How to Annoy Other Helicopter Pilots

When a pilot’s attitude problem leads to safety issues.

Last week, Mike and I took my brother and sister-in-law for a day trip to a popular scenic destination here in Arizona. I’m purposely being vague here to obscure the identify of the subject of this post.

Helipad DiagramThe airport we landed at has a special helicopter area that consists of a large landing pad and six parking spaces. You can see the layout in the image here, captured from Google Maps. I’ve never seen anyone use the big pad. I parked in the spot marked “My Heli.” When I touched down, all the other pads were empty, although as we walked away, an Enstrom flew in and parked at the other end of my row of pads. He was gone before we returned a few hours later.

Some Background on the Parking “Turf War”

One of the helicopter tour operators at this destination uses the pads marked #1 and #2 in the illustration. About a year before, right after they started operating, I landed at the airport and attempted to set down in my usual parking space. A pilot was spinning on #2 and asked me to park on one of the other pads. Not knowing why — but assuming he had good reason to ask — I moved over.

I later discovered that he liked to take off through the spot where I normally parked and I was in his way. That kind of pissed me off. After all, I usually come with passengers and it’s a long enough walk to the terminal. My usual spot was the safest (pointing my tail rotor away from where people were likely to be walking) and most convenient (shorter distance to the terminal). I decided that I’d park there whenever the spot was available.

Another time when I came in for a landing, the same pilot asked me again to move over. When I said I preferred to park where I was, he said he was worried about damaging my blades as he went in and out of his spot. I didn’t say what I was thinking: how bad a pilot could he be that he couldn’t avoid another helicopter on such well-spaced pads? Instead, I told him I wasn’t worried and I used my blade tie-downs before leaving the area.

When I arrived the other day, I was glad that other pilot wasn’t around to ask me to move. Just in case he was out and about, I did tie down my blades.

An Unsafe Departure

We returned to the airport after a nice hike and walked back out to the helicopter. Now there was a tour helicopter on the pad marked #1. He’d just started up and was warming up the engine with passengers on board.

On the HelipadI wanted to get some video of my helicopter sitting on the pad with the scenery behind it as a jet took off on the runway. I asked my passengers to stand by the blue X while I did this. I assumed that the helicopter on pad #1 would depart along the markings in the helipad area. That’s what we’re trained to do. That’s why there are markings there. My passengers would be well out of the pilot’s way and safe — or as safe as possible in an active helicopter landing area.

I assumed wrong. The helicopter picked up to a 10-foot hover and hovered straight out toward the opposite pad, right next to mine. (See the straight green arrow in the illustration.) It was less than 15 feet from my waiting passengers as it paused at the back edge of the pad, over concrete and dirt. Dust, small pebbles, and grass clippings went flying all over us. Then the pilot took off, leaving us to brush debris out of our hair and clothing.

I was angry. The pilot’s departure was unsafe. Not only did his unusually high hover put his own passengers at risk in the even of an engine failure, but his proximity to us was downright dangerous. There was no reason for his departure route. He could have more safely departed across pad #2 (which was empty) or behind (above in the image) pad #2.

My husband, Mike, who is also a helicopter pilot, commented on the departure immediately, calling the pilot an asshole. I couldn’t agree more.

The other company helicopter returned from a flight and landed across from mine in pad #2. My group climbed into my helicopter and I started the engine. While warming up, the helicopter on #2 changed passengers. By this time, we had headsets on and were monitoring the radio. The pilot politely asked if I was ready to go. I told him I was still warming up and that he could depart. He picked up into a hover and hovered from the pad to the taxiway (see the bent green line in the illustration) — as I assumed the other helicopter would have done — and departed.

Teaching Me a Lesson?

I was almost ready to do my mag check when the first helicopter returned. The flight couldn’t have lasted more than 8 minutes. The pilot came in on the taxiway from the northeast and asked on the radio if the “Robbie” would hold position. (The way he said “Robbie” was definitely condescending; sit a guy in a turbine helicopter and he forgets what he learned to fly in.) I told him I would remain on the pad. As he taxied in for landing — before he even touched down– he told me that if I’d park at one of the other pads, I would be out of his way and my passengers wouldn’t get dusted.

This absolutely enraged me. This was obviously the same pilot who had told me to park elsewhere in the past. Apparently, he’d purposely hovered past my passengers — my family members putting them at risk — to teach me a lesson. Now he was making sure I understood. He also very condescendingly added that they like to see out-of-town visitors, but it’s better if they park on one of the other pads.

Until this point, the parking situation had been a turf war between the tour operator’s pilots and the other helicopters who land and park at that airport. But with this incident, it became a serious safety issue. I got extremely rude to the pilot on the radio — I admit it — and, after telling him that I didn’t like him putting my passengers at risk, I said that I’d park “Any damn place I wanted.” He told me not to “cuss over the radio” and then tried to smooth it over by saying he was trying to be courteous. I told him he should be safe first.

Why?

The question I have after all of this is, why?

Why should a pilot care where other pilots park, as long as they’re not in his assigned space?

Why would a pilot purposely put people on the ground at risk to prove a point?

Why would a tour company hire a pilot with an attitude like this?

As you might guess, I didn’t let this go. I reported it to the FAA. I did it more to get the incident on record than to initiate any kind of action. If anyone else complains, I want my complaint to provide additional evidence of an ongoing problem.

The way I see it, each pilot represents all other pilots. When one pilot does something stupid and dangerous, he’s making all of us look bad. I work too hard to keep my own operations safe and trouble-free to tolerate this kind of bull from a pilot with an attitude problem.

What do you think about this? Use the comments link or form for this post to share your thoughts.

12 thoughts on “How to Annoy Other Helicopter Pilots

  1. Maria,

    As a high time professional helicopter pilot, I think the other pilots actions were disgraceful. If this had happened to me, I would be calling his Chief Pilot. Aside from the safety aspect, his actions do not portray the image we should be giving the public.

  2. I think the most professional thing to do is address the concern of safety to the chief pilot of the other company leaving names out of it. Therefore he could address the safety issue to all line pilots.

  3. Maria, The other pilots commenting ,all make good points.As a former Chief Pilot I always wanted to know when one of my pilots did something that should be addressed.

    You can hope the Chief Pilot of that company does not condone those actions but where there is smoke there is fire. The pilot knew that he would create an incident and if he thought he was going to have a problem in doing so with his boss, would not have likely have behaved as such.

    The FAA won’t do anything unless you follow up with another call and the company will not do anything unless you pursue the matter to the top.

    Your move.

    Keith Gill´s last blog post: Answer the radio

    • Well, I spoke to my FAA POI about this on the phone. He called me after I e-mailed an account to him. Apparently, I’m not the first person to wave flags about this organization. I also spoke with airport management regarding the parking space turf wars. But I really don’t want to contact the company directly. Of course, I will if anything else happens when I’m back at that airport.

      I don’t think the pilot realized I would take action. I think a lot of people just don’t bother to report things like this. Maybe he thought that because I was a woman, I’d back off. What he doesn’t realize is that I’m a former New Yorker first. New Yorkers don’t take shit from anyone. It’s a good thing he wasn’t shutting down when I was outside the aircraft. I would have told him off right in front of his passengers.

  4. One last comment here and I am playing the devils advocate for the FAA ,:),you could have been asked the following.

    When it became obvious that another aircraft was starting up with the likely intention of taking off, why did you not remove your passengers to a safer location.

    Some managed (semi controlled) public helipads do not allow pax on the ramps with rotors turning. Perhaps for good reason

    You could not expect the other pilot to behave irresponsibly but as the PIC you are always responsible for the safety of your pax.

    Just food for thought.

    Fly Safe, Keith

    Keith Gill´s last blog post: Answer the radio

    • Lesson learned — I can tell you that.

      I guess the problem is that I expected him to fly safely and responsibly. I expected him to do what I would have done. I would NEVER fly that close to anyone on the ground for any reason. If there was no other flight path — and believe me, there was! — I’d sit in the aircraft, spinning and burning fuel until they moved. I’d wave my arms and point to get them to move. If nothing worked, I’d shut down, get out, and ASK them to move.

      He did it for spite — I know he did. Unless he’s brain dead, that’s the only reason he would have chosen that flight path.

      And there is one thing I didn’t mention — my passengers and I were standing near a piece of equipment. Can’t remember what it was, but it was a big box about waist high. You can just about see it in the image. Who would fly right past something like that, too?

  5. Maria,

    You did the right thing. There is no reason to ignore the safety of passengers. Most Pilots go out of their way not to “dust” other aircraft, vehicles, and especially people. These guys were irresponsible, unsafe, and rude. I can understand why you don’t want to call the company directly…but have a family member (Passenger) send a letter. They need to know.

  6. Wrong. Names need to be brought up. Be responsible for your actions. This way you avoid “shotgun” approach to memos, etc. All of us are , and should be accountable for our actions Maria. If a particular individual needs to be reprimanded or fired, then tough shit. This ain’t no babysitting job. It is actually the REAL WORLD. I’m a real fair boss, but I ain’t interested in your undisciplined childhood, or if you need to “find” yourself.

  7. A (very) late comment, Maria, but I agree with ‘just another pilot’. Though, sadly, I’m retired now, having lost my medical, I remember seeing such actions on the part of a few of my colleagues, and thinking what a lousy image we’re showing the public, who, by and large, were our customers after all. No wonder RW has such a poor rep in the flying game. Here’s the really sad part: the FAA, the operator, airport managers, ATC etc. will not do a thing about cowboy pilots until they hurt or kill someone, then it’s much too late. I saw it a hundred times. Until the FAA starts revoking licenses and operator’s permits nothing will change. My last gig was flying tours on Kauai, and I saw other pilots do things that curled my hair–yes, I did report them–but I quickly learned it was fly and deny. Too bad.

What do you think?