Drone Pilots: Beware of Bird Strikes!

Just a quick warning, with photos.

Last week, I did a few photo missions with my Mavic Pro flying camera. For two of the msisions, I launched from an open area at the far east side of the Tyson Wells complex in Quartzsite, just south of Keuhn Road.

I’m in the habit of using the Return-to-Home feature of my Mavic to get it back to its launch point quickly and efficiently. In all honesty, I’m awed by its ability to land exactly on its takeoff spot nearly every single time. I like to watch, with my finger poised over the pause button on the control (just in case), as it comes to the right coordinates far overhead, turns to the direction in which it took off, and descends to the spot.

On one of the three missions I flew from that spot, a small flock of pigeons flew right past the Mavic. I watched in shock and a bit of horror as the five or six birds swooped around my fragile aircraft. I felt relief as the Mavic continued its descent unharmed, but the whole thing repeated itself when another flock — or the same flock? — swooped past. Again, the Mavic was unharmed.

I happened to have the video camera going when this was happening. Here are two screen grabs, one from each flight, that show the closest encounter. The first one was definitely closer.

Near Miss
This reminds me of a scene from The Birds.

Near Miss
The bird is a bit farther off in this one. Can you see it?

Of course, the camera can’t capture action in a direction it isn’t pointing. For all I know they could have come closer behind the camera.

While this is all kind of cool in a weird sort of way, it wouldn’t have been so cool if one of those birds clipped a rotor. The Mavic has four independently powered rotors. If any one of them was destroyed, I’d have to think the whole thing would immediately go out of balance and crash. This is one good reason why we don’t fly drones over crowds of people. Even though the Mavic weighs in at less than 2 pounds, having one crash onto your head from 150 feet would definitely cause some injuries.

Honestly, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened yet. A matter of time?

More on “Scud Running”

Clarifying my position on flying in low visibility conditions.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

In my post about long cross-country flights for AOPA’s Hover Power blog (which I republished here), I brought up the topic of scud running. Apparently, my account of a flight into low visibility conditions, which I referred to as “scud running,” set off a lot of alarms with readers. One reader seemed to think that I “endorsed” scud running. (I don’t.) Another reader found it necessary to share Accuweather definitions and a video that described “scud clouds.” (I don’t recommend Accuweather as a source of weather information per FAR Part 135.213(a).) Someone called for a “definitive statement from you declaring NO to EVER scud running.”

It’s that last comment that got me thinking about what some readers think about the reality of flying. Fortunately, two other readers who are obviously experienced pilots came forward and offered comments that clarified my position on flying in limited visibility situations. I’d like to elaborate on those comments, provide an example situation for consideration, and review the FARs regarding helicopters and weather minimums.

My Definition of “Scud Running”

Let’s start with exactly what I’m talking about when I use the phrase “scud running.” Reader Dan Schiffer nailed it when he responded to one of the commenters. He said, in part:

It’s a term most pilots use to discuss low visibility conditions that we all are faced with occasionally due to changing weather.

To me, scud running is any situation where low ceilings or low visibility require you to alter your route around weather. And yes, low ceilings are a part of low visibility — after all, if you’re in mountainous terrain, don’t low ceilings obscure your visibility of mountainsides and peaks?

The FAA discusses scud running in its Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge:

This occurs when a pilot tries to maintain visual contact with the terrain at low altitudes while instrument conditions exist.

I discuss this in more detail later, when I cover weather minimums for helicopter pilots.

Neither my definition nor the FAA’s have anything to do with a so-called “scud clouds.” I can’t find any mention of these clouds in either the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) or Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. I did find a definition in AC 00-6A, Aviation Weather:

scud – Small detached masses of stratusfractus clouds below a layer of higher clouds, usually nimbostratus.

A Google search brought up a similar, but more detailed Wikipedia definition:

a type of fractus cloud, are low, detached, irregular clouds found beneath nimbostratus or cumulonimbus clouds. These clouds are often ragged or wispy in appearance. When caught in the outflow (downdraft) beneath a thunderstorm, scud clouds will often move faster than the storm clouds themselves. When in an inflow (updraft) area, scud clouds tend to rise and may exhibit lateral movement ranging from very little to substantial.

For the record, I’m definitely not endorsing flying anywhere near a thunderstorm or cumulonimbus cloud. The FAA says to maintain 20 miles separation from thunderstorms and that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

So, in summary, when a pilot uses the phrase “scud running,” it usually means flying in low visibility conditions and has nothing to do with so-called scud clouds.

A Real-Life Example

I can only assume that readers who expect me to definitively state that a pilot should never ever engage in scud running as defined above either:

  • Haven’t had much time flying.
  • Haven’t gone on many long cross-country trips.
  • Fly in a place where visibility is never an issue.

Flying in low visibility is not something I want to do, but sometimes it’s something I have to do.

A Note about flying in remote areas

I’ve done just about all of my flying in the west: Arizona (where I learned to fly), Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington (where I now live). In the 3,300 hours I’ve logged, I’d say that at least half of them were in relatively remote areas. Because of this, it’s difficult for me to remember that most pilots fly in more populated areas, where they’re seldom out of sight of a town or building.

As difficult as this might be for some people to believe, there are still many places in the U.S. where a helicopter pilot can fly for over an hour and not see a single sign of human life. I’ve flown 90 minutes in a straight line somewhere between Elko, NV and Burns, OR without seeing a building or a vehicle on one of the few dirt roads — just herds of wild horses running at the sound of my approach. I’ve flown over the high desert of the Arizona Strip, crossing just one dirt road over an 85-mile stretch of forest and canyons. I’ve flown the length of Lake Powell from the Glen Canyon Dam to Canyonlands National Park in the winter, passing just three seasonally closed marinas along the lake’s blue water and canyon mouths. I fly with a SPOT personal tracking device for a reason; if I go down out there — even by choice in a precautionary landing — no one would find me without some help.

So while “scud running” might seem like an unreasonable risk when you’re in an area with towns and airports every five or ten miles, it could be a matter of life and death when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and need to get somewhere safe. It’s not a black and white situation with a right or wrong answer.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’ve done all your flight planning and believe you can make a 2-hour flight to Point A, which is a rather remote place, without any weather/visibility concerns. You start the flight and things are fine for the first ninety minutes or so. Then the weather starts deteriorating. Maybe the ceiling drops or there are scattered rain showers that lower horizontal visibility in various places along your path. You can see well enough in your general forward direction and easily find paths around those showers that will get you closer to your destination, but things might be worse up ahead. Who knows? Even a call to Flight Service — if you can reach them on the radio in mountainous terrain with low ceilings preventing you from climbing — might not be able to provide adequate weather information if the area is remote enough.

Here’s where experience, judgement, and personal minimums come in. As helicopter pilots, we have three options:

  • Alter your route to completely avoid the weather, possibly ending up at a different destination. This might be the best option if there is an alternative destination and you have enough fuel to get there. But if your intended destination is in a remote place and you’re only 30 minutes out, there might not be an alternative.
  • Land and wait out the weather. Heck, we’re helicopter pilots and can land nearly anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with landing to wait out a storm. Remember, in an emergency situation, you can land if necesary, even in an area where landing is normally prohibited, such as a National Park, National Forest, Wilderness Area. (Again, I’m not recommending that you land in any of these places in non-emergency situations.) Do you have gear on board for an extended or perhaps overnight stay? This is another good reason to bring food on a cross-country flight.
  • Continue toward your intended destination. At the risk of sounding like I’m a proponent of “get-there-itis,” the destination is a known that’s a lot more attractive than the unknowns offered by the first two options.

There are many variables that will determine which option you pick. Here are a few of them:

  • Experience. If you’ve encountered situations like this before, you have a better idea of your comfort level than if you haven’t. You’ve likely also established personal minimums, possibly fine-tuned by real scares. The more experience, the better you’ll be able to deal with the situation and make the right decision.
  • Alternatives. If there is an alternative destination within range that you can safely reach with available fuel plus reserves, why wouldn’t you go for it?
  • Available fuel. There’s a saying in aviation: “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” One of the challenges of planning a long cross-country flight is making sure you have enough fuel on board to deal with unplanned route changes. But when flying to extremely remote areas, you might need almost all the fuel you have on board to get there. That definitely limits your options.
  • Actual weather conditions. If you can see a path ahead of you with potential landing zones and escape routes along the way, you’re far more likely to succeed at moving toward the destination than if the weather is closing in all around you. Never continue flight to the point where you don’t have at least the option to land and wait it out. The trick is to turn back or land before that happens; experience will be your guide. Likewise, if what you’re seeing tells you that the weather is localized and better conditions are just up ahead — perhaps you see sunlight on the ground beyond those heavy showers? — continuing flight might be the best option.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. As the pilot in command, you are the decision maker. You need to evaluate and re-evaluate the situation as it develops. You need to make a decision based on your knowledge and experience. If in doubt, choose the safest option.

Clouds
With mist, rain, and low clouds, would you keep flying?

Weather Minimums

Despite the severe clear weather I usually see around my home in Central Washington State, weather minimums are on my mind lately. Why? Mostly because my Part 135 check ride is coming up and I’m always a bit hazy on them. Spending most of my flying career in Arizona didn’t do me any favors when it comes to knowing when it’s legal to fly — or being able to identify different types of fog by name, for that matter.

So let’s look at weather minimums as they apply to helicopters.

FAR 91.155, Basic VFR weather minimums sets forth weather minimums for each type of airspace. I’m going to concentrate on Class G airspace, mostly because that’s the type of airspace I’ve been talking about.

According to the FARs, a helicopter may legally operate under VFR in Class G airspace during the day with a minimum of 1/2 mile visibility clear of clouds. Conditions less than that are technically IMC, thus invoking the FAA’s definition of “scud running” discussed above.

But what if visibility in your desired flight path is 1/4 mile or less but visibility 30° to the right is a mile or more? That is possible with localized showers or very low scattered clouds. Are you allowed to fly? I think that if you asked five different FAA Inspectors, you’d get a bunch of different answers. But if you crashed while flying in those conditions, the NTSB report would claim you were flying VFR in IMC.

What’s the answer? Beats me.

Scud Happens

What I do know is this: If all your preflight planning indicates that weather and visibility will not be an issue during a flight but unexpected weather conditions come up, you need to react to them. As helicopter pilots, we’re lucky in that we have options to avoid flying into clouds and the terrain they obscure. At the same time, we don’t want to push that luck and get into a situation we can’t get out of safely. Experience, skill, and wisdom should guide us.

Scud running is never a good idea, but sometimes it’s the best idea under unforeseen circumstances. It’s your job as a pilot to (1) avoid getting into a dangerous situation and (2) make the best decision and take the best actions to complete a flight safely.

Doors-Off Flying

Things to keep in mind.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

Summer is on its way and, in most parts of the northern hemisphere, that means warm weather will soon be upon us. Not every pilot is fortunate enough to fly a helicopter with air conditioning. When I lived and flew in Arizona, it was common for me to take all of the doors off my R44 in May and leave them off until September. It was that hot every single day. (And no, I don’t miss it one bit.)

Of course, pilots don’t need warm weather as a reason to take the doors off. Sometimes the mission you’re flying requires it. Aerial photography is a great example — there aren’t too many photographers who would be willing to pay hundreds of dollars an hour to fly with you and be forced to shoot photos through highly reflective, possibly scratched Plexiglas.

Door Off
For this memorable video flight, the videographer sat behind me with his door off.

When you remove the doors from a helicopter, you add an element of risk to the flight. Fortunately, the risk can be controlled if you fully understand it and do what’s necessary to reduce or eliminate it. That’s what I want to touch upon in this post.

Loose objects

The most obvious risk is from loose objects blowing around the cockpit or, worse yet, exiting the aircraft. This is a real danger, especially if an object hits the tail rotor or someone/something on the ground.

Want some examples of how dangerous this can be?

  • NTSB WPR14CA363
    “While in cruise flight an unsecured jacket departed the helicopter through an open window. The tail rotor drive shaft sheared as a result of the jacket’s contact with the tail rotors. The pilot subsequently initiated a forced landing to an orchard where during landing, the main rotors struck and separated the tailboom.”
  • NTSB WPR13CA071
    “Prior to the flight, the doors were removed in order to make it easier for the passengers to board and exit the helicopter…. After the two passengers were transported to a work site location, the right rear passenger exited the helicopter and placed the headset on the hook located behind the front seats. After departing the site, about 3 to 5 minutes later while en route at an elevation of about 1,000 feet above ground level, the pilot felt something strike the helicopter. After landing and upon inspecting the helicopter, the pilot discovered that the right rear headset was missing and that the leading edge of the tail rotor had been damaged.”
  • NTSB LAX03TA150
    “While in cruise flight, the back door on the helicopter opened, and a flight jacket that had been unsecured in the back seat departed the helicopter and became entangled in the tail rotor assembly. The tail rotor assembly subsequently separated from the tail boom, and the pilot was unable to maintain control of the helicopter.”
  • NTSB FTW86LA047
    “The pilot failed to assure the cabin door was properly closed before flight, or the cabin door just popped open during flight, allowing an unsecured life vest to blow out the door and into the tail rotor blades. This resulted in the entire tail rotor assembly departing the helicopter.”

(As some of these examples show, you don’t need to have the doors removed to have an unsecured item depart the helicopter and get into the tail rotor.)

Robinson Helicopter warns about this in Safety Notice SN-30, “Loose Objects Can be Fatal.” It recommends that pilots firmly latch all doors and even goes so far to recommend that pilot never fly with a left door removed. (Remember, the tail rotor is on the left side in a Robinson and many other helicopter models.)

I know that my engine starting check list includes an item to assure that loose items are secure. Yours should, too. While this is always important, it’s vital for doors-off flight.

Be sure you warn passengers of the danger of an item exiting the aircraft. Even something as small as a lens cap or lens hood can do significant damage to the tail rotor in flight.

Never Exceed Speed

You might not realize this, but your helicopter’s never exceed speed might be reduced with the doors off. On a Robinson R44, for example, Vne is reduced to 100 knots with the doors off, even if other conditions such as altitude and temperature would allow a faster speed.

My understanding from the Robinson Factory Safety Course is that this reduction of Vne is for structural reasons. (If someone knows better, please correct me in the comments.) There’s more buffeting wind inside the cabin with one or more doors off than with all doors on.

Check the Pilot Operating Handbook for the aircraft you fly the next time you remove doors to make sure you don’t operate beyond doors-off Vne.

Securing Passengers

This might seem like a no-brainer, but if you’re going to remove doors, your passengers had better be secured in their seats with either seat belts or harnesses.

Because some of my aerial photography or video clients like a greater range of movement in their seats than seat belts allow, I have a mountain climbing harness with a suitable strap for securing it to the aircraft frame. I make this available to clients as an option if they don’t have their own. Under no circumstances do I allow my passengers to fly without being secured, especially when their doors are off.

Keep in mind that while a photographer might use a harness to secure himself in the aircraft, you must make sure he knows how to release the harness from the aircraft in the event of an emergency — just as your preflight briefing must tell passengers how to release their seat belts.

Dangling Seat Belts

Of course, it was my generous offering of a harness to a photographer that resulted in more than $2,000 of damage to my aircraft when he used the harness but failed to secure the seat belt at his seat. The seat belt buckle dangled outside the aircraft for the duration of our 90-minute video flight chasing racing trucks over desert terrain. On landing, the passenger side fuel tank and area just outside the door frame had at least 50 dings and paint chips in it. How he didn’t hear it repeatedly striking the aircraft near his head is something I’ll never figure out.

Of course, it was my fault for not catching this prior to starting up and taking off. Expensive lesson learned.

Conclusion

While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking the doors off a helicopter prior to flight, it does give the pilot more responsibilities to assure that everything is secure and all passengers are properly briefed.

Or isn’t that something we’re already supposed to be doing?

Maximum Performance Takeoffs and Judgement Calls

Just because you can perform a maneuver, doesn’t mean you should.

Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.

In the summer of 2014, I was part of a helicopter rides gig at an airport event. There were three of us in Robinson R44 helicopters, working out of the same rather small landing zone, surrounded on three sides by parked planes and spectators. We timed our rides so that only one of us was on the ground at a time, sharing a 3-person ground crew consisting of a money person and two loaders. Yes, we did hot loading. (Techniques for doing that safely is fodder for an entirely different blog post.) The landing zone was secure so we didn’t need to worry about people wandering into our flight path or behind an idling helicopter.

The landing zone opened out into the airport taxiway, so there was a perfect departure path for textbook takeoffs: 5-10 feet off the ground to 45 knots, pitch to 60, and climb out. It was an almost ideal setup for rides and we did quite a few.

One of the pilots, however, was consulting a different page of the textbook: the one for maximum performance takeoffs. Rather than turning back to the taxiway and departing over it, he pulled pitch right over the landing zone, climbed straight up, and then took off toward the taxiway, over parked planes and some spectators. Each time he did it, he climbed straight up a little higher before moving out.

I was on my way in each time he departed and I witnessed him do this at least four times before I told him to stop. (I was the point of contact for the gig so I was in charge.) His immediate response on the radio was a simple “Okay.” But then he came back and asked why he couldn’t do a maximum performance takeoff.

It boggled my mind that he didn’t understand why what he was doing was not a good idea. The radio was busy and I kept it brief: “Because there’s no reason to.”

The Purpose

The Advanced Flight Maneuvers chapter of the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8083-21A; download for free from the FAA) describes a maximum performance takeoff as follows:

A maximum performance takeoff is used to climb at a steep angle to clear barriers in the flightpath. It can be used when taking off from small areas surrounded by high obstacles. Allow for a vertical takeoff, although not preferred, if obstruction clearance could be in doubt. Before attempting a maximum performance takeoff, know thoroughly the capabilities and limitations of the equipment. Also consider the wind velocity, temperature, density altitude, gross weight, center of gravity (CG) location, and other factors affecting pilot technique and the performance of the helicopter.

This type of takeoff has a specific purpose: to clear barriers in the flight path. A pilot might use it when departing from a confined landing zone or if tailwind and load conditions make a departure away from obstacles unsafe.

The Risks

This is an “advanced” maneuver not only because it requires more skill than a normal takeoff but because it has additional risks. The Helicopter Flying Handbook goes on to say:

In light or no wind conditions, it might be necessary to operate in the crosshatched or shaded areas of the height/velocity diagram during the beginning of this maneuver. Therefore, be aware of the calculated risk when operating in these areas. An engine failure at a low altitude and airspeed could place the helicopter in a dangerous position, requiring a high degree of skill in making a safe autorotative landing.

Deadman's Curve
Height Velocity diagram for a Robinson R44 Raven II. Flying straight up puts you right in the “Deadman’s Curve.”

And this is what my problem was. The pilot had purposely and unnecessarily decided to operate in the shaded area of the height velocity diagram with passengers on board over an airport ramp area filled with other aircraft and spectators.

Seeing what he was doing automatically put my brain into “what if” mode. If the engine failed when the helicopter was 50-75 feet off the ground with virtually no forward airspeed, that helicopter would come straight down, likely killing everyone on board. As moving parts came loose, they’d go flying through the air, striking aircraft and people. There were easily over 1,000 people, including many children, at the event. My imagination painted a very ugly picture of the aftermath.

What were the chances of such a thing happening? Admittedly very low. Engine failures in Robinson helicopters are rare.

But the risks inherent in this type of takeoff outweigh the risks associated with a normal takeoff that keeps the helicopter outside the shaded area of the height velocity diagram. Why take the risk?

Just Because You Can Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Should

This all comes back to one of the most important things we need to consider when flying: judgment.

I know why the pilot was doing the maximum performance takeoffs: he was putting on a show for the spectators. Everyone thinks helicopters are cool and everyone wants to see helicopters do something that airplanes can’t. Flying straight up is a good example. This pilot had decided to give the spectators a show.

While there’s nothing wrong with an experienced pilot showing off the capabilities of a helicopter, should that be done with passengers on board? In a crowded area? While performing a maneuver that puts the helicopter in a flight regime we’re taught to avoid?

A responsible pilot would say no.

A September 1999 article in AOPA’s Flight Training magazine by Robert N. Rossier discusses “Hazardous Attitudes.” In it, he describes the macho attitude. He says:

At the extreme end of the spectrum, people with a hazardous macho attitude will feel a need to continually prove that they are better pilots than others and will take foolish chances to demonstrate their superior ability.

Could this pilot’s desire to show off in front of spectators be a symptom of a macho attitude? Could it have affected his judgment? I think it is and it did.

Helicopters can perform a wide range of maneuvers that are simply impossible for other aircraft. As helicopter pilots, we’re often tempted to show off to others. But a responsible pilot knows how to ignore temptation and use good judgment when he flies. That’s the best way to stay safe.

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.

Gun Training

Responsible gun owners get professional gun training.

Certificate
My certificate of completion.

Earlier this month, I was a participant in an NRA Basic Pistol Course. The course was privately conducted at a friend’s home in the Wenatchee area, with the shooting portion done at a private makeshift shooting range on another person’s property. It lasted two days and although I had to leave early on the first day to attend a mead-making course I’d signed up for in Leavenworth, I caught up on the second day and met the course requirements well enough to earn a certificate of completion.

I’m not a supporter of the NRA. Well, let me rephrase that. I’m not a supporter of the NRA’s political lobbying arm. I didn’t realize this until the course, but the NRA has two distinct organizations. The one I don’t mind supporting is the one that promotes firearm safety, training, and awareness. The one I won’t support at all is the lunatic lobbying organization that seems to have given people the idea that it’s okay to carry assault rifles into Target department stores. More on that in another blog post.

My Gun History

I took the NRA course because although I’ve owned my Beretta Model 21A 22 caliber semiautomatic handgun for more than 10 years, I’ve never really felt comfortable using it or handling guns.

Cleaning My Gun
The other day, I cleaned my gun for the first time in years. I can’t believe how dirty it was.

I got the gun back in the early 2000s, not long after moving into my Wickenburg house with the man I’d later marry. The house was on 2-1/2 acres on the edge of town. Although I would not consider it a “remote” location, it was certainly not what someone would call suburbia. The house was new and it creaked a lot at night. My future wasband would spend a week or more each month back in New Jersey for work and I was left alone. The creaks unnerved me — I remember sitting up in bed one night all night because I was convinced there was someone walking around downstairs. (There wasn’t.) I wanted a means to protect myself when my future wasband was away, so he bought a gun. I’m thinking it was a 357 Magnum. I know it was a big revolver. A scary gun. A few years later, I got my little Beretta and he traded in the revolver for a Glock.

Although I grew up with handguns in the house — my father was a police officer — I was not familiar with them. I wanted professional training. So we signed up for the only gun training course we could find in our area of Arizona: a concealed weapons permit course. It was an extensive course with classroom training and range practice. The course was led by a local gunsmith and his wife. They wore camo to each session. I was the only female attendee among about 6 or 7 men. When it was over, I had a card that made it legal for me to carry a concealed weapon in the state of Arizona. These days, I don’t even think you need a permit to carry concealed in Arizona. That state is whacked out and I’m glad to have it in my rear view mirror.

It’s important to note that I didn’t take the course for the permit. I took it because I wanted professional training.

Over the following years, we occasionally practiced shooting at a local range or out in the desert. It was a big deal when guests from New York came to stay with us and we took them shooting. But I never really got much practice.

Fast forward to 2013. I moved to Washington state, leaving my wasband behind forever. I bought 10 acres of property on an unpaved road overlooking the Wenatchee Valley. The word “remote” would certainly apply more to this home than my last one, although I do have neighbors within 1/4 mile. My gun, which had been traveling back and forth to Washington every year in my RV anyway, was something I kept handy. (I hate to admit it, but my wasband and the crazy old whore running his side of the divorce were acting so irrationally — going so far as to send a private investigator to try to snoop on me — that I worried about my personal safety.)

In 2014, I bought a new gun that would be handy for long-distance protection from animals, rattlesnakes, and other threats: a Remington Model 870 Tactical 12 gauge shotgun.

Of course, since it had been so long since I’d had formal training — or had even shot my gun — I wanted more training. A gun is useless as a means of protection if you are afraid to handle it or use it. A friend of mine — I’ll call her Lacy — was also interested in getting some training. She set us up at the range to work with a local gun enthusiast who offered training for a fee.

The instructor — I’ll call him Gary — was very knowledgeable. I shot my Beretta for the first time in years and didn’t do too badly. I also got a chance to shoot my shotgun. That was quite an experience. The kick bruised my shoulder, so I learned to shoot somewhat accurately from the hip. Lacy got to shoot it, too. But this instructor’s politics were questionable. He kept them to himself for most of the time, but later started hinting that we needed to be armed in case the government came to take our guns away and we needed to fight back. Real survivalist stuff. I suggested that he might like living in Idaho.

The NRA Course

When Lacy arranged for the official NRA course to be held at her home, I signed right up. The idea was to have an instructor lead a class for a handful of women. Four of us were supposed to attend, but cold weather chased off two of them. In the end, it was me, Lacy, and the instructor’s mom, who had been shooting her whole life.

The course cost $50 and I’m pretty sure that all of it went to the instructor (who we paid), with a portion of it going to the NRA training materials and literature that we each got. Of this material, the 100+ page NRA Guide to the Basics of Pistol Shooting was very informative — a real keeper. The safety rules pamphlet was a good guide to handling firearms, but the same information was also covered in the book. Other material promoted additional NRA courses and solicited for women to become firearms instructors. The Concealed Carry Holster Guide was a 30+ page booklet with illustrations and descriptions of various holsters and clothing to carry a concealed weapon. I didn’t think there was that much to say about the topic, but apparently there is. There was even a patch that I could sew onto — well, whatever. I wonder how it would look on my old Girl Scout sash?

NRA Literature
My $50 bought me 2 days of training and all this printed material. I admit that I threw it all away except the spiral bound book.

Gun Safety Rules

Because Steve quizzed us repeatedly on the three rules of gun safety, I came up with a mnemonic for them:

PPoint the gun in a safe direction.
T – Keep your finger off the Trigger.
LLoad the gun only when you’re ready to fire.

PTL = Praise The Lord. The PTL Club was a religious TV show hosted by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that I never watched. (I’m not religious.) I don’t know why this association came to me, but it did and it stuck and it works.

Praise the lord and pass the ammo.

This instructor — I’ll call him Steve — was a lot more “normal” than Gary had been. He’s the one who pointed out that the NRA was really two separate but related organizations. (I think it was a way to distance himself from the wackos.) He also made a clear distinction between open carry, concealed carry, and “discrete carry” that really made sense to me. (More on that in another blog post.) He was extremely safety conscious and quizzed us over and over on the three rules of gun safety. Although his presentation consisted primarily of NRA-prepared slides shown with transparencies on an overhead projector (!) he also had a wide variety of guns and other equipment to show us. I felt that his presentation was nicely done and complete.

My only complaint is his tendency to occasionally go off on a tangent — for example, spending too much time (on several occasions) talking about the types of ammo that were available. Did three 50+ women in a beginning shooter class really need to see a handwritten list of the 30-40 types of 38 caliber ammo presented on a whiteboard? All we really needed to know was how to find out what would work in our guns and some tips for choosing one type over another. This is just an example. Other than those few tangents, I think his presentation was right on target. (No pun intended.)

The range work was good, but not ideal — mostly because it was very cold with just enough wind to drop the temperature another 10 degrees. Lacy had provided hand and toe warmers and I had them open in my jacket pockets and shoes. Body parts that were covered were not an issue, but naked hands were. It was difficult to load the guns and I took every opportunity possible to shove empty hands into pockets and grasp those hand warmers.

Backyard Shooting Ranges

For those of you reading this in a metro area — especially back east — or in countries where gun ownership and use is severely restricted, the idea of a private shooting range at your home might sound odd to you. The truth is, there’s no reason why I couldn’t set up a range on my 10 acres of land and practice shooting at any reasonable hour of the day. Or shoot coyotes or other animals that threaten me, my dog, or my chickens. Hell, my Seattle transplant neighbors do it all the time, trying to live that “wild west” dream to the max.

Steve provided the guns. We shot with revolvers and semi automatic handguns. We shot single action and double action. The targets were paper dinner plates tacked onto a stand about 50-60 feet away. Beyond them was a berm. The “range” was at Lacy’s friend’s home. (Oddly, when I met the friends, I discovered that they knew another friend of mine from a trip to Wickenburg last winter. Small world, eh?) Steve was interested in us hitting the target as close to the staple in the middle as possible. (Real high tech, huh?) We all did fine, despite the cold.

Afterwards, we each got a chance to shoot our own gun with Steve. I let Lacy go first while I warmed up in my car. While waiting, I took my Beretta apart — following the instructions in the manual I had with me — and sliced my index finger open trying to get it put back together. (Yes! Guns are dangerous! It took over an hour to stop the bleeding!) I managed to reassemble it just as Lacy was finishing up.

I pointed out to Steve that one of the problems I had with my gun was jamming. I’d brought my ammo, which were CCL and Federal — both very good brands that he had recommended. He asked permission to fire my gun and I let him empty the magazine at the berm. Then we reloaded with Federal ammunition and I shot. The first empty shell was not ejected. Steve was surprised but after thinking about it for a moment he said he thinks it’s because the shell was bare lead and not jacketed. We emptied the Federal shells from the magazine and reloaded with the CCLs. It worked fine. At least I know what not to load.

It was too cold to do any more, so I left. Lacy and I will likely do some practicing up at the range when the weather warms up a bit. I might set up a range at my place to practice, too.

On Firearms Training

Would I recommend this course to anyone who owns a gun? Definitely.

But I’ll go a step further to say this: I believe that every gun owner should be required to take a professionally run gun safety or gun use course. In other words, I don’t think you should be able to buy a gun or own a gun unless you have a certificate or something on record proving that you’ve had gun training.

And frankly, I don’t see how that affects a gun owner’s “rights.”

Yes, this course cost me $50. But do you know what a gun costs? My silly little Beretta retails for $410. My Remington 12-gauge shotgun retails for $600. What’s $50 compared to that? An avid gun user would spend more than $50 on ammunition in a month.

And who’s to say it has to cost that much? Who’s to say that a larger class size can’t cut costs? Or that gun clubs can’t be certified to provide this training to members for free?

You want me to go even further? How’s this? I believe that any gun owner with children in the house should be required to attend a gun safety course with their kids. It doesn’t have to be long and it should be upbeat and fun while stressing the danger of guns — apparently, the NRA offers such a course. Kids need to know that guns are dangerous and shouldn’t be touched without supervision or training.

What? Kids touch guns? You think that’s okay, Maria?

Age and Maturity Level Matters

This is what happens when you give a 5-year-old a 22 caliber rifle.

The NRA and gun manufacturers apparently don’t think there’s anything wrong with marketing guns to kids aged 5 to 12. This is wrong.

While it is possible for a 10-year-old (for example) to be smart, mature, and responsible enough to safely handle a gun with supervision, I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. Think of the last kindergartener you saw — maybe you have one at home. How do you think that kid would be handling real gun?

Why does the NRA think this is okay? This is one of the reasons I can’t be a member of this organization.

Yes, I don’t see any reason why a mature and responsible young person — especially one living in a rural or remote area — can’t be professionally trained (like his/her parent) to safely use an appropriately sized/powered gun for supervised target practice or hunting. Of course, age and maturity level must be considered, and that’s likely where this would all fall apart because of the gun wackos out there. More on that in another post.

I do want to mention here that I received some very basic training and experience with a bolt action rifle back when I was in Girl Scouts. In suburban New Jersey. How old was I? Maybe 12? (Ah, if only Girl Scouts was as good now as it was back then. But I digress.)

I’ll summarize with this: the Basic Pistol Course I attended earlier this month — and the Concealed Weapons Permit course I took in Arizona years ago — provided me with a wealth of information about safely handling and storing guns, as well as how guns work. There is no reason why gun owners shouldn’t be required to learn — and be tested on — this material prior to owning or handling a gun.

Comments?

This is a hot button topic and I’ve stated some very strong opinions. I’m sure everyone who reads this has something to add. That’s what post comments are for.

But be warned: While I don’t mind readers sharing conflicting opinions, I don’t allow abusive comments, especially those posted by people who hide behind aliases. Comments here are moderated and I have zero tolerance for trolling. I have a Comment Policy and if you’ve never commented here, you should read it before trying to comment. It would be a shame if you spent 30 minutes getting all hot and bothered while composing a nasty comment aimed at me or another commenter and your comment never appeared. What a waste of time, huh?

And if you want to rant about how the government is evil and will be coming for our guns and how we need to rise up against “Emperor Obama”, go ahead. I can always use a good laugh.

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.