Photo Flights

December 21, 2011 by Tim McAdams

Many helicopter photo flights are performed in small helicopters like the Robinson R22 or Schweitzer 300. As a result, pilots tend to be less experienced. This coupled with the need to perform some demanding maneuvers, photo flights can be dangerous. In fact, Robinson Helicopter issued Safety Notice SN-34 in March 1999, titled “Photo Flights – Very High Risk.” It describes the problems encountered when the pilot slows the helicopter below 30 KIAS and then attempts to maneuver the helicopter.

“The helicopter can rapidly lose transitional lift and begin to settle,” it states. “An inexperienced pilot may raise the collective to stop the descent. This can reduce rpm, thereby reducing power available and causing an even greater descent rate and further loss of rpm. Because tail rotor thrust is proportional to the square of rpm, if the rpm drops below 80 percent nearly half of the tail rotor thrust is lost and the helicopter will rotate nose over. Suddenly, the decreasing rpm also causes the main rotor to stall and the helicopter falls rapidly while continuing to rotate.” The safety notice recommends photo flights only be conducted by well-trained, experienced pilots.

The following accident supports Robinson’s recommendation.

According to the NTSB, on May 28, 2005, about 1150 Pacific Daylight Time, a Robinson R44 impacted terrain while maneuvering during a low-level photo flight near Lucerne Valley, California. The accident site was located at 4,266 ft msl and the temperature was about 90F, creating a density altitude of 7,350 ft. The owner, a private pilot, was seriously injured as was a safety pilot (who was also a CFI) and one passenger.

A witness reported that shortly after crossing the racecourse southbound at a low altitude it appeared that the helicopter was attempting to reverse course back toward the north. The helicopter pitched nose down and leveled off just before it impacted a dry streambed. Upon impact, the helicopter burst into flames. All three people on board sustained burns while exiting the burning helicopter.

The CFI reported he was the safety pilot for the flight and not pilot-in-command. He explained that while southbound and crossing the racecourse the private pilot started to turn the helicopter to the right when the helicopter began spinning to the right. The private pilot told him he had lost control and asked for help. The CFI took over the flight controls and tried to keep the helicopter in a level attitude. The helicopter was descending and the CFI realized the rotor rpm was decaying. He knew he was too low to try to recover the rpm so he tried to cushion the impact with the collective. The helicopter impacted the ground and rolled onto its left side.

The private pilot also stated he was flying southbound along the racecourse then made a hard right 180-deg turn and lost control of the helicopter. He indicated he used to fly off road races in his airplane and this was his second flight using a helicopter. He added the accident flight was the first time he had flown this type of operation with his own helicopter and as pilot-in-command. The pilot had just completed the Robinson Helicopter safety course, but he stated he did not know about Robinson Safety Notice SN-34.

The pilot held a private pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine land and multi-engine land. An additional rating for rotorcraft-helicopter was added seven days prior to the accident. At that time, the pilot reported a total airplane time of 1,550 hours and total helicopter time of 50 hours. The CFI held a commercial pilot certificate with a rating for rotorcraft-helicopter and a certified flight instructor rating for rotorcraft-helicopter. According to the CFI, he had 520 hours total flight time in rotorcraft, including 130 hours of flight instruction given. The CFI had received his endorsement for the R44 seven days before the accident.

  • Larry Schramm

    Having flown both helicopters mentioned in the article,I have difficulty comparing a Robinson to a Schweizer.While flying low and slow can be a recipe for disaster, I believe the Schweizer to be much more forgiving than the Robinson.

  • Derek

    True what Larry said about the Schweizer, yes. But this was just a story of two people making a bad decision after only 7 days of ‘being on the job’. This pilot with 50 hours thinks he can just go fly like Airfwolf all of the sudden? If taught properly, the CFI would know this maneuver as students are taught about this kind of maneuver while learning. Plus if he went to the Robinson course and “does not know about SN-34″, then he was just another hotshot fixed wing pilot that thinks he’s better than everybody else and sleeping through the factory course (I’ve seen this) and this is what happens. Idiots. Though I am sorry for the injuries sustained, this is just an example of stupidity x 2.

  • Cal Gray

    I have logged about 300 hours in the R-22 doing photo flights over water chasing boats, sometimes low and slow, sometimes pushing it close to VNE for power boat races, and usually well within the HV diagram, AKA The Death curve. It’s all about paying attention, hyper attention, to every second your on the photo run, and keeping your head on a swivel. Focusing to hard on what the photographer is looking at will give you tunnel vision and potential pilot error. Keep in mind that you can almost always go back around and try again to get the shot.

  • Paul Goldasich Jr

    I have flown all three helicopters mentioned in the article, and I do agree with Larry that the Schweizer is more forgiving than the R-22, but I think that just about any other (certified) helicopter is. I have experience flying a R-44 to and from a barge located in the Mississippi River at the base of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The wind here is something not to be taken lightly as I have seen it blowing in different directions at the same time. (Due to terrain) It blows one way on the barge deck, and as you gain altitude and clear the levee of the Arch grounds it is doing something else. Airspeed is definitely your friend here and getting too slow on either the takeoff or approach can spell trouble. We always stay above translational lift until the bottom of the approach then stabilize in a hover.
    I read the NTSB report of this accident. Interesting.

  • Bill Brockhaus

    Yet another NTSB report that can be used as a example of what not to do. High, Hot, and Heavy combined with inexperience and poor judgement. Sadly that CFI probably continued flying and passed his poor judgement on to other student sponges. I would hope that the Private pilot lost their ticket based on the false logbook entries.

  • George McNeil

    It’s not the helicopter. It’s the pilot. Anybody can get into trouble in any helicopter unless they are paying attention to Wind, Performance/OGE and Settling with Power. It’s basic aerodynamics.

  • Bill Brockhaus

    I couldn’t agree with you more George, I have flown more than 1200 hours of photo flights in 22s with no issues.

  • Paul Goldasich Jr

    You guys are right. Personally I really like the R-22 not just because it’s the aircraft I learned to fly in, but it is just a great little helicopter, As long as you know what it can and cannot do. There may have been a false sense of security with the CFI on board and the pilot figured the CFI would get him out of trouble if need be. Not the case. After reading the NTSB report I could follow the accident chain right to the ground. The only good was that no one lost their life.