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The Helicopter Safety Brief: Not a Time to Sugar Coat Things- Helicopters are Still Crashing!

Both the FAA and Unit Policy requires that you give a safety brief to any passengers you place in your aircraft.  In the helicopter unit, the part of the brief I focused on most was the potential for items to depart a person's body, or depart the cockpit of the helicopter and go into the tail rotor.  I always made sure that my passengers knew that if something goes into the tail rotor, the chances of us all dying were pretty high. 

As professional pilots most of us spend a considerable amount of time, and mental energy studying various crashes, why they occurred and how they could have been prevented.  We talk to other pilots, old pilots, and mechanics.  We swap stories that we hear, study news stories, and we follow up on crashes by studying the NTSB's results or professional articles written by experts. 

There is one crash sequence that has plagued helicopters since the beginning, and that is items departing the cockpit or cabin of the aircraft and flying into the tail rotor.  Most helicopter experts agree that the tail rotor is one of the most vulnerable and important components of the ship.  It not only spins about 4 times faster than the main rotor, but it's location way out at the end of the tail boom is critically factored into the helicopter's weight and balance.  When tail rotors and their gear-boxes depart helicopters the situation is almost instantly tragic. 

There is a story recounted by many helicopter flight instructors of a helicopter many years ago, that was taken down by the tiny aluminum pull tab from a soda can.  Remember the old style pull tabs on soda cans that came off in your hand.  The way the story goes is that investigators found a part of a pull tab in the leading edge of a piece of the tail rotor recovered from the fatal crash.  Tab departs cockpit, embeds itself in leading edge of tail rotor blade, causes tail rotor to delaminate and come apart, throws tail rotor out of balance causing tail rotor and gear box to depart aircraft, helicopter now severely out of balance and unable to maintain level flight.  Many tail rotors today have metal strips on the leading edge to prevent delamination, but this does not protect against larger objects. 

Another flight instructor tells the story of a preacher who traveled by small helicopter.  According to this instructor, the preacher's bible which had been setting on the passenger seat, departed the aircraft and took out the tail rotor.  Once again the results were immediately fatal. 

This week I received an email from one of our helicopter mechanics who is also a pilot, and has worked for many years in the industry.  The email contained the preliminary NTSB report of a fatal (x3) helicopter crash that occurred in Kamiah Idaho on August 31st of this year.  The email further indicated that the pilot was a friend and was well known to a couple of our mechanics.  Tragically, the 9000 hour pilot and both passengers lost their lives when a metal clip board, belonging to a state employed biologist, departed the cabin the contacted the tail rotor.  There is no doubt that this pilot was profoundly aware of the consequences of an items going into the tail rotor.  And while I don't know for sure, it is just as likely that the passengers were briefed about these exact dangers.  Yet somehow it still occurred and three lives were lost. 

File photo of a military version of the Hiller UH 12E; Wikimedia.com photoOnce again we learn from the mistakes of others.  It is not enough to simply brief your passengers, we must be ever vigilant and know that the cockpit and all items in it are secure.  It is not a time to be nice! 

The preliminary report follows;

NTSB Identification: WPR10FA440
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Tuesday, August 31, 2010 in Kamiah, ID
Aircraft: HILLER UH 12E, registration: N67264

Injuries: 3 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed.

On August 31, 2010, about 0920 Pacific daylight time, a Hiller UH 12E helicopter, N67264, was substantially damaged when it impacted utility lines, a travel trailer, and the ground in Kamiah, Idaho, about 35 minutes after departure. The commercial pilot and the two passengers, both of whom were employees of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG), were fatally injured. The flight was operated under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 91. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the contract survey flight.

According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the helicopter was manufactured in 1965, and was converted to turbine power in 1981. According to the owner of the company that owned the helicopter, the pilot was an employee of that company, and IDFG had chartered the helicopter for a wildlife survey of a local river. The pilot had approximately 9,000 total hours of flight experience, including approximately 300 in the accident helicopter make and model.

The helicopter departed from the company's private facility in Clarkston, Washington, with the female passenger in the right seat, the pilot in the center seat, and the male passenger in the left seat. The helicopter was supposed to make an en route fuel stop at a company fuel depot, and then conduct the survey. The flight was not scheduled to land at Kamiah. Per the IDFG contract, the helicopter participated in an automated flight following program, and the pilot could communicate on a state-sponsored radio communications network called "StateComm." Shortly before the accident, the pilot announced on StateComm that he was landing in Kamiah. No further transmissions were received from the helicopter.

Several eyewitnesses in Kamiah reported that they observed objects separating or falling from the helicopter just prior to impact. The main wreckage, which consisted of the cabin, tail boom, and main rotor system, was located in a driveway of a residence. A debris path that was oriented back along the helicopter's flight path, and that measured approximately 1,500 feet in length, was comprised of various items from the helicopter. Some of the earliest items in the debris path included segments of a metal clipboard that belonged to one of the passengers, and the outboard segments of the two tail rotor blades. One of the tail rotor blades exhibited leading edge crush damage that was continuous across the fracture line, and the clipboard segments exhibited crease lines and paint transfer marks consistent with the tail rotor blade dimensions and colors.

About the time of the accident, the recorded weather at an airport 49 miles west-northwest of Kamiah included winds of 4 knots from 020 degrees; temperature 14 degrees C; and few clouds at 6,500 feet.Index for Aug2010 | Index of months