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Monday, February 1, 2010

Stay Proficient

By Joy Finnegan

The following was adapted from an NTSB preliminary accident report: “On Sept. 25, 2009, at approximately 11:30 p.m., a Eurocopter AS350B2 was substantially damaged when it crashed near Georgetown County Airport (GGE), Georgetown, S.C. The certificated commercial pilot and two others on board were killed in the crash. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed, and a company visual flight rules (VFR) flight plan was active for the Part 91 positioning flight, which departed from Charleston Air Force Base (CHS), in Charleston, S.C., destined for Conway-Horry County Airport (HYW), Conway, S. C. After refueling, the helicopter departed for HYW at 11:02. The pilot advised MUSC flight control that he had 2 hours and 45 minutes of fuel onboard, would be flying at 1,500 feet above mean sea level (msl), and estimated arrival at his destination in 45 minutes.

According to preliminary information provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), at 11:05, the accident helicopter had departed CHS, eastbound, VFR, receiving flight following to Mt. Pleasant Regional Airport-Faison Field (LRO). The pilot reported LRO in sight at 6 miles at 11:09, and CHS tower terminated service.

The helicopter then flew past LRO towards Georgetown. When the SROC was contacted to request an Alert Notice (ALNOT) be issued, the SROC called CHS tower, who reviewed the radar data in an attempt to locate the accident helicopter and observed that it had continued past LRO. Radar data also showed weather 20 to 30 miles east of LRO.

The weather at CHS about 9 minutes prior to the helicopter’s departure was recorded at 11 knot winds, visibility 10 miles, scattered clouds at 2,000 feet, broken clouds at 6,000 feet, broken clouds at 8,000 feet. However, 23 minutes after the accident helicopter departed, light rain began to fall at CHS.

Review of radar data revealed that after passing LRO, the helicopter entered an area of convective activity and precipitation. Weather reports for the area surrounding the accident site were not available, as the automated weather observation station at GGE had been out of service for weeks. However, witnesses described its flight path as paralleling U.S. Route 17 in moderate to heavy rain.

Examination of the main wreckage revealed no evidence of any pre-crash failures or malfunctions of the engine, drive train, main rotor, tail rotor, or structure of the helicopter. Additionally, there was no indication of an in-flight fire­ [meaning it was a perfectly good and functioning helicopter.] Evidence of unburned jet fuel also existed at the scene [meaning that they didn’t run out of fuel].

According to (FAA) records, the pilot held a commercial pilot certificate with ratings for airplane single-engine-land, airplane-multiengine-land, rotorcraft-helicopter, and instrument airplane and helicopter. However, he did not meet instrument currency requirements as would be required by regulations for flight conducted in IMC. The pilot’s improper decision to attempt VFR flight into known instrument flight conditions and failure to maintain altitude clearance resulted in the aircraft colliding with trees and crashing.”

All of this can be much more simply stated by saying that this helicopter entered inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions and crashed, killing all on board. When writer Ed Van Winkle and I talked about his story on page 58, regarding maintaining instrument proficiency, I was shocked to learn that many helicopter pilots not only rarely fly IFR, they don’t even bother to keep current.

I came from the world of fixed-wing aviation, so bear with me. As a fixed wing commercial pilot, I almost never flew a flight where I wasn’t IFR, meaning flying under instrument flight rules regardless of the weather. Every single flight I flew with an airline was done IFR with a rare, occasional cancellation of IFR to get in somewhere VFR or special VFR. As a professional pilot, working for a commercial operation, it was almost inconceivable that a flight would be conducted VFR. VFR was for amateurs, weekend puddle-jumper jockeys who were out for their $100 hamburger flight.

But I understand it is just the opposite for helicopter operators and that the vast majority of flights conducted in helicopters are VFR. I have also heard that some operators even discourage operating under IFR (again I’m talking flight rules not IMC). This is so very contrary to the way the fixed-wing world works that I had to call around and make sure I understood the situation correctly. After many calls and e-mails, I’m still having difficulty with the concept.

I remember my first inadvertent encounter with weather as a young student pilot, before I got my commercial certificate or instrument rating. I had taken off for the practice area. Weather was a fairly high 7,000-foot ceiling. But it was summer in Florida and the unstable air played havoc that day and before I knew it that ceiling had dropped and I went right into the soup.

Never one to panic, I simply picked up the mic and called ATC. I explained I was a student pilot on a VFR flight and that I had just flown into the clouds. I asked for help, and although I never declared an emergency, I could have. Since I was close to the airport, ATC basically vectored me back for a landing, essentially giving me a PAR approach, stepping my altitude down just as though I was on an instrument approach. I broke out, saw the runway and landed. That was that.

But time and time again, we see accident reports about helicopters encountering inadvertent IMC and crashing. This can be prevented.

Stay instrument proficient. Ask for help if you encounter IMC inadvertently. Declare an emergency, if necessary, to get the help you need. Doing just that would have prevented the tragedy above and the now infamous Maryland State Police Trooper 2 crash, among so many others.

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