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Saturday, April 1, 2006

Safety Watch: "Watch This"

Tim McAdams

On March 3, 2000, a McDonnell Douglas HU-600N (operating as Sky 6) crashed in a residential area while maneuvering near Miami. A post-crash fire destroyed the helicopter. The airline transport pilot and news cameraman were fatally injured.

According to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, friends of the pilot who were flying in another helicopter talked to him on an air-to-air frequency. They got a visual location on each other and Sky 6 made a 180-deg. turn, passed below them, and then joined up on their right side with about 900 ft. (275 m.) separation. They talked for a while and then Sky 6 departed. The pilot observed Sky 6 start a descent, which he estimated at a 15-deg. nose-down attitude. His passenger estimated the descent at about a 45-deg. nose-down attitude. The pilot observed the nose pull up to about a 30-deg. nose-up attitude, and then pitched up about 70 deg. The passenger stated the nose pulled up to an attitude past the 90-deg. point. The helicopter yawed to the left, held there and appeared to be sliding backwards. The nose started to pitch down and the tail boom separated. The helicopter descended and collided with the terrain.

A helicopter pilot for Channel 10 television was dispatched to cover the same bus/train accident as Sky 6. A short time later, he heard the Sky 6 pilot talking on the air-to-air frequency with another pilot. Based on the overheard conversation, he figured that they knew each other. He heard the pilot of Sky 6 tell the other pilot to keep flying eastbound. He then heard the pilot of Sky 6 state, "Watch this."

Two helicopter pilots for different local television stations stated the dead pilot's flying was overly aggressive and showy. Cameramen from Channel 6 and the pilot's employer did not substantiate all of the statements made by the two other pilots from the other stations. One cameraman told investigators that two days before the accident he was standing in the main editing area at the TV station when the cameraman involved in the accident stated he would be flying with the pilot. According to this cameraman, the other was concerned about flying with that pilot because he was an aggressive pilot. He informed co-workers, this cameraman said, that when they left the airport with the helicopter parked on a dolly that the pilot would initiate a steep, high-bank turn right after takeoff. He was reported to say he did not mind the pilot doing it a couple of times, but after seven or eight times it became annoying. He also was reported to say he discussed his displeasure of the maneuver with the pilot because he did not feel there was any need to be performing that type of maneuver.

Many pilots and instructors at the airport where Sky 6 was based commented on the dead pilot's continuous and extremely ostentatious maneuvering. One instructor stated in an interview that the scuttlebutt around the airport was that the dead pilot had rolled or inverted Sky 6.

FAA records indicated that the dead pilot had been found guilty and convicted in federal district court in northern Florida of conspiracy to import and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 220 lb. (100 kg.) of marijuana involving the use of an aircraft, and he was sentenced to federal prison in Atlanta. All previous airman certificates held by the pilot at the time of the conviction were revoked.

According to the FAA, training in aeronautical decision-making and risk management can have a significant impact on accident reduction. FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 60-22 contains a wealth of good information on this subject. It also includes a self-assessment of the five hazardous attitudes: anti-authority, impulsivity, invulnerability, macho, and resignation. The number of pilots who will accurately assess their own actions and make permanent changes is hard to know.

I was in a college class of about 30 people waiting for the instructor to show up. He arrived about 15 min. late, apologized, and proceeded to tell us about the nightmare drivers that caused his delay. A discussion ensued, with just about everyone in the class adding their experience with bad drivers. The general agreement was that most people are bad drivers. Now I was thinking, based on that, "More than half the people in this class are bad drivers. Yet not one person admitted being the type of driver everyone was complaining about. It was clear to me that people are quick to point out bad behavior in others, but not themselves.

Although some pilots might modify their behavior after aeronautical decision-making training, some will not. Therefore, managers, owners, and operators should also understand aeronautical decision-making and take an active role in assessing the behavior of their pilots. Flight crewmembers that have serious concerns regarding a pilot's actions should insure that management investigates. A pattern of legal trouble, accidents, or incidents is one telltale sign. Reputation among peers and flight crewmembers who are scared to fly with a pilot should also warrant further investigation. Aeronautical decision-making training is not only a good idea for pilots, but flight crewmembers and managers as well.

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