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Monday, October 1, 2007

Safety Watch: A Personal Encounter With IMC

Brian Swinney

IN THE LAST COLUMN, I REVIEWED the lessons I learned from my accident in an emergency medical service helicopter and shared how I regained my confidence and returned to the cockpit in a paying job ("The Hidden Cost of an Accident," August 2007, page 62).

This month, I will revisit the cause of my accident, along with the sequence of events, and choices, that led to my inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and a crash.

I have had a few years to think about that night and try to sort out what happened, why it happened, and how we walked away from what should have been a fatal accident. I will piece together the flight and try to identify what things went wrong and when.

As we started to pass the town, the rain began to get heavier and I could feel the wind a little more. I looked ahead and it was a little dark, but I expected this. This is where I made my first mistake.

I was at the end of a 12 hr shift, and got the late call. The relief pilot hadn’t come in yet, so I checked the weather. It was not great, but it was flyable. Weather was going to move in, but not until we should be back at base with time to spare. I briefed the crew on what to expect and we loaded up in the aircraft and headed to the calling hospital.

On the initial leg, everything was as expected. There was a little rain, but visibility was at least 8-10 mi. We flew direct, landed without a problem, and picked up the patient.

The weather was still fine, so we took off to our receiving hospital. We were flying over some pretty dark areas, but they were dark even on a good night. I was flying in light rain, but had adequate reference to the ground. We had a nice tail wind of about 25 kt, so we were making good time. We made it to the receiving hospital with no real problems, but I asked the crew not to waste any time so we could get back before the weather got worse. I also did not want to go past my 14-hr duty limit.

The crew did a fantastic job and got back to the aircraft in 10-15 min. Record time, I think. We took off again to head back to base. The weather at this point was a little better than it was earlier, so we continued on. I was not really worrying too much about things. The leg back took a little longer than expected. We were fighting a headwind of about 40 kt on the nose. This was the first change in the weather that I noticed. The rain got a little heavier, but the wind was steady and relatively smooth. I was not too concerned, but I should have been. Visibility was about 5-7 mi and we were flying on the north side of the last large town we would see until we got closer to base. At this point, we were halfway to the base.

As we started to pass the town, the rain began to get heavier and I could feel the wind a little more. I looked ahead and it was a little dark, but I expected this at that point and I was still able to see at least 3-5 mi.

This is where I made my first mistake. I continued on course at 1,500 ft and 120 kt. The rain got heavier, so I slowed the aircraft down and descended to 1,000 ft to try to buy some time for the visibility to improve. I could no longer see the town lights behind me, but I could see a road with traffic. It was along a similar course, so I decided to follow it until the weather improved — or at least until I had more visual reference.

I followed the road for a few miles. Without any warning, all hell broke loose. We just flew into a squall line. Now I had zero visibility and no reference to anything but the instruments. It was like being in a dark grey ping-pong ball. We were really getting tossed around.

This is where I made my worst mistake. I had had enough of this weather and I didn’t want to see if it was going to get any worse, so I started a slight climb and initiated a left turn. My thinking was, "I was just in VFR. I will turn 180 deg. and fly back too it."

Wrong. I had already slowed the aircraft down earlier and I was worried about trying to keep the aircraft upright. My senses were screaming at me, and my brain was desperately searching for a familiar reference. For me, it was like all forward motion had stopped, but my instruments still said I was doing 80-90 kt. As I got the aircraft turned around, I went from a headwind to a tailwind. I noticed my airspeed falling quickly. My nose was slightly above the horizon and level. I tried adding power. No response. I tried adding forward cyclic. No response. The aircraft was starting to settle, so I added more forward cyclic. At this point, the nose tucked forward then rolled to the right. The last altitude I remember was 1,100 ft. We weren’t totally inverted, but the nose was low and had rolled over. We were falling.

At this point, my paramedic made a Mayday call. I struggled with the aircraft, but nothing seemed to work. Everything happened so fast. I really thought that this was it and we were going to die. Part of me wanted to just let go and give up, but another part of me simply got angry. I grabbed the controls harder and I remember thinking, "Trim." So I stepped on the ball, right pedal, and got the aircraft back in trim.

I struggled with the aircraft, but nothing seemed to work. Everything happened so fast. I really thought that this was it and we were going to die. Then I got angry. I remember thinking, "Trim."

She seemed to respond. I rolled left to a level position and added all the power she had to offer. I remember saying to the crew, "I’ve got it." We were flying again, but I still had a descent rate to work out. My airspeed was increasing. The radar altimeter sounded. I heard my blades make contact with the trees — then thud!

That was it. We were sitting upright between a group of trees, engines still running and blades turning. I shut down the engines and applied the rotor brake. I could smell the fresh pine trees the blades had cut. My paramedic up front with me was okay, but my paramedic in the back had been tossed from his seat and suffered a back injury. I got out and assessed the aircraft to see if we needed to evacuated the area. The skids were spread in the back, and the rear had made contact with a bush. The front was surprisingly okay. Even the nose’s NightSun was undamaged. The tail-rotor blades were smashed and the tail boom was bent. The main rotor blades were damaged but mostly intact.

The radios in the aircraft still worked and I was able to give our position to our dispatch and turn on the emergency locator transmitter beacon. We waited in the aircraft for a couple of hours for the weather to clear and for them to find us on the ground. My paramedic tended to our crew mate, doing an outstanding job. Finally, people arrived on trucks and four-wheelers. We were taken to the hospital. I was admitted for two days and my injured paramedic about a week, I think.

So what should I have done and what choices would I change to prevent this accident? Considering hindsight is always 20/20 and that it is always easy to call a race after it has finished, here it goes,

First, I would have turned to the town on the right while I still had visibility and simply waited out the storm. Not having done that, I would have never adjusted my power. If you have to slow down to maintain visibility, you need to find other options, like simply landing somewhere.

But the one thing I wish I had most is more training and some actual instrument time so I didn’t feel so many different sensations for the first time, at night, and in IMC. That is a bad combination. Had I had the confidence that I needed, I would have maintained my heading and altitude until I got settled on the instruments. It takes almost 2 min to fully transition to instruments and for your brain to accept the instruments’ information as its new reference. With that confidence, I would have flown right through the storm, if possible. Most likely, I would have popped out the other side back in VFR conditions. I might have scared myself and my crew a bit. But it would have just been one of those "There I was" stories and not an accident statistic.

Accidents, for the most part, are preventable. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have had this kind of experience. But I’m the only one that I know of who lived through it. How many EMS accidents have we read about that happened at night and in poor weather? Would training have helped? Would their outcomes have been different and kept them from becoming a statistic? I truly don’t know, but I do know that with the additional training I received after my accident and with my own training program, I am better equipped to handle the unexpected. I added a fixed-wing/instrument rating to my helicopter ratings. Every 3-4 months, I grab a CFII and find a cloud to train in and fly some instrument approaches. I rely on myself to get the training I need so I can close that gap from visual flight to instrument flight. The more training you have, the shorter the transition will be.

It is my hope that more helicopter pilots will learn from my mistakes and also get some actual instrument time to see what it is really like in a cloud and see if they are as good as they think they are. This is my challenge to you: grab a CFII, rent a plane, spend a couple of hundred dollars, and see where you stand. You might be surprised.

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