On July 13th Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International (HAI), wrote an article entitled “Land the Damn Helicopter” for Rotor News, which the association publishes. Matt’s point in summary is many helicopter accidents could be avoided by using one of the helicopter’s true advantages – it can land almost anywhere. Sorry offshore guys, as the British say this decision gets a little “sporty” for you and the consequences of landing on your floats in the ocean are a bit higher, but I would rather land on my floats right side up than try to extend to shore and wind up rotor head first into the water. I agree whole heartily that many pilots have had the option to land and not done so to their great regret. Where I take a bit of a different view than Matt is, there is a subset of these non-landings and subsequent accidents where something besides just bad decision making on the pilots part has been a factor.
Notice I said factor, not cause, the end cause is still bad pilot decision making. The factor I am writing about is outside influences, which should not be there in the first place, should have been intercepted by the chief pilot before the pilot staff was exposed to it, or the chief pilot caused the influence himself. I have been a line pilot and a chief pilot so I have seen both sides of this coin. I will tell you right now that the chief pilot has the harder of the two positions to be in.
I was operating an MBB BO105 (yes that was before they called them Airbus Helicopters) on a long-term contract that was very important to the financial well being of my company. The customer could be a pain in the tail rotor and I did my best to keep them happy. Returning to base one day, I smelled the poignant aroma of burning wires and witnessed a little magic smoke in the cockpit. Looking out the right window was Runway 030 for Magu Naval Air Station – all 11,102 feet of it – I decided that declaring a precautionary and landing in front of their crash truck a thousand feet down the runway was a good idea. When I returned for duty very early the next day, the helicopter was listed as up and the appropriate signoffs were in place. At mid-morning I returned to our base for fuel and was summoned to the chief pilot’s office where I received a very stern rebuke for declaring the precautionary and landing just 5 miles from our base. Didn’t I see that I had caused a concern on the customer’s part over nothing? No was my answer and from there the conversation got much louder. As I departed his office for the helicopter, a mechanics on his way in to show the chief pilot the ADF out of the MBB 105 that he had replaced late the night before. Internally it looked like a hand grenade had gone off. Said ADF sits directly below the pilots head in the aircraft.
Walking out to the aircraft, I was as mad as I have ever been while initiating a flight. I lit the fire and left. About 30 seconds after departing I began to smell fuel and the tower informed me fluid was trailing from the aircraft. On landing I saw that the fuel cap was missing which explained the fuel smell. I realized that the fuel boy had fueled the ship, set the fuel cap back on the vertical opening of the fuel pipe but had not locked it with the half twist cap. In that moment I realized that I had seen the cap in position but not checked it, which is an ingrained habit in any MBB 105 pilot because unlike other helicopters where the cap would fall off, if you don’t completely seat it, the MBB 105 will come off in flight.
The question of fault and how lucky we were that the falling cap didn’t hit anyone or that the helicopter didn’t ignite from the copious amount of fuel that was all over the aircraft now arises. Was it the fuel boy’s responsibility? Yes, it was part of his job to ensure the cap is on correctly, but if your safety plan relies on a minimum wage, 18-year-old kid you better find a different line of work, so he gets a reminder of the importance of what he does and that’s the end of his role. No, the person to hold responsible for this was me, the pilot in command. I checked the fuel cap on the 105 every time I flew one but that time. Wonder what caused me to fail my duty on that occasion? In the end, it was still my fault. But sometimes there’s more to a pilot not landing than just bad decision.