. Although the owner held a certificate for airplane single-engine land, he was not a rated helicopter pilot. However, it could not be determined who was flying the helicopter at the time of the accident.

About 35 minutes after departing the ranch, radar data revealed that the helicopter was about 2,000 feet above ground level when witnesses on the ground stated they heard unusual popping or banging noises. Several witnesses also stated that they saw parts separate from the helicopter before it circled and dove to the ground. The helicopter impacted a river wash area north of the destination airport in a slightly nose-down and slightly left-bank attitude. The helicopter was subsequently consumed by a post crash fire. The accident was not survivable.

A post accident examination of the helicopter revealed that the yellow blade had impacted the left horizontal endplate and the tail rotor drive shaft in the area of the sixth hangar bearing, which resulted in the loss of control and subsequent impact with terrain. No pre-impact failures or material anomalies were found in the wreckage and component examinations that could explain the divergence of the yellow blade from the plane of main rotor rotation. Flight simulation indicated that the only way that this condition could have occurred was as a result of a sudden lowering of the collective to near the lower stop, followed by a simultaneous reaction of nearly full-up collective and near full-aft cyclic control inputs. A helicopter pilot would not intentionally make such control movements.

A biomechanical study determined that it was feasible that the child passenger was seated on the helicopter owner’s lap in the left front cockpit seat during the flight and that the child could fully depress the left-side collective control by stepping on it with her left foot. The study also found that the collective lever’s full range of motion was 9.5 inches from full up to full down and that the spacing between the left edge of the seat, the collective, and the door are sufficient such that a child’s foot could rest on the collective and depress it. The study noted that the cyclic control could be moved to the full-aft position even with a small child of this size seated on the lap of an adult male in various positions.

Considering that the child was sitting on the owner’s lap in the left front cockpit seat, it is highly likely that the child inadvertently stepped on the collective with her left foot and displaced it to the full down position. This condition would have then resulted in either the pilot or the helicopter owner raising the collective, followed by a full-aft input pull of the cyclic control and the subsequent main rotor departing the normal plane of rotation and striking the left endplate and the aft end of the tail rotor drive shaft.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable causes of this accident are:

The sudden and inadvertent lowering of the collective to near the lower stop, followed by a simultaneous movement of the collective back up and the cyclic control to a nearly full-aft position, which resulted in the main rotor disc diverging from its normal plane of rotation and striking the tail rotor drive shaft and culminated in a loss of control and subsequent impact with terrain. Contributing to the accident was absence of proper cockpit discipline from the pilot.

Off airport landings

Monday, November 5th, 2012

One of the big advantages of helicopters is the ability to land off airport. However, deciding where and when to land a helicopter deserves considerable thought as the consequences of a bad decision can be very serious.

A case in point happened to a pilot in New York on October 27th.  According to news reports, police were called to the Coliseum after receiving several 911 calls complaining of many intoxicated youths at a rave concert there. While they were at the scene, police said a pilot attempted to land a Bell 407 on a grassy area on the side of the Coliseum. The first landing had to be aborted due to pedestrians walking in the area. The pilot returned and landed on the grassy area where at least 20 pedestrians were walking. The pilot was arrested, his helicopter was seized and he was charged with first-degree reckless endangerment.

The Federal Aviation Regulations also have a rule (14 CFR Part 91.13) prohibiting the careless and reckless operation of an aircraft; however, they do not address the legality of landing on someone else’s property. Failing to receive permission from the land owner could be just simple trespassing, nevertheless; zoning laws can prohibit the landing of aircraft even with owner consent. Some municipalities have specific ordnances that require a permit to land an aircraft and even if proper security measures are taken a fine can result if one is not obtained. In any event, landing in an unsecured area requires trained ground personnel (police, fire personnel etc…) to secure the area and prevent unauthorized persons from approaching the helicopter until it is safe. Moreover, as happened in New York, criminal charges can be filed if persons or property are placed at risk during a landing. It also would not be a surprise to see the FAA attempt to violate this pilot under 91.13.