Autorotation is Not a Low Rotor RPM Emergency Procedure

Especially when you’re two miles out at sea.

Picture this: An R22 helicopter without floats operating two miles off the coast of Miami, FL. On board is the CFI-rated pilot with 600 790 hours of total flight time and the private pilot rated “passenger” with 115 hours total flight time. They’re operating at about 40 knots 100 feet above the waves on an aerial photo mission, photographing boats. The wind in Miami, 13 miles away, is from 120 at 13 knots and it’s 26°C with a dew point of 21°C, resulting in a balmy 74% humidity.

The pilot had just completed a 180° turn to the south when the low rotor RPM horn sounds.

The pilot adjusts the throttle to compensate — in other words, we should assume that he adds throttle. The horn stops blaring, but 3 seconds later, it does it again.

So what does the pilot do? Despite the fact that the helicopter does not have floats, he enters an autorotation. The helicopter crash-lands in the ocean, the occupants escape, and the helicopter sinks. The pilots are rescued 10 minutes later by a privately owned boat. The helicopter is left unrecovered (so far) in 150-250 feet of seawater.

What We Don’t Know

There are a few things we don’t know that could explain the reason for the low rotor RPM horn:

  • How much did the pilots and their equipment weight? An R22 Beta (not Beta II) is a very small helicopter. Although they had burned off 45 minutes of fuel, there is a possibility that they were still heavy for the flight conditions.
  • Which direction did they turn? A turn that would have put them into a tailwind situation — especially at low speed — could rob them of airspeed. If airspeed dropped below ETL, the helicopter would have to work harder to stay in the air.
  • What speed were they operating at? Without the benefit of forward airspeed and effective translational lift, the helicopter would have to work harder to stay in the air. If the speed was close to zero, the aircraft might have gotten into a settling with power situation. The natural (but incorrect) reaction of increasing the collective to arrest the rate of descent could have triggered a low rotor RPM warning if available power was exceeded.
  • Were the engine and its components functioning properly? If the engine or magnetos were not performing to specifications, the resulting reduction of engine power could cause a low rotor RPM horn. We have to assume the engine was still running because the NTSB report didn’t mention an engine failure.

But regardless of the reason for the low rotor RPM horn, it’s the pilot’s decision to perform an autorotation to into the ocean that needs to be questioned.

The Robinson Low Rotor Horn

In a Robinson helicopter, the rotor RPM green arc is 101% to 104%. (Please don’t ask why; I don’t know. Yes, it is weird.) The low rotor RPM warning system is designed to alert the pilot at 97% RPM. (See it in action for yourself here.) This is a very early warning. The idea is that if rotor RPM is deteriorating, once it gets past a certain point, it could could become unrecoverable very quickly. The earlier the pilot is warned, the better off he is.

At the Robinson factory safety course — and, one might assume, at many flight schools that train in Robinsons — pilots are taught that a Robinson can generally fly at an RPM of 80% plus 1% per 1000 feet of density altitude. Given the temperature, dew point, altitude, and altimeter setting (30.01), the density altitude was 1,612 feet. That means that the helicopter should have been capable of flight when operating at only 82% RPM.

I need to stress here that this is a general rule of thumb. Do not attempt to fly around at low rotor RPM to test this. While it’s true that my flight instructor at the Robinson safety course had me fly for a few minutes in the Long Beach, CA area at 90% RPM with the horn blaring just to prove that flight was possible, RPM is not something we play with in non-training situations. The formula is simple: RPM = life.

Low Rotor RPM Emergency Procedures

The Robinson R22 Pilot’s Operating Handbook is quite specific on what to do in the event of a low rotor RPM warning. On page 3-10, in the red-tabbed “Emergency Procedures” section, it states:

A horn and an illuminated caution light indicates that rotor RPM may be below safe limits. To restore RPM, immediately roll throttle on, lower collective and, in forward flight, apply aft cyclic.

The NTSB report indicates that the pilot initially “adjusted the throttle to compensate for the [low rotor RPM warning] condition” and was immediately rewarded with recovery. But that was followed by the horn sounding again only 3 seconds later.

It had to be scary for the pilot. After all, he’s only 100 feet above the water and he’s supposed to react by lowering the collective. But the emergency procedure and repetitive training doesn’t tell us to enter an autorotation, which would be a full-down reduction of the collective. The reduction of the collective, coordinated with the rolling on of the throttle, should be slight — perhaps an inch or so. This reduces drag on the blades while the increased throttle provides power to increase their RPM.

What Was the RPM?

One of the things we don’t know is what the RPM was when the pilot decided to enter autorotation. If it had deteriorated to the point where autorotation and cyclic flare were the only tools to recover RPM, his decision was probably a good one. Better to hit the water relatively softly than from 100 feet up, falling like a brick.

If RPM had deteriorated to that point that quickly, however, it’s important to recover the aircraft to learn why. Other than a complete engine failure — which was not mentioned in the report — it’s hard to imagine what would cause RPM to drop enough to warrant such a drastic recovery action.

Who Was Flying?

There may be more to this than what meets the eye.

The helicopter was operated by Helicopter Academy, a flight school with locations across the U.S. The school’s Web site clearly advertises it as a low-cost training company:

$250 PER HOUR R22 HELICOPTER TRAINING TIME BARGAIN and we are the ONLY company in the world that can guarantee you a job.  We operate a fleet of helicopters and like other schools our insurance requires 300 hours helicopter time and an instructor’s rating to fly for us. We train you to work for us and offer a job to all graduates, including transfer student and instructors who can’t get jobs elsewhere.

Helicopter Academy’s other business is BoatPix, which uses helicopters to photograph boats and then sells the photos to the boat owners and others. It’s widely known that BoatPix pilots pay BoatPix (or Helicopter Academy) for the time they fly aerial photo missions. The company’s Web site alludes to this:

…you pay for the first 100 hours at $250/hr, the second 100 hours at $200/hr and the third 100 hours at $150/hr….It’s  $25,000 for the first 100 hours where you’ll do mostly training, $20,000 for hours 100  through 200 where we’ll introduce you to our photo contract which will subsidize your flying and $15,000 for hours 200 through 300 where you’ll do almost exclusively photo and will learn this skill that is valuable to our photo contract and making you a valuable pilot to us.

I added the emphasis in the above quote. It begs the question: who was actually flying this aircraft? The NTSB report suggests that it was the 600791-hour CFI. But was that really the case? Was the 115-hour private pilot paying $200/hour to be “introduced” to the photo contract — as a pilot — while the 600791-hour CFI took the photos?

High Risk Operations

In March 1999, Robinson Helicopter issued Safety Notice SN-34. The latest version of this Safety Notice is dated April 2009. Titled “Aerial Survey and Photo Flights – Very High Risk,” it starts out saying:

There is a misconception that aerial survey and photo flights can be flown safely by low time pilots. Not true. There have been numerous fatal accidents during aerial survey and photo flights, including several involving Robinson helicopters.

It goes on to list some of the possible dangers of low time pilots conducting aerial photo flights. It also makes some recommendations for minimum requirements for aerial photo/survey pilots, including a minimum of 500 hours pilot-in-command. BoatPix is one of the operations that has chosen to ignore this recommendation.

My question to helicopter pilot wannabes out there: Are you that desperate to become a pilot that you’re willing to trade your safety for flight time?

Pilot Experience and Decision-Making

What it all comes down to is whether the pilot made the correct decision for the situation he found himself in. I’m not convinced that entering autorotation over the ocean on hearing a low rotor RPM warning horn is the correct decision.

True, both pilots walked (or perhaps I should say, swam) away. But if the rotor RPM could have been brought back into the green while in flight — something a well-trained or experienced pilot could have accomplished if there wasn’t a mechanical problem — the watery autorotation and the resulting loss of the aircraft could have been avoided.

Hopefully, the Probable Cause report for this accident will shed some light on what really happened. Until then, it certainly gives pilots some food for thought.

November 1, 2011 Update: The Probable Cause report doesn’t add much to what’s reported here other than to clarify airspeed and PIC experience. The official Probable Cause is “A loss of main rotor rpm for undetermined reasons.”

Update, March 17, 2012: Just found another accident report with someone else using autorotation as a cure for low rotor RPM. He crashed, too.

Another Lazy Job Seeker

It’s so easy for them these days, but they still take the lazy way out.

When I was getting ready to graduate college with a BBA in the early 1980s, my school provided some advice about how to look for a job and prepare for an interview. There were basically two different paths:

  • For a posted job opening, research the company to see whether it would be a good “fit.” The write a cover letter to send in with your resume that explained how you not only qualified for the position but could bring additional benefits to the company.
  • For a company you wanted to work for that didn’t have any posted job openings, research the company to learn more about it. Then write a cover letter to send in with your resume explaining what job or department or division interested you and how you could benefit the company.

There’s an underlying theme here: research the company. Learn about it. Understand what it did and how you might fit in. Even if the job you were looking for wasn’t available, the person on the receiving end of your cover letter and resume might realize that you’d done your homework and that might make enough of an impression to forward your resume to someone who was hiring people like you.

In those days, researching a company meant going to the library, tracking down annual reports, and combing through the periodicals Index to find articles about the company. It meant microfilm and microfiche. It mean spending an hour or two or even more to gather enough information to become informed about the company and sound that way if a phone call came. If you got an interview, it was back to the library to learn even more.

These days, we’re lucky — oh, so very lucky — to have the Internet. Researching a company is as easy as visiting its Web site or Googling its company name. All the information you could possibly want — and more! — is there, at your fingertips, in the comfort of your dorm room, living room, or a coffee shop.

Yet people still continue to take the lazy way out, sending generic e-mail messages to anyone they find online that might possibly have a job for them. In many cases, they don’t even bother to research the company and possibly job openings while they’re on that company’s Web site. Instead, they zero in on the Contact Us page or link and paste in their job request.

Here’s the most recent gem to cross my e-mail inbox:

I am seeking an internship position in the helicopter industry and was wondering if your company has any positions available in Phoenix. I am approaching my senior year in my Bachelor’s Degree in Aviation Administration and training for my Instrument and Commercial Rotorcraft Rating. I am very interested in doing an internship with your company so any information would be greatly appreciated.

Contact FormI should note here that this e-mail message was sent using a form on Flying M Air’s Web site, which is reproduced here as an image (reduced to fit). At the very top of the form is the parenthetical statement, “Note to Pilots: We are not hiring.” I added this when I got tired of getting e-mail messages very similar to the one quoted above. I figured I’d just tell them up front that no jobs were available so they wouldn’t waste their time — or mine. Evidently, reading the page the form was on was too much for this soon-to-be-college graduate.

I composed a response:

You’re “very interested in doing an internship” with my company? Really? What do you know about my company?

I’m sure you sent this same message out to every helicopter operator in the Phoenix area who you could contact. Copy and paste makes it pretty easy these days. Are you just as interested in working for all of them?

And tell me: when you used the contact form on our Web site, didn’t you see where it said “Note to Pilots: We are not hiring?” Did you think that somehow did not apply to you? Or did you skip over all the information about my company and that note right above the form so you could quickly fire out yet another generic request for work?

Did you ever think that maybe you should put a little more effort into your job hunt? That some people in the industry aren’t interested in hiring lazy people who can’t be bothered to learn about a company or read available information about job openings — or lack thereof?

Still interested in doing an internship for my company?

We’re not hiring.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can be a real bitch. But I didn’t send this. Instead, my husband and I agreed on a better response:

Information about job availability can be found on our Web site.

This is actually a more evil response. It will require him to do some work:

  1. Figure out what our Web site is. I didn’t include a signature line with the URL and my e-mail domain name does not match that of my company.
  2. Search the site to find the one place — which is right above the form he used to contact me — where it says we’re not hiring.

And why shouldn’t he put a little effort into a job hunt? Won’t he be required to work if he gets a job?

The End is Near

The end of my cherry drying contracts, that is.

I came to Washington State in the beginning of June to start a pair of cherry drying contracts. I was fortunate enough to get a third contract wedged in between the first two, giving me almost seven solid weeks of work.

Well, “work” is not quite an accurate term. I was on standby for all three contracts, but only flew 5.2 hours on two days during one contract.

Thank heaven I was getting standby pay. Without it, I would have taken a heavy loss this summer. But with it, and thanks to the availability of a pilot willing to share ferry costs on both 10+ hour flights between Washington and Arizona, I’ll stay in the black.

My third contract officially ends on Monday, July 28 at nightfall. Unless the weather looks threatening, they’ll likely cut me loose a few hours earlier. It doesn’t matter. I’m not leaving until Tuesday.

But in the meantime, I figured it might be a good idea to drive my orchards, just to see if there was still fruit on the trees. I was in Wenatchee today, so I drove past the one near Wenatchee Airport. There are two cherry orchards across the street from each other. I’m not sure which one is mine. (Heck, it’s hard to tell from the ground when all the photos I have are from the air!) One of them still had plenty of cherries, the other had none. I continued on to Quincy and visited two of my three orchards there. Both were heavy with cherries. One of them is likely to be picked soon — fruit boxes had been laid out neatly in the rows between the trees.

As long as there’s fruit on the trees, there’s a slight chance they’ll ask me to stay on. Although I don’t mind staying an extra day or two, I really don’t want to stay longer than that. I feel done with this place, if you know what I mean.

My trip home will be completed in multiple steps:

  • Tuesday: Fly the helicopter from Quincy to Seattle. Then take Horizon back to Wenatchee and drive back to Quincy. I hope to get all that done on Tuesday, but might have to take an early morning flight on Wednesday to get back to Quincy.
  • Wednesday: Drive the trailer to Walla Walla. That Washington town consistently comes up as a top choice when I go through the quiz on the Find Your Spot Web site. I was there in 2006 during my Midlife Crisis Road Trip and I liked what I saw. But I was only there long enough to do my laundry and visit a downtown independent bookstore. This time, I’ll stay two nights and check it out.
  • Friday: Drive the trailer from Walla Walla to Salt Lake City. I’ll be staying with the family of one of my editors, Megg. She’s going to take me hiking on Saturday.
  • Saturday: Drive the trailer from Salt Lake City to Page, AZ. If I get a late start from SLC, I’ll spend the night on the road and get in sometime on Sunday.
  • Monday: Fly in Mike’s plane from Page, AZ to Wickenburg. I need to get Alex the Bird home.
  • Friday: Fly with Mike on US Air from Phoenix to Seattle.
  • Saturday-Sunday: Fly with Mike and another pilot from Seattle to Page, AZ. I’m hoping to spend the night in the Reading area, where a buddy of mine is on a fire contract. I think we’d all get a lot out of seeing how a fire operation works.

I still have four chapters of a book revision to finish. I goofed off in Wenatchee most of today, but I expect to finish up over the weekend. There’s another book right after it, but I’ll get that started when I get back to Wickenburg and finish it when I settle down in Page.

Cherry Drying on Google Earth

Putting the tracks on a satellite image.

I had my handheld GPS (a Garmin GPSmap 60c) running while I was drying cherries and the GPS tracked my movements. Today, on a whim, I saved the tracklogs and downloaded them to my Mac. Then I brought them into Google Earth and looked at a few of the orchards.

The tracks are not very accurate. They show a zig-zag motion that appears to cross diagonally across the rows. In reality, when I reached the end of each row, I moved to the side and turned to go down another row. So rather than pointed endings and diagonal tracks, an accurate rendering would show squared off endings and parallel tracks.

But I still think it’s interesting to see how I moved over the land. Take a look and see for yourself. These are the tracks from my flights on July 4.

In this first example, I’d flown past the orchard on the south side from west to east, then circled back. I made a wide clockwise circle of the orchard to get my bearings, then came in on the south end, near a white single-wide mobile home. There was a woman there, waving happily when I arrived. She’d left the door of her house open and I blew a bunch of leaves into it. (Oops.) My track took me back and forth up the triangular orchard. Although the track makes it look as if I had a short row near the top, it’s just another inaccuracy in the track. I departed the area with a clockwise circle to the west.

Cherry Drying Tracks

Here are two others representing three dries. I went to the lower one first, passing it by on the south from west to east. I circled back, then came in on the southwest corner. I went back and forth from west to east, then broke off. It started to rain so I repositioned to the airport, which was less than a mile away. I read for a while, then got a call with a new list of orchards. I started back up and took off, returning to re-dry the lower orchard in this image again (hence the double set of track lines) after doing others a bit farther to the west. I did the upper orchard about an hour later, coming in from the northwest and departing from the southeast side back to the west.

Cherry Drying Tracks

Here’s a sloppy looking one that really wasn’t this sloppy. I did the lower orchard first, coming in from the southeast and departing out the northwest. I then went directly to the upper orchard, beginning the dry at the southwest and exiting at the northwest. The pair of diagonal lines going across the bottom of this screenshot represent overflights of the orchard on my way to or from the ones in the previous screenshot.

Cherry Drying Tracks

This is the first orchard I described in some detail in my “I Dry Cherries” post. Again, I really didn’t fly a zig-zag pattern in the main orchard. and I’m certain I flew at least two more rows (one in each direction) in the smaller orchard. But the GPS doesn’t seem to pick up all the points when it makes its tracks. The two other straight lines near the bottom right of the image are overflights to/from other orchards. That’s the Columbia River/Lake Pateros in the bottom right corner of the shot.

Cherry Drying 4.jpg

These are just a few of the orchards. You get the idea. Next time I fly, I’ll use my new geotagger. It can save up to 600,000 waypoints (I think) so I have a feeling the pictures it draws will be a lot more accurate. If they are, I’ll show them off here again.

We all know what a geek I can be.