From the left seat

By Johan Nurmi | January 1, 2005
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Totally Avoidable Mishaps

It was late afternoon in the middle of August. The sun had started to descend behind the mountains to the west. The instructor pilot made the final preparations to solo a student at the non-tower-controlled airport in Southern California.

The student had had 27 hr. of flight instruction, and the CFI felt that the student was ready for solo flight. He had trained him thoroughly and prepared him over and over again for his first solo.


The instructor had shown him the Awareness Training Film, which talks about the dangerous conditions in flight and how to avoid them. The student had passed the Awareness Training written test and understood the subject areas very well. He also passed the pre-solo written test.

After the instructor had given the student the required solo endorsements, they called the Flight Service Station and checked weather. It was VFR, more than 5 mi. visibility and more than 3,000 ft. ceiling. There was hardly any wind as the instructor and student walked to the helicopter. It was a perfect late afternoon for hover solo. There was still 2 hr. of light remaining before darkness.

The student was a businessman in his early forties who owned his own company. He weighed 235 lb.

The instructor and student did a weight and balance calculation before the flight and found out the center of gravity was OK. They put 19.2 gal. in the main fuel tank and 10.5 gal. in the auxiliary tank. The instructor also put a 20-lb. bag under the instructor's seat to equalize the weight between the two sides.

The CFI then asked the student to start the engine and follow the start-up checklist. After warming up the engine and checking the oil pressure, oil temperature, and cylinder-head temperature, the student scanned the caution and warning lights. He inspected the magnetos, carburetor-heat system and checked the Sprague clutch. He then took the cyclic and collective friction off and turned on the governor to stabilize the engine and rotor rpm at 104 percent.

The instructor told the student to lift the helicopter to a 5-ft. hover, then land. Before the instructor got out of the aircraft, he asked the student to demonstrate numerous pick-ups and set-downs. The instructor decided that the student was safe for his first hover solo.

The CFI asked the student if he was ready to fly solo, and if he could hover safely.

"I can do it," the student said.

"Good luck. Be extremely careful," the instructor said, as he climbed out of the aircraft. "Remember, when I get out, the helicopter is 195 lb. lighter. Be prepared for the nose to come up because of the lighter weight and the center-of-gravity changes. As you lower collective, you will set it down on the aft skids. This is normal. Take it up slowly and cautiously. Look at the horizon"

He then walked away and gave the student hand signals to pick it up.

When the helicopter became light on the skids at the asphalt helipad, the left skid moved up in the air while the right one leaned to the surface of the pad. It almost looked like it was balancing on one skid. A second later, the helicopter rolled abruptly on its right side. The right blade hit hard on the asphalt, followed by the left until the rotor came to a full stop. The helicopter was totally destroyed.

The instructor ran to the helicopter, which was lying on its right side. He reached inside the cockpit and shut off the fuel valve and master battery switch. He unfastened the seat belt from the totally shocked student pilot and pulled him out of the wreck. He grabbed the fire extinguisher from the left side when he noticed fuel leaking from both tanks. The instructor and student walked quickly to a safe distance from the crashed aircraft. Luckily, the student pilot had no injuries.

Conclusion: Dynamic rollovers are totally avoidable mishaps. Lack of a) situational awareness, b) pilot training and c) full comprehension of the aerodynamics involved are generally the reasons why we still have so many dynamic-rollover accidents. Statistics have shown 78 dynamic rollovers in one specific helicopter type from 1979 to 1994. The hover solo could have been done early in the morning instead of the evening. In the morning, most people have more energy, better concentration and a greater attention span. If you have been working hard during the day and you feel tired and stressed (and if you haven't eaten properly), you should not fly before getting rest and food.

Johan Nurmi is an FAA Gold Seal Instructor pilot with the USA Academy of Aviation, French Valley Airport, Murrieta, Calif.

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