Safety experts are fascinated by helicopter collisions with terrain, water and obstacles.
They study these types of accidents continually. In the past four years, groups of accidents involving what is called controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) alone have been the subject of studies by the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the International Helicopter Safety Team, the International Assn of Oil and Gas Producers’ aviation subcommittee and the U.S. aviation standards advisory group RTCA.
Their findings have spurred development and testing of advanced avionics and other systems to alert pilots to collision hazards. But the experts who performed those studies generally agree that no black box inside a helicopter or warning system is a substitute for a pilot who stays keenly aware of the environment in which he or she flies and makes sound judgments about how safe it is to keep flying in that environment.
"A terrain awareness and warning system or a powerline detection system or any avionics is just a tool for a pilot," said Dave Downey, manager of the FAA’s Rotorcraft Directorate. Also co-chairman of the International Helicopter Safety Team, Downey served as a flight test pilot for the FAA and the U.S. Army, including a tour as chief test pilot for the Army Aviation Airworthiness Qualification Test Directorate at Edwards AFB, Calif. He also is a graduate of the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School.
He and other experts offered several tips to help pilots new and old maintain that situational awareness and lay the foundation for sound decision-making. The need for them is urgent.
In offshore operations, for instance, about half of the 151 accidents that occurred in the decade ending in 2004 involved pilot procedural errors, according to the oil and gas producers’ group. Of that half, 30 percent alone involved controlled flight into terrain/water (CFITW), and 24 percent involved striking obstacles (with 21 percent striking a helideck). The 151 accidents included 55 fatal ones that claimed 213 lives.
According to Greg Wyght, vice president of safety and quality for CHC Helicopter Corp, CFIT is the No. 1 cause of helicopter accidents and has been so for seven years. It is a threat that doesn’t discriminate.
"The CFIT risk is actually everywhere," said Yasuo Ishihara, the Honeywell engineer who tailored that company’s Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System for use on helicopters. "It occurs day and night, in VFR and IFR flight, in flat terrain and mountains, and it occurs regardless of the experience level of the pilot."
Take, for example, the Jan. 10, 2005 crash of an emergency medical service Eurocopter EC135P2 in the Potomac River just south of Washington. The commercial pilot of the LifeNet VFR positioning flight was southbound over the Potomac, crossing over a major, lighted bridge at about 200 ft msl, when air traffic control called traffic. The pilot acknowledged the traffic in sight. It was about 2311 local time on a moonless night. The NTSB said the helicopter then started a gradual, right, descending turn that continued for 14 sec until it struck the water. The pilot and flight paramedic were killed; the flight nurse survived.
Other professional pilots familiar with the route "described the area near the accident site as a ‘black void’ because the shoreline there lacked physical lighting," said the NTSB. Some said "flying that route at night was like flying into instrument meteorological conditions."
All of the experts with which Rotor & Wing spoke to stressed the need for a good reconnaissance of the route you will fly. That includes reviewing charts and notices to airmen, and talking about the route with pilots familiar with it. Don’t just look for hazards, they said. Look for landmarks that will tip you off that you are approaching the hazard.
That is especially true if you intend to fly below 500 ft agl, said Bob Feerst, president of Utilities/Aviation Specialists, a Crown Point, Ind. consulting firm that has trained more than 15,000 pilots around the world on flying at that altitude around power lines.
"You have to understand the dynamics of flying in that environment," he said, adding that he teaches a set of 12 different "awarenesses" that a pilot must maintain to fly safely in that environment. For one thing, he said, wires may be nearly impossible to see. When copper wires oxidize, for instance, they acquire a green coating just right for blending in to a tree- covered background.
The priority before flying below 500 ft, the experts said, is to ask yourself why you are doing that in the first place.
"There’s no good reason to be flying that low unless you’re on a job that requires it," said Gary Campbell, director of operations for EMS Air Services of Canandaigua, N.Y. "If you’re scud-running for no good reason, you’ve already made the decision to have an accident."