When a critical component in a helicopter’s main rotor system fails in flight, the resulting accident is almost always fatal. How much warning, if any, does a pilot get with these kinds of failures? Unfortunately, the vast majority of helicopters do not have cockpit voice recorders and unless the pilot can provide ATC with details, it can be hard to understand exactly what happened. Even if the pilot is in contact with an air traffic controller, an emergency situation leaves little time to completely explain a problem. Consequently, the crash of a Bell 212 equipped with a cockpit voice recorder near Philadelphia, Mississippi is unique in that it provides some insight as to what the flight crew knew. The helicopter was destroyed and the airline transport-rated pilot and one passenger (who was employed by the owner as a mechanic) were fatally injured.
The transcript of communications recorded on the cockpit voice recorder showed that about 18 minutes before the accident, the passenger stated to the pilot, “Boy, those catfish are going crazy down there, aren’t they?”
“Yep,” the pilot responded, “must have been the vibrations from the helicopter.”
About 1 minute, 30 seconds before the accident, the pilot asked the passenger, “Has this vertical just gotten in here or has it been here for a while?”
“We haven’t had any verticals at all,” the passenger replied.
“We do now,” the pilot said.
“Yeah, well it started right after we left back there,” the passenger said. “I think it maybe, ah, that’s why I was thinking it was the air.”
About 20 seconds later, the passenger stated that another person had tracked the helicopter’s blades before they left and that he was commenting on how smooth it was. Forty seconds after that, the pilot said, “This stuff is getting worse.”
The recording then ended.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the pilot and company maintenance personnel during preflight and periodic inspections to identify the signs of fretting and looseness in the red main-rotor blade pitch-change horn to main-rotor blade grip attachment. As a result, the NTSB found, the helicopter was allowed to continue in service with a loose pitch-change horn, which led to separation of the pitch-change horn from the blade grip and the in-flight breakup of the helicopter after the main rotor struck the tail boom. Contributing to the accident, the safety board said, was the pilot’s failure to respond to increased vibration in the main rotor system and land immediately.
The lesson in this accident is that any unexplained vibration should be investigated on the ground until the source is found and corrected. Some parts and bearings that become loose can experience exponential wearing and fretting and quickly reach a failure point.