Saturday, May 1, 2010
Every pilot has been in similar situations. On duty for days, feeling responsible for the asset entrusted to your care, commitments at home, responsibilities that need your attention, fear of retribution for “wimping out” by delaying a flight or waiting out a storm.
I have been there myself—wanting to get home to my family so badly but having to make the decision to divert to an airport that not only wasn’t serviced by the airline I worked for, it didn’t even have airline service. Just thinking about it makes me cringe as I recall having to help our passengers find alternate ways to their destinations from this small Podunk airport in the rural Midwest without the help of cheerful gate agents who were used to doing that sort of thing. One thing, however, makes me proud. We lived to tell the tale.
On that dark and stormy night the captain I was flying with made that difficult decision and I hold him in the highest regard for doing so, no matter how hard it was to deal with those upset and cranky passengers, not to mention the ribbing we got upon our eventual return to our hub. My captain smiled and leaned over to me as we started to receive those taunts in the crew room and said this: “We’re alive–don’t forget that.”
There was another accident in March in a classic case of “same story, different day.” A Eurocopter AS350B3 from a HEMS operator in Tennessee was destroyed and all aboard were killed on March 25 at 6:00 a.m. during a positioning flight. It was night (actually the wee hours of the morning) and instrument conditions were present in the area of the crash. The helicopter had already taken a patient from one location to the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital and disembarked the patient.
Satellite-recorded en route altitudes are shown in the final segment of the flight to be 1,000 feet msl until the last satellite contact near the accident site, when the altitude was 752 feet msl.
Weather radar from March 25. Small white box in the middle indicates the crash site.
An excerpt straight from the NTSB preliminary report released April 12:
“According to an oncoming shift pilot, who started his duty at 0530, it was dark and cloudy when he arrived at 99TN, with light rain. When he entered the hangar, he noticed that the helicopter was gone. He was concerned about the weather and called MEDCOM, a flight following center, to locate the helicopter, which was then on the pad at TN05. After hanging up with MEDCOM, the accident pilot called the oncoming pilot via cell phone and asked about the weather, as there was a small shower between Jackson and Brownsville.
The accident pilot stated that “he wanted to get the helicopter out,” and the oncoming pilot asked, “Can you park it?”
The accident pilot then responded that another helicopter already occupied the lower elevation pad, which the oncoming pilot took to mean that the accident pilot didn’t want to leave the helicopter on the hospital’s elevated pad. The two pilots further discussed the weather, and the oncoming pilot noted from a computer-based radar depiction, that there was a front coming from the Memphis area at a speed of about 25 miles per hour. At the time, the radar was depicting “red” over Memphis, and “yellow” extending about 10 miles out.
The accident pilot then stated that he figured he had about 18 minutes to get the helicopter back to base, to beat the storm. He told the oncoming pilot to call the two flight nurses, who were not yet back onboard the helicopter, to advise them that he was going to take off, and that they would be picked up later by car.
The oncoming pilot subsequently tried to call one of the flight nurses, but she had left her phone back at the base. He then called the other nurse and told her the plan; however, she stated that they had made it back to the helicopter, and were seven minutes “out” from the base.
Only seven minutes out. An Associated Press report said “fire-blackened debris could be seen spread across part of the field and one rotor blade stuck straight up from the ground.”
So I ask again, would it be the end of the world if you left a helicopter on the helipad and waited out the storms, instead of trying to beat them? For three people in Tennessee, not doing that meant the end of their world. I can guarantee their family’s worlds will never be the same either. When you think about it like that, a damaged or even a destroyed helicopter due to leaving it sit atop a hospital during a storm passage seems a small price to pay.