Cherry Drying, Cockpit Distractions, and Safety

My thoughts.

Today I had to withdraw a cherry drying contract from a pilot who wanted to fly for me because he insisted on being allowed to have a “pilot friend” fly with him during cherry drying missions.

Because more than half of the cherry drying crashes in this area have occurred with two people in the cockpit, this is something I simply don’t allow — and I specifically forbid it in the contact terms.

Why Just One Pilot?

I blogged about this back in June 2012. There had been a crash with a fatality just a few days before. Two pilots had been on board, although the dual controls were reportedly not installed. The aircraft hit wires and crashed into the trees. The passenger was killed; the pilot sustained serious injuries. In my blog post, I raised the question of cockpit distractions.

The previous July (2011), there had been three crashes during cherry drying work. Of the three, two of them occurred with two people on board.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Although performance might not be an issue in an R44 — which the guys who work for me fly — in these flying conditions, distractions can be. Cherry drying is done in an obstacle rich environment just a few feet over the tops of trees.

Cherry Drying Near Wires
Wires and poles and trees, oh my!

So many pilots whine about the danger of flying in “the deadman’s curve.” That’s not my concern when I’m hovering with my skids brushing the treetops. My concern is wires and wind machines and bird houses on poles and tall trees bordering the orchard. I’ve struck a pine tree branch with my main rotor blade and trimmed a treetop with my tail rotor. That’s how close I can get — which is obviously too close — to obstacles that could easy damage my aircraft enough to bring it down into the trees.

Now imagine having a chatty friend on board. Or the dual controls installed and someone “following along” with you on an instructional flight. Is this a good idea when you need to keep focused?

I don’t think so. I think it’s dangerous and I won’t allow it.

Training

The argument I hear most often about why two pilots should be allowed to fly cherry drying missions is training. How can a new pilot learn the ropes unless he experiences the flight?

Easy: teach him on a nice clear day, when weather is not an issue and there isn’t an orchard owner on the ground freaking out because he’s worried about losing his cherry crop. A day when there’s no stress and no demands to get the job done quickly and move on to the next orchard. A day when rain isn’t making the cockpit bubble nearly impossible to see through and you have to worry about the flight path of the other helicopter on the next orchard block.

Start with an overview at an obstruction-free orchard and show how you scout for obstacles in a new orchard and determine where to start work. Descend slowly and start your instructional passes high, showing the student how the downwash affects the trees. Work your way down to the point where the future cherry drying pilot should be flying.

Of course, you’re doing all this after some ground training where you’ve already sketched out how the job is done and discussed all aspects of the work.

This is how I learned to dry cherries. I spent 2 hours talking about the work with an experienced cherry drying pilot and some notepaper that we sketched all over. Then we flew for about an hour over some uniformly tall trees and practiced various maneuvers.

And this is how I teach new pilots to dry cherries. In a controlled, stress-free environment.

So the argument that having a pilot on board during an actual cherry drying mission is the only way to teach him simply doesn’t fly with me. (Okay, pun intended.)

Is This a Contract Killer?

Is the one person vs. two people on board argument worth preventing a contract agreement? Apparently, the pilot I withdrew the contract from and I think it is.

In his words, “If this is not possible I don’t see this working for my business.” That makes me wonder about his “pilot friend.”

It seems to me that a friend should understand that when you have work to do, he needs to stand aside and let you do it. I have friends who fly fire contracts and power line contracts and heavy lift contracts and spray contracts. I am one of their “pilot friends.” I’d love to experience one of these flights first hand. But I know that (1) their employers most likely prohibit fly-alongs for pretty much the same reason I do and (2) my presence could jeopardize our safety or their job. So I don’t even ask and they don’t offer.

The claim that having only one person on board won’t work for his business makes me wonder whether there’s some financial gain to be had from having that second pilot on board. Would that other pilot be paying for that flight time, perhaps as a student? In that case, it’s “double-dipping,” pure and simple — being paid by two separate parties for work on one mission. And frankly, there’s a bit too much of that in this industry for my taste.

I pay a generous per-hour flight rate for cherry drying work. The rate is considerably higher than any charter or utility rate a pilot could charge for flying the same helicopter. I pay that because the work is risky and because that’s what the market will bear. Isn’t this enough to head off any need for double-dipping?

As for me, I want my pilots safe and their flights accident-free. I can’t serve my clients when one of my pilots crashes in an orchard and his helicopter is put out of commission. It’s my goal to minimize the risk — that’s why I require pilots with at least 500 hours of flight time and at least 100 hours in the helicopter they’re flying. That’s why I don’t allow two people in the cockpit when flying in an obstacle-rich environment.

It’s not all about money and milking the system to maximize revenue. It’s about the safe and reliable performance of a mission to best serve clients — and live to fly another day.

Landing a Helicopter on a Platform

Dangerous, but if you have good hover skills and use caution, not very difficult.

Hangar
For years, I used a tow bar made by Brackett Aircraft Company in Kingman, AZ, along with a golf cart or other tow vehicle to move my helicopter in and out of the hangar. With the golf cart gone, I began using my ATV, a 1999 600cc Yamaha Grizzly as the tow vehicle.

Ground handling of helicopters with skid landing gear — i.e., most helicopters — is not fun. It generally requires attaching wheels and doing a bunch of lifting and pushing. Sometimes multiple people are required. Even if you have other equipment to help with that lifting and pushing — I used a tow bar with tow vehicle for 14 years — you still have to do a bunch of setup (or tear down) every time you need to move the aircraft.

So you can probably imagine how glad I was to finally get my own wheeled landing platform (or tow dolly). I got it back in 2013 in trade for a golf cart I owned and I set it up for the first time in October at my new home. You can read much of the back story here.

In this post, I want to talk a little about landing on a wheeled platform like mine and the things a pilot needs to keep in mind when she does it.

A Little about My Platform

Assembled Helicopter Dolly
Here’s my platform, before landing the helicopter on it for the first time.

My tow platform is extremely heavy duty, made of steel tubing with a wooden deck. It has three rows of four solid wheels. The first two rows of wheels pivot.

The platform is 9 ft 4 in wide. It was built for a Hiller. The skids on my R44 are 6 ft 4 inches apart. That gives me 1-1/2 feet of extra space on either side.

The deck was once painted and included a wide orange stripe down each side that marked the ideal place to plant the Hiller’s skids on landing. My friend, who had it built to his specifications, had a bad experience with it early on. It had been parked out in the Arizona sun with the helicopter on it when my friend and his wife got in and prepared to depart. The sun had made the paint soft and one of the skids stuck to the deck. My friend narrowly missed having a dynamic rollover as he attempted to take off. This unnerved him so much that he stopped using the platform and sold it. The folks who bought the platform stripped off much of the paint to prevent that from happening again. That’s mostly why it looks so ratty on top.

The deck does not stretch all the way across the platform. Instead, there are two separate sections with a gap between them. I suspect that my friend designed it this way for weight and cost reasons, but, in all honesty, a solid deck wouldn’t be necessary anyway. If you landed with one skid in the middle of the deck, the other would be hanging out in space over the side of the deck. You’d never land that way, so why put a deck in the middle?

The top of the platform is about 18 inches off the ground. This is nice and low.

This is what I’m dealing with. As I write this, I’ve landed on it three times, including once in the dark. My only raised platform experience prior to this had been in the early 2000s when I landed an R22 on an 8 x 12 flat bed trailer.

Assessing the Suitability of Your Platform

Not all dollies or trailers are suitable for landing a helicopter on them. And a dolly or trailer suitable for one helicopter might not be suitable for yours. Here are a few points to consider, mostly in order of importance.

  • Weight capacity. Is the platform capable of supporting the weight of your helicopter and then moving that weight? You wouldn’t want to land on anything you could break just by landing on it. And when considering this, remember to keep in mind that you might occasionally have harder than usual landing.
  • Size, especially width. The platform must be large enough for your skids to fit comfortably on it with room to spare, especially on either side. The size of the platform as related to your helicopter skid width is what will determine how much room you have for error. The more, the better. As I mentioned above, I have about 18 inches on either side. I don’t think I’d want much less than that.
  • Surface smoothness. It’s very important to have a smooth surface to land on to eliminate (or at least reduce) the possibility of dynamic rollover if you happen to drift while setting down. I highly recommend avoiding putting anything on the surface of the platform — including tie-down loops — if you don’t need to. If it’s a trailer for transportation of the helicopter, try to install the tie-down hardware after the helicopter is securely on the deck.
  • Existence of Rails. If the platform or trailer has raised edges or rails around it, you are asking for trouble. Drifting into one of these rails while under power is a great way to get into dynamic rollover. Avoid landing on any surface with rails or raised edges.
  • Height. My opinion is that low is better than high. I think that a lower platform will give you a lower center of gravity once you’ve landed on it. Seems smart to me. Another limitation is the total height of the helicopter on the platform — will you still be able to get it into you hangar? My garage door is 14 feet tall for a reason.
  • Ability to secure. Locking wheels or brakes are a great feature. Use chocks if you can’t lock the platform’s wheels.

Beware of platforms or trailers designed for some other use and converted for helicopter use. Make sure a trailer is suitable before landing on it.

Choosing a Landing Zone

If you’re landing on a movable platform, you can pretty much specify where your landing zone will be. Or not.

In my situation, my landing zone possibilities are extremely limited. I have a 22 x 30 foot driveway apron. Beyond it is dirt or gravel. All wheels of my platform must remain on the concrete. And because the driveway apron is adjacent to my building and my helicopter’s main rotor blades extend past the edges of my platform, the platform must be as far away from the building as possible. So there’s only one place I’m going to be able to land — at least until I get more concrete poured — and it gives me just enough clearance to feel that I can operate safely.

Dolly Ready for Landing
My landing zone. I usually move the platform a little closer to the edge of the driveway now that I have good chocks.

But if your platform is at an airport or heliport, move it into a position that will give you plenty of clearance to come and go. I’m talking about clearance from obstacles such as buildings and wind socks as well as clearance from where other aircraft might be parked or people might be standing/walking/watching.

Securing the Platform

It’s vitally important that the platform be positioned on relatively level ground and secured so it does not move while you are taking off or landing.

My platform does not have brakes. None of the wheels lock. I use two methods to secure it in my landing zone:

  1. Set the brake on the ATV. My Grizzly has brakes and I always set them when I park it with the tow platform attached. I also leave the ATV in gear, which makes it less likely to roll if the brakes are released.
  2. Chocks
    These are some seriously heavy-duty chocks.

    Use heavy duty chocks. I bought a set of hard rubber chocks from Amazon. These aren’t the crappy yellow plastic ones I have for my RV or flatbed trailer. I chose this type because rubber is less likely to slip on the concrete surface of my driveway apron and because they’re so beefy that the platform wheels and weight would not be able to damage them.

Note that I use both of these methods — not one or the other.

Noting Weather Conditions

I shouldn’t have to point this out, but it is important so I will.

Weather conditions should determine whether a takeoff or landing from a platform is even possible to conduct safely. For example, I would not attempt a landing on my platform in strong crosswind or tailwind conditions. I just don’t have enough space to give me the buffer I’d feel comfortable operating in. Fortunately, however, I have another place on my property that’s suitable for landing in almost any weather, so if things were questionable, I’d land there.

If you’re positioning your platform for takeoff and you have a lot of options, position it so the helicopter is pointing into the wind. This will make takeoff safer and easier. Then don’t assume your landing will be just as easy. If the wind shifts, picks up, or gets gusty, conditions will be different. Pay close attention to this before making your landing.

Also heavy on my mind this winter season is snow and ice. It’s my job to keep both my concrete pad and platform clear of anything that might cause the helicopter’s skids or the platform itself to slide. I have a good snow shovel and plenty of ice melt pellets. But if snow or freezing rain comes while I’m out on a flight, I will not land on a snow or ice covered platform. You probably shouldn’t either. Actually, we probably shouldn’t be flying in those conditions anyway, right?

Positioning the Skids

When you land on a platform, the positioning of your skids when you set down must be precise.

Before I landed on my platform for the first time, I measured it and my skids numerous ways. I needed to know where to place the front of my right skid — which is the only one I can see when I’m landing — to ensure that the helicopter was relatively centered on the platform without the skids hanging off the back. Remembering my friend’s paint problem, I decided to keep it simple. When I figured out the right spot to place the front curve of my skid, I took a can of spray paint and painted an arrow. If I kept the skid inside the thick landing stripe my friend had painted — which was still visible, despite most of the paint being removed — and lined up the curve with that arrow, I’d be good.

So I’m basically allowing myself about 6 inches of wiggle room in any direction.

Knowing that there was no deck in the middle of the platform bothered me for awhile — until I realized that as long as one skid was on one deck, the other skid had to be on the other deck. How did I know? I measured about six times. This really reduced my stress level when landing.

Of course, landing straight on the platform is also important — mostly so the helicopter will line up properly to be parked inside the building. In some instances, I can fix a crooked landing by getting light on my skids and applying some pedal. But this can be an extremely dangerous thing to do. If either skid were to catch on something, dynamic rollover would be possible. More on that in a moment.

The other thing to keep in mind when landing on a platform is how the skids will touch down. An experienced pilot would know this. For example, if I’m light on fuel and flying alone, I know that the rear right skid will touch down first, followed by the rear left skid. Then front right and front left. When I landed my R22 on that trailer years ago, I actually loaded a passenger so I’d be more balanced. (I was a much less experienced pilot back then and needed — at least mentally — a level aircraft.)

Why is this important? Well, the first time you do this, you’ll likely be a bit stressed out. Knowing, in advance, how the helicopter will touch down will eliminate any surprises when you actually do touch down on the surface. And once you touch down, it’s important to keep flying it down until the skids are firmly on the platform. You’re not done until the skids are flat on the platform.

I shouldn’t have to point out that excellent hover skills are required for landing on any platform. If you can’t set a helicopter down firmly on its skids without drifting in one direction or another while doing so, you have no business attempting to land on a trailer. This is not a task for a low-time pilot or one new to the make/model of a helicopter. Perfect your hovering skills before trying this at home, kids.

Using Extra Caution at Night

What prompted me to write this blog post was my surprise success landing my helicopter on my dolly at night just the other day. My landing zone is not (yet) lighted at night because construction on my home is not complete. I’d taken off around noon and fully expected to be back before it got dark. But the charter flight went long — as they so often do — and the sun was setting when I fired up the engine for the return flight. During the hour it took to complete that flight and drop off my passengers, it had grown quite dark.

I had already told myself that if I did return after dark, I’d land in my backup landing zone and move the helicopter the following day. But with unseasonably cold temperatures, I was unwilling to leave the helicopter outside overnight unless I had to. I’d had a bad experience back in 2011, trying to get the helicopter started when the temperature was -7F (-22C). It wasn’t expected to get that cold, but I didn’t want to deal with a battery charger and heater out in the yard the next morning. I decided to try landing; if I didn’t like what I was experiencing, I’d climb out, reposition, and land in that backup landing zone.

Approaching my home in the dark was not fun since I hadn’t left any lights on. I live in a very dark area and there was no moonlight. That I was able to find my place at all is due to my neighbors to the west having quite a few lights on their back porch. Once I got closer, I saw the solar lights I’d positioned along my driveway. Since my driveway is also my approach route, I was able to get into position for a good approach.

Skid On Platform
My skid was within the orange paint and only about 4-6 inches back from the arrow. This was my second best landing on the platform. The green light is cast from the position light on my side of the helicopter.

My helicopter’s two landing lights are quite bright, so I had no trouble seeing my platform. The only drawback was the dust cloud that got kicked up when I got closer. I patiently waited for it to clear — it only took a few seconds — before making my first attempt. I was extremely pleased when I was able to get the skids right over the decks and set the helicopter down straight on the first try. I even took a picture.

Would I do this again? Probably. But you can bet I’ll get some lights installed soon.

What Can Go Wrong

But I cannot overstate how easy it is for things to go horribly wrong when you land on a platform like my dolly or a trailer. And that brings me to this accident report from June 24, 2004.

In this case, a pilot who had purchased a trailer to use to transport his Bell 206B (JetRanger) helicopter was practicing landing on it. He’d tried and failed several times and thought it might be due to weight distribution. So he added fuel to help balance it out and tried again.

Here’s what happened:

In a written statement, an air traffic control specialist reported that he observed the pilot make three or four unsuccessful attempts at landing the helicopter on the transport trailer about 45 minutes prior to the accident.

In statements collected by the Mesa Police Department, witnesses reported observing the helicopter land on the trailer. As the helicopter began to liftoff the trailer surface, the left skid caught on the trailer, resulting in a dynamic rollover and collision with the ground.

I’m sure it didn’t help that he was doing this at night, although he was at an airport and I think it’s safe to assume that there was some light available.

The main problem seems to be that the trailer wasn’t really suitable as a platform for landing a helicopter. According to a witness who was a friend of the accident pilot:

During a telephone interview with a National Transportation Safety Board investigator, the friend of the pilot further added that the pilot had recently purchased the trailer, and was not experienced at maneuvering the helicopter onto it. He described the trailer as a modified boat trailer, with an open and trough-shaped platform, which he did not think was suitable for safe takeoff and landing operations. He opined that during the accident sequence the helicopter’s left skid caught on one of the numerous “D” shaped rings affixed to the platform surface. He added that at the time of the accident sky conditions were dark.

(Oddly, my friend who had my platform built now lands his helicopter on a transport trailer that requires him to put the skids in troughs built into the trailer. You couldn’t pay me enough money to try to land a helicopter on that trailer. )

This isn’t the only accident related to landing on a trailer or mobile platform. It’s just the one I was familiar with, mostly because a EMS friend who responded to the accident reported that the helicopter’s transmission had crushed the pilot’s skull in the crash. (At least he died quickly.) Here are a few others:

  • ERA13LA308, June 29, 2013 – student pilot seriously injured and helicopter destroyed when helicopter drifted backwards when landing on a trailer.
  • CEN12CA643, September 18, 2012 – helicopter consumed by post-crash fire when helicopter slipped off platform during landing.
  • CEN11CA627, August 26, 2011 – helicopter destroyed when pilot experiences dynamic rollover on takeoff after forgetting to remove a tie-down clamp.
  • WPR10CA470, September 25, 2010 – helicopter destroyed when pilot lands on trailer parked on uneven terrain and tail rotor hit the trailer.
  • WPR10LA354, July 16, 2010 – 1 killed, 3 seriously injured, and helicopter destroyed when helicopter fell of trailer during landing. Note that pilot was attempting to adjust helicopter position with helicopter “light on its skids” when accident occurred. (I told you it was dangerous.)
  • ERA09CA485, August 26, 2009 – the helicopter was destroyed when lifting off from a dolly with the GPU still attached.
  • WPR09CA338, July 11, 2009 – helicopter destroyed when pilot experienced dynamic rollover while attempting to lift off from a trailer.
  • CEN09LA202, March 11, 2009 – two people seriously injured and the helicopter was destroyed when skid is hooked under trailer while attempting to land on the trailer.
  • NYC07FA029, November 15, 2006 – the pilot was seriously injured and the helicopter was destroyed when the helicopter landed with just one skid on a trailer and experienced dynamic rollover.
  • SEA05CA104, May 23, 2005 – the helicopter was destroyed when its skid became caught under a trailer lip during takeoff in gusting crosswind conditions.
  • NYC04CA199, August 27, 2004 – the helicopter was destroyed by dynamic rollover caused by a stuck skid during an aborted landing to a dolly in the dark.
  • MIA04LA061, March 17, 2004 – the helicopter was damaged when it crashed during an attempted takeoff from a dolly. Pilot refused to cooperate with investigators, so facts are scarce. Alcohol may have been involved.
  • ATL04LA076, February 21, 2004 – the helicopter was destroyed when the dolly moved while the pilot was attempting to land on it.
  • FTW03CA233, September 28, 2003 – the helicopter was destroyed when it “hung up on something” during departure from a trailer.
  • FTW03LA166, June 4, 2003 – the helicopter was destroyed when it experienced dynamic rollover when attempting to depart from a trailer with a tie-down strap still fastened.
  • IAD03LA042, March 27, 2003 – the helicopter was destroyed when the pilot attempted to land on a dolly after experiencing engine trouble.

I found these for searching within the past 10 or so years for accidents that include the word “trailer” or “dolly.” I bet there are others. But this is enough to teach us from other people’s mistakes.

In Summary

Landing on a platform or trailer isn’t difficult if you have good hovering skills, approach the situation with caution, stay focused on the task at hand. Position the skids over the trailer before setting down firmly. Keep the possibility of dynamic rollover in mind all the time.

The only other thing I want to add is this: if your platform landing zone is difficult — and I consider mine more difficult than most — do it alone. There’s no reason to put passengers at risk when performing any advanced or potentially dangerous maneuver. That’s my two cents on this subject, anyway.

Flying Under Bridges

What were we thinking?

Back in the spring of 2004, when I interviewed at Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters for a tour pilot job, one of the interviewers — there were three of them — asked me what the craziest thing I’d ever done in a helicopter was. I said, “Well, I was sitting in the PIC seat but not manipulating the controls when we flew under a bridge.”

There was a brief moment of silence and then all three men laughed long and hard. I’m not sure if they laughed because they thought what we’d done was funny or if they thought it was funny that I’d actually answered truthfully instead replying with something I thought they’d want to hear, like “I never do crazy things in a helicopter.” (I don’t lie, even when it’s in my best interest to do so.) But it must have been a good enough answer because I got a job offer and I took the job. That summer gave me some of the best flying experience I could get to hone skills, build confidence, and move forward in my career as a helicopter pilot.

In this blog post, I want to talk a little about the events leading up to us flying under the bridge and what happened to the pilot manipulating the controls that day.

The Backstory

It was July 19, 2003. I’d spent the previous day ferrying a brand spanking new R44 Raven II from Torrance, CA to St. George, UT. The helicopter had been purchased by a student pilot we’ll call John who had a heck of a lot more money to burn than I ever will. Not only had he bought the Raven II for cash, but he’d paid the person who’d ordered it for his own operation an extra $40K so he wouldn’t have to wait for his own to be built.

He’d asked his flight instructor — we’ll call him Roy — to pick it up, but Roy didn’t meet Robinson’s very strict ferry pilot requirements. Although he had 2,000 hours in Robinson helicopters, he’d never taken the factory safety course. I’d met Roy the month before when he was rounding up burros out at Alamo Lake in Arizona. He remembered me and the fact that I had R44 experience and guessed (correctly) that I’d taken the safety course. John and Roy arranged for me to fly the helicopter with Roy from Torrance to St. George. Due to Robinson’s rules about ferry passengers, John would stay behind.

It was a mostly uneventful trip. The helicopter was ugly: white with a bright orange stripe and chocolate brown leather interior. But it flew fine and we cruised through the desert, mostly following I-15. We stopped for fuel at Boulder City, NV and then landed again at Mesquite, NV to wait out a thunderstorm in our path. John met us when we landed at St. George. They took me out for dinner, put me in a motel room up at the airport, and made plans to get me home to Wickenburg (near Phoenix) the next day.

The Flight

That brings us to July 19 again. John was eager to go flying in his new helicopter, so they decided to fly me down to Wickenburg. It would be about a 2-1/2 hour flight. Roy put me in the right (PIC) seat while he sat in the left, just like the day before. The duals were still in. John sat in the back. He’d get his chance to fly on the way home. (To this day, I think it was very kind of them to allow me a few more hours of stick time in the R44. I only had about 40 hours in one at that point.)

We headed south over the east end of Lake Mead near Pearce Ferry, past the Grand Wash Cliffs, and down through Lapai Alley to Kingman. That’s where we stopped for fuel. The rest of the flight was very familiar to me — I’d likely flown the route along State Route 93 dozens of times in the R22 I owned back then.

Near Wikieup
Here’s a piece of the Phoenix Sectional Chart that covers the area of Route 93 south of Wickieup. Note the wires.

Sometime just after passing over Wikieup, John asked Roy how he found burros from the air. (Remember, he’d done burro roundup only a month before.) Roy asked for the controls and I let him have them. He dropped down low and explained how he looked for bare patches in the desert where the burros would rub themselves. We looked but although we saw patches like he described, we didn’t see burros.

By that time, we’d reached Kaiser Canyon. Roy dropped down very low and followed it to where it joined up with Burro Creek. That’s when he turned to me and asked, “Have you ever flown under a bridge?”

I admitted that I hadn’t.

“Want to?” he asked.

Burro Creek Satellite
A recent satellite image of Burro Creek Canyon. If you look closely, you can actually see the shadow of the two bridge spans upstream from the bridge. We came from the south, following the creek.

I knew the bridge he was thinking of: the Burro Creek Bridge on Route 93, which spanned the canyon not far ahead. I’m not sure if I answered. Or if John answered. The canyon opened up enough for Roy to drop us into it. We rounded a bend and the bridge came into view.

That’s when John started getting cold feet. “I don’t think we should do this,” he said nervously.

But he was really too late. We were moving at at least 80 knots and the bridge was coming up quickly.

Burro Creek Bridge
The Burro Creek Bridge not long after the second span was completed. Back when we flew under it, there was only one span. Please don’t fly under this or any other bridge. It’s dangerous.

It wasn’t the bridge up ahead that had me worried. It was the two sets of big power lines — we call them “Bonnevilles” here in Washington state — that spanned the canyon on our side of the bridge. They wires actually drooped lower than the bottom of the bridge, which is something I’d never noticed before. But I only felt real fear for a moment. That’s how long it took to pass under them and the bridge beyond.

I can’t remember what happened next. Probably some euphoric whooping by all three of us. And laughter. Roy gave back the controls and I got us back on course. They dropped me off at Wickenburg, fueled up, and headed home.

I lived in that area for another 10 years and owned a helicopter the entire time. Although I passed by the bridge dozens of times — I even did a photo flight while the second span was under construction — I never flew under it again. What the hell were we thinking, anyway?

Afterwards

Time passed. I helped John and Roy out again in August, doing helicopter rides at a country fair in the same R44. (According to my log book, I logged a total of about 20 hours in that helicopter.) I think I visited Roy in St. George once again after that. Then we lost touch.

I don’t know what happened to John and his helicopter.

But I do know what happened to Roy. On April 6, 2014, the helicopter Roy was flying collided with terrain in a canyon near Green River, UT. He and his passenger both died.

I read about it in the news and my heart sank a little — the way it does when someone we know dies in a crash. (If you’re a pilot and it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will.) The investigation is still going on, but the NTSB preliminary report states that there is no evidence of engine failure.

That got me thinking, there are old pilots and bold pilots…

Comments on the Seattle Helicopter Crash

Just a few words about how heartless and stupid people can be.

KOMO Helicopter
One of KOMO’s helicopters departs the Seattle hellpad on a spring day two years ago.

I was sitting at my desk, writing a blog post about Sunday’s day trip, when a brief news blurb on NPR mentioned a helicopter had crashed at the base of the Space Needle in Seattle. My friend Greg flies KOMO’s helicopter from a rooftop helipad there. My blood ran cold as I got on Facebook to message him and his wife, hoping he wasn’t the pilot involved.

Pam came back quickly. It wasn’t Greg. I felt relief. But did it really matter? Was the accident any less tragic because my friend hadn’t been hurt? Of course not. Someone else’s loved ones had been killed. It was a tragedy no matter who was involved.

Of course, someone posted the breaking news story link from KOMO’s website to the Helicopter Pilot’s forum on Facebook. And people were commenting. Stupid, thoughtless people.

The accident had happened only minutes before — hell, the fire was probably still burning — and guys who are supposedly helicopter pilots were already speculating about the cause and spreading misinformation.

“Settling with power,” one genius proclaimed.

“According to witnesses, he was attempting to land on a roof and rolled off,” another amateur reporter added.

It was pretty obvious to me that neither of these “experts” had read the 150 words in the original version of the story they were commenting on — heck, why bother read before commenting? — which clearly said the helicopter was taking off when the accident occurred. Settling with power isn’t something that is likely on takeoff from a rooftop helipad. And it was an established helipad, not merely “a roof.”

Later, the first genius added another piece of fictitious insight: “Yea originally they said he was landing. Just heard there was a crane put up, and be hit a wire.”

“Just heard”? From where? None of the news stories — even hours later when the stories are more fully developed — say anything about a crane.

Other comments and speculations that were clearly not tactful or fully informed followed. I think some of them may have been deleted, but the responses to them remain. Most of us are agreed that this is no time for speculations — especially when there’s a shortage of facts to support them.

The situation was worse, of course, on KOMO’s website where the article appeared. Some cold-hearted conservatives rejoiced over the death of two liberals — as if they knew the political leanings of the pilot and his passenger and as if that actually mattered. One moron even commented that it was too bad Obama wasn’t on board.

Seriously? Do people actually think like that?

I spent ten minutes flagging obnoxious and offensive comments before finally giving up and getting on with my day.

But come on people, let’s look at the reality of the situation: There was an accident in Seattle that took the lives of two men. Men with lives and families. Men likely doing the work they loved. Men who lived and breathed and loved and dreamed, just like all of us.

Surely they deserve better than some of the uninformed speculation and heartless comments the reports of their death are attracting.

Rest in peace, guys.

Helicopters 101: Hover Charts

What the hover charts mean, how to read them, and which one to use.

Articles in the Helicopters 101 series:
Flight Planning
CG
Weight
Hover Charts

The “Performance” section of a helicopter’s Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) includes two charts related to hover power: IGE Hover Ceiling vs. Gross Weight and OGE Hover Ceiling vs. Gross Weight. (The exact names of these charts may differ by helicopter manual; these are the names in the Robinson R44 Raven II manual I have handy.) These are perhaps the most important charts in the book — they help you understand the amount of power a helicopter will have under specific operating conditions.

What the Charts Mean

The hover charts enable you to plot your operating conditions to see whether performance is possible. The operating conditions include altitude, gross weight, and temperature — all of which you should be familiar with prior to flight time. You should consult the charts before every flight using the information that applies for that flight.

There are two charts and they work much the same way, although they do provide different data:

  • The IGE Hover Chart (below, left) indicates expected performance in a ground effect hover. A note near the chart should get more specific than that. In the example here, the chart is for a 2 foot skid height with full throttle and zero wind.
  • The OGE Hover Chart (below, right) indicates expected performance in an out of ground effect hover. Again, a note gets more specific. In this example, the chart is for takeoff power or full throttle with zero wind.

Generally speaking, the IGE chart is for hover operations very close to the ground while the OGE chart is for all other hover operations.

I’ve provided these two charts side by side here, but you can zoom into either one in separate browser window or tab by clicking it.

IGE Hover, R44 II OGE Hover, R44 II

If you fly a different helicopter, you might want to pull out the charts for it and consult them while reading this. No sense in learning about my helicopter if your helicopter’s charts are handy.

How to Use the Charts

In order to use the charts, you need three pieces of information:

  • Altitude of where you’ll be operating. This should be the pressure altitude, but in most instances the elevation above sea level will be close enough.
  • Aircraft weight. This is the weight of the aircraft at the time of the operation.
  • Temperature. This builds density altitude into the chart so you don’t have to calculate it.

The best way to explain how to read the charts is to provide a few examples.

IGE Hover Chart

Suppose your local airport is at 2500 feet MSL. It’s a pretty warm day and forecast for flight time is 35°C. You’ve done your weight and balance and you know that with you (the pilot), fuel, two passengers, and some added equipment, your weight at takeoff will be 2300 pounds. You want to make sure you have enough performance to do a regular takeoff from a hover, so you consult the IGE Hover Chart. The first thing you notice is that the chart starts at 5,000 feet. Since your airport is below that level, you’re done; the chart only addresses higher elevations so you’re good to go.

IGE Landing Example 1
Plotting the altitude and the weight in this example keeps you below and to the left of the temperature line, so you’re okay in these conditions.

Now suppose you’re flying to Flagstaff, AZ, which sits at 7014 feet MSL. It’ll take you an hour to get there and the forecasted temperature there is 30°C for your arrival time. You want to make sure you have enough performance to do a regular landing to a hover and then to the ground, so you consult the IGE Hover Chart. If you burn 16 gallons per hour and each gallon weighs 6 pounds, you’re now nearly 100 pounds lighter or 2200 pounds. You plot the point where the altitude meets the weight. Because you’re still below and to the left of the 30°C temperature line (highlighted in yellow here), you have enough performance. If you follow the 7000 foot line to the 30°C line, you can see that you’d even have enough performance at that temperature and altitude if you were just about max gross weight (2500 pounds).

IGE Takeoff Example 2
In this example you have a problem: the plotted point falls above the temperature line. This means you might not have enough performance to hover in ground effect under these conditions.

Now let’s say that when you get to Flagstaff, you’re picking up another passenger and he’s a big guy. You also have to put on some fuel — enough for you to be at max gross weight for takeoff. In addition, takeoff will be at 3 PM when the forecasted temperature is 35°C. Plotting that indicates a problem — the plotted intersection of altitude and weight is above where the 35°C line would be (as estimated in yellow in this example between 30°C and 40°C). This means that under these conditions, the helicopter may not have the performance you need in a ground effect hover.

What could you do about this? A few things:

  • Lighten up the aircraft. Take on less fuel (if possible) or leave behind a person or some equipment (good luck with that).
  • Wait until the temperature drops. The temperature will likely drop again later in the day. Wait until it drops below 30°C.
  • Perform a running takeoff. But is that possible? Because you need less power to fly at speeds in excess of ETL than to hover, it could be. The only way to know for sure is to try. (A serious question here, though: do you really want to take off if you know you don’t have enough performance to even hover in ground effect? Think long and hard about that before doing it.)

OGE Hover Chart

It’s the next day. A photographer wants you to take him and his client around a marina at the lake so he can get video footage of the new dock and some boat races that will be going on. The lake is near Prescott; it sits at 4900 feet and is surrounded by desert mountains. The forecasted temperature in Prescott for the early morning flight is 25°C. You get the passenger and equipment weights and calculate your fuel load for the flight. The total aircraft weight at the time you’ll be on point to start the shoot will be 2200 pounds.

You’ve worked with this videographer before. He likes you to fly very low and slow — usually less than ETL, sometimes only 100 feet off the ground. (You’ve already warned him of the potential danger of this, being sure not to refer to the height velocity diagram as the “deadman’s curve.” But you’re willing to take the risk and he likes flying with you because you’re the only area pilot who will.)

OGE Hover Example 1
In this example, you’d have enough performance to hover out of ground effect in the plotted conditions.

You pull out the POH and turn to the OGE Hover Chart. Why that chart? Well, you know that you’ll be flying at speeds less than ETL. That’ll likely take at least as much power as hovering out of ground effect. You plot the altitude and weight, as shown here. The resulting point is below and to the left of the temperature line (sketched in yellow). You should be good to go.

OGE Hover Example 1
With the fatty client on board, you simply wouldn’t have enough power to hover out of ground effect.

Now let’s say that the photographer calls an hour before the flight. His client wants to come along, supposedly to provide instructions. You ask how much he weighs and the photographer tells you 240 pounds. A big guy. You recalculate the aircraft weight at the time of the flight adding 250 pounds for the client because you know everyone lies about their weight. Now you’re at 2450 pounds, which is pretty darn close to max gross weight. You plot the points and what do you find? With the client on board, you’d be too heavy to hover out of ground effect.

What can you do? A few things:

  • Lighten up the aircraft. Assuming you can’t leave the client behind, you might be able to operate with less fuel on board.
  • Wait until the temperature drops. Of course, the photographer picked that flight time for a reason and probably won’t take a time change.
  • Don’t drop below ETL when out of ground effect during the flight. If you keep your speed above ETL, you should have plenty of power to fly. But will the photographer accept that?

IGE vs. OGE

In these examples, I used both charts. You might be wondering why I used the OGE chart for a flight that didn’t necessarily require hovering. After all, you reason, if you don’t have to hover, you don’t need a hover chart, right?

Wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, operating at speeds less than ETL — which is about 25 knots in an R44 — requires about as much power as hovering. That’s why you need to consult a hover chart. And since you’ll be 100 feet up or higher, you’re not in ground effect so you need the OGE hover chart.

Let’s look at what could happen in the photography example if you conducted the flight when the OGE hover chart told you hovering wasn’t going to be possible.

You get into position for the photographer to start videoing the new dock. You’re about 100 feet off the lake surface, doing 40 knots. “Slower,” the photographer urges. You drop speed little by little. Finally, you’re at about 15 knots. The helicopter starts to settle. You pull up the collective and either you get a low RPM rotor horn (in a piston helicopter like the R44) or you over-torque or over-temp the engine (in a turbine helicopter). Either way, the settling doesn’t stop. You push the cyclic forward, trying to fly out of the vortex ring state you’ve put yourself into, but you’re now less than 100 feet off the lake. Are you wearing floatation devices? I hope so. You might be going swimming.

Think this doesn’t happen? It does. It even killed people in this accident and this accident — both of which were for aerial photography missions. (And yes, the pilot in the second accident was also impaired.)

Throughout this blog I refer over and over to the OGE hover chart. This is why. It gives you worst case scenario performance for your operating conditions. If the OGE hover chart says you can operate, you can operate at any speed. Indeed, if you consult the OGE hover chart first and it says you’re good to go, you don’t even need to consult the IGE hover chart.

Conclusion

My advice: consult the OGE hover chart before every flight. It gives you a good feeling for the kind of power you’ll have available throughout various phases of a flight, even if airspeed drops below ETL.

This can become vitally important, especially if you’re doing an off-airport takeoff or landing in rough terrain. Think about it. Suppose you’re sitting on the ground near that marina in the last example, with the fatty client on board. Maybe that’s where you picked him up. You pick the helicopter up into a hover; it’s possible but perhaps you need nearly full allowable power to do it. You push the cyclic forward only two or three feet off the ground. What happens as you begin to go through ETL? The helicopter’s nose might dip. If you’re close to the ground, you could hook a skid. Add rising terrain and/or a tailwind and you might find yourself in serious trouble. That’s what happened to a pilot in Easton, WA in 2007 and it killed her and her three passengers.

If the OGE hover chart says you don’t have the performance you’ll need for an OGE hover at your expected flight conditions, at the very least you should consult the IGE hover chart to make sure you can hover in ground effect for takeoff and landing. If you don’t have the performance for that, consider what you can do to increase performance before taking off, even if a run-on takeoff is possible and you’re certain you’ll be able to hover when it’s time to land.

These charts are your true performance guides. Operating when they say you can’t is just plain stupid.