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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Accident Watch

Tim McAdams

Background Checks

When hiring a pilot, flight evaluations and background checks should be standard procedure, but in today’s pilot-shortage market, some operators might just be happy to find a pilot willing to work for what they are paying. The following account looks at a pilot’s background from training through employment.

According to the FAA, this pilot obtained a student pilot certificate on Jan. 7, 2004, and soon enrolled full time at a local helicopter flight school in Scottsdale, Ariz. On Feb. 4, 2004, he failed his initial private pilot check ride. He then obtained an additional 9.8 hr of flight instruction, and subsequently passed a second check ride with the same DPE. According to the president of the flight school, the pilot continued his enrollment. However, he reported that the pilot’s overall performance was poor and that he had a series of failed phase checks and displayed an overall knowledge shortfall.

On May 29, 2004, the pilot successfully completed a check ride for a commercial helicopter certificate, as well as a helicopter instrument rating. On Sept. 25, 2004, the pilot failed his initial CFI check ride. He then obtained an additional two hr of helicopter flight instruction, and passed a second check ride with the same DPE.

The school’s president reported that the pilot expressed an open interest in working for the flight school once he obtained the required certificates. However, after reviewing the pilot’s past performance and while closely monitoring his recent progress, he along with other personnel collectively decided not to offer the pilot a position. Additionally, they elected to discontinue any further flight training activities with the pilot citing serious safety issues and concerns.

On Oct. 26, 2004, the pilot was hired as a flight instructor for a large helicopter flight school. The pilot’s employment was terminated due to a series of unheeded warnings concerning safety related standards and his overall lack of performance.

On July 25, 2005, the pilot applied for a job in Kansas as a flight instructor with an operator of Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters. The owner reported that his pre-employment interview for any prospective flight instructor includes an in-depth oral interview, a written aptitude test and flight examinations in both an R22 and R44. The owner flew with the pilot in an R44, and had the flight school’s DPE fly with him in an R22. The owner reported that the pilot performed well below acceptable standards in all three categories and was not offered a position.

On Aug. 11, 2005, the pilot traveled to Tennessee to interview with a helicopter tour operator. The manager stated that the pilot attended a three-day interview session that included 17.7 hr of flight time in an R44. The manager reported that at the conclusion of the interview, the pilot was not hired. On Aug. 18, 2005, a flight school in Scottsdale, Ariz. hired the pilot part-time as a primary helicopter flight instructor in an R22, and to conduct local area sightseeing tours in an R44. She reported that she had not flown with the pilot before he was hired, nor was she required to under Title 14, CFR Part 91 flight ops. She said that prior to hiring the pilot she relied on a verbal recommendation from another flight instructor in the area.

On Oct. 3, 2005, the pilot interviewed with a large offshore helicopter operator and was hired. According to the operator, after completing his initial Part 135 ground school he began his initial flight training in an EC-120. According to the chief pilot, he accumulated about 10 hr of dual instruction, but was unable to achieve the minimum standards required to pass a Part 135 check ride. The pilot’s employment was terminated and he returned to Scottsdale.

On Dec. 4, 2005, another large offshore helicopter operator hired him and he began flight training in Bell 206s. After completing his initial ground and flight training, he satisfactorily completed his initial 14 CFR Part 135 check ride. He was then assigned as a pilot of Bell 206s operating offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

On his days off he continued to fly for the Scottsdale flight school and on Feb. 22, 2006 he departed the Scottsdale, Ariz. airport in an R22 on an introductory flight. This 45-min flight was a gift from a friend to the passenger. About six min later, the helicopter was destroyed during an uncontrolled descent and subsequent collision with the terrain. The pilot and the passenger died.

A witness reported that the helicopter began to descend rapidly and eventually started spinning counter-clockwise. As the helicopter’s descent rate increased the main rotor blades slowed and the helicopter entered a near vertical descent. The witness noted that as the helicopter descended vertically the main rotor blades had stopped turning and appeared to be bent upwards. The witness said he could not hear any engine sounds during the helicopter’s descent and watched until it descended behind a row of houses.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident as a loss of engine power during cruise flight for an undetermined reason, and the pilot’s failure to maintain rotor rpm, which resulted in an uncontrolled descent and collision with terrain.

Failing to check a pilot’s background before you hand them the keys can be a deadly mistake.

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