Required Reading for Helicopter Tour Pilots

Two accident reports that clearly demonstrate how “hot dogging” can get you — and your passengers — dead.

November 25, 2013 Update:

The NTSB’s probable cause report for this accident is now available. The pilot was not at fault in this particular accident — it was a maintenance issue. As a pilot, I’m glad that the pilot’s name was cleared of fault but, at the same time, I’m concerned that maintenance shortcomings caused five deaths. The pilot was flying a ticking time bomb and it went off. There was nothing he could do to prevent the crash. And that scares me.

While the points presented in this blog post clearly do not apply to the Boulder City crash mentioned here, they are still important reading material for all pilots. Learn from other people’s mistakes.

On Wednesday, a Sundance Helicopters AS350 with a pilot and four passengers on board, crashed in the mountains near Boulder City, NV. It was on a “twilight tour” of the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.

At this point, there’s no speculation about how the accident occurred. But, as usual, the media is dragging all the dirt they can out into the limelight to sensationalize the event and give people potential places to point blaming fingers.

One of the things the media has brought up is another Sundance Helicopters crash that occurred back in September 2003. I was unfamiliar with this crash — it must have occurred before my regular reading of NTSB accident reports began. Unsure whether I was confusing it with another crash, I looked it up today. But no, this was yet another instance of stupid pilot tricks becoming deadly pilot tricks.

I thought it was worth reviewing this case and another I’ve covered in the past and urge pilots to read both of the final reports carefully to see how reckless flying can kill. What’s interesting to me is how similar these two cases are — heck, they even took place within 30 miles of each other.

LAX01MA272: AS350, August 10, 2001, Meadview, AZ

I covered this accident briefly in Part 5 of my “So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot” series. Here’s the NTSB summary:

On August 10, 2001, about 1428 mountain standard time, a Eurocopter AS350-B2 helicopter, N169PA, operating as Papillon 34, collided with terrain during an uncontrolled descent about 4 miles east of Meadview, Arizona. The helicopter was operated by Papillon Airways, Inc., as an air tour flight under Code of Federal Regulations 14 (CFR) Part 135. The helicopter was destroyed by impact forces and a postcrash fire. The pilot and five passengers were killed, and the remaining passenger sustained serious injuries. The flight originated from the company terminal at the McCarran International Airport (LAS), Las Vegas, Nevada, about 1245 as a tour of the west Grand Canyon area with a planned stop at a landing site in Quartermaster Canyon. The helicopter departed the landing site about 1400 and stopped at a company fueling facility at the Grand Canyon West Airport (GCW). The helicopter departed the fueling facility at 1420 and was en route to LAS when the accident occurred. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and a visual flight rules flight plan was filed.

The pilot had a reasonable amount of experience with nearly 3,000 hours of flight time, all of which was in helicopters. He had CFI and instrument ratings.

The pilot, however, also had a reputation for hot-dogging. From the NTSB report‘s interview with previous passengers:

According to the passengers, once the tour started, the pilot was talking all the time. He was very informative, and they felt he knew his history and geography very well. They went over the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. About 20 minutes into the flight, the pilot turned his head toward the back and was talking to the passengers as the helicopter flew toward a cliff. The people in the back were trying to get the pilot’s attention and point out that he was flying toward a cliff, but he pretended he did not understand what they were saying, as if this was all being done on purpose. All this time, the pilot was turned around and talking to the passengers in the back seat, while the passengers were all pointing up trying to get him to climb. One witness said she finally picked up the microphone and said, “they are really scared…turn around and pull up the helicopter,” and he did. She could not estimate how far they were from the cliff when the pilot terminated the maneuver.

One of the passengers stated that there were particularly exciting episodes during the tour that were frightening to some of the others. As part of the tour, they flew over a site that was used in the commercial motion picture film Thelma and Louise, and the pilot pointed out the cliff. The pilot stopped for fuel before he landed in the canyon for the picnic lunch. After lunch, no more stops were made. During the return to LAS, the pilot asked if they wanted to know what it was like to drive a car off of a cliff. She stated that they all said “no” to this question; however, he proceeded to fly very fast toward the edge of the cliff and then dove the helicopter as it passed the edge. The passenger reported that it was “frightening and thrilling at the same time but it scared the others to death.”

Both of these incidents — heading directly for a cliff and then diving like Thema and Louise over a cliff — were confirmed in a video tape provided by the passenger.

Crash Site
I don’t think the pilot expected to end up like Thema and Louise, too.

Evidence at the crash site indicated that not only was the helicopter’s engine producing power at the time of impact, but the collective was full up. The debris field was compact, indicating very little forward movement when the helicopter hit the ground. There was no evidence of any mechanical failure immediately before the crash. The NTSB ruled out many accident scenarios based on mechanical malfunctions before concluding:

In the absence of any evidence to indicate a preimpact mechanical malfunction, and given the density altitude, helicopter performance considerations, and virtually all of the signatures evident at the IPI and in the wreckage, the investigation revealed that a probable scenario involves the pilot’s decision to maneuver the helicopter in a flight regime, and in a high density altitude environment, which significantly decreased the helicopter’s performance capability, resulting in a high rate of descent from which the pilot was unable to recover prior to ground impact. Additionally, although no evidence was found to indicate that the pilot had intended on performing a hazardous maneuver, the high rate of descent occurred in proximity to precipitous terrain, which effectively limited remedial options available.

In other words, he most likely performed his Thelma and Louise maneuver, dove off the cliff, and because of high density altitude, was unable to arrest the decent rate before hitting the ground.

LAX03MA292: AS350, September 20, 2003, Grand Canyon West, AZ

This case is a lot worse. I’ll let the NTSB describe what happened briefly:

On September 20, 2003, about 1238 mountain standard time, an Aerospatiale AS350BA helicopter, N270SH, operated by Sundance Helicopters, Inc., crashed into a canyon wall while maneuvering through Descent Canyon, about 1.5 nautical miles east of Grand Canyon West Airport (1G4) in Arizona. The pilot and all six passengers on board were killed, and the helicopter was destroyed by impact forces and postcrash fire. The air tour sightseeing flight was operated under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the flight, which was operated under visual flight rules on a company flight plan. The helicopter was transporting passengers from a helipad at 1G4 (helipad elevation 4,775 feet mean sea level [msl]) near the upper rim of the Grand Canyon to a helipad designated “the Beach” (elevation 1,300 msl) located next to the Colorado River at the floor of the Grand Canyon.

You need to read the NTSB’s full report to fully understand what happened here. You can download it as a PDF (recommended) or read it online.

The pilot was experienced. He was 44 years old with an ATP certificate for multiengine airplanes and for helicopters. He had CFI and instrument ratings for a variety of aircraft. He’d logged nearly 8,000 hours of flight time, nearly 7,000 of which was in helicopters. He had a clean record with the FAA.

But the pilot had also earned the nickname “Kamikaze” because of the way he flew. (And you can bet your ass that the media is having a field day with that in its coverage of Wednesday’s accident.)

99° Bank Angle
55° Pitch Angle
Two images from the NTSB report, calculating angles based on photographs and videos shot during other flights.

With a great deal of supporting evidence from the pilot’s previous passengers that same day and earlier, as well as photographs taken during flights with the pilot, the NTSB concluded that the pilot had a history of risk-taking behavior. Photographic evidence showed him flying at bank angles exceeding 90° with nose-down attitudes exceeding 50°. It’s estimated that he typically reached speeds up to 140 knots and rates of descent of 2,000 feet per minute.

With passengers on board.

For comparison’s sake, Sundance policy limited bank angles to 30° and pitch angles to 10° — both of which are very reasonable. Other pilots typically flew that portion of the flight at 110 to 120 knots, descending at 1,000 feet per minute.

Yet the report cites one passenger story after another of the pilot diving into the canyon and flying close to canyon walls. One former Sundance employee who had flown with him stated he “flew very close to the canyon wall” and “banked off one wall and then turned the other way, almost upside down.” One passenger claimed that his friend’s wife was screaming throughout the entire descent.

Sundance received at least two formal complaints about the pilot. There’s no evidence that anything was done about the first. The pilot was suspended for a week without pay after the second, but since Sundance was short of pilots, the penalty was never enforced and the pilot continued working with pay.

It should come as no real surprise that the pilot ran out of luck. According to the NTSB, on that September day:

The helicopter’s main rotor blade struck a near-vertical canyon wall in flight. The resulting damage to the main rotor system likely rendered the helicopter uncontrollable, and the helicopter subsequently impacted a canyon wall ledge.

There was a fireball when the helicopter exploded on impact. There wasn’t much wreckage. You can see for yourself; there are photos in the report. I wouldn’t even know it was a helicopter if it weren’t for the arrows pointing out parts.

Probable cause placed the blame on the pilot, as well as Sundance and the FAA:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s disregard of safe flying procedures and misjudgment of the helicopter’s proximity to terrain, which resulted in an in-flight collision with a canyon wall. Contributing to the accident was the failure of Sundance Helicopters and the Federal Aviation Administration to provide adequate surveillance of Sundance’s air tour operations in Descent Canyon.

Disregard of safe flying procedures. That’s a bit of an understatement, no?

What We Can Take from This

If you don’t get the message I’m trying to convey here, you probably shouldn’t be flying anything — let alone passengers for hire in a helicopter.

It’s a fact: many of us fly a little nutty once in a while. Maybe low and fast over flat desert terrain. Or maybe threading our way though empty canyons at high speed. Or performing some other maneuver that takes all your attention and can easily turn into a disaster.

But when does “a little nutty” turn into pushing the aircraft beyond company or manufacturer limitations?

And who in their right mind would fly so dangerously with passengers on board?

You?

I hope not.

The point is that flying like a stunt pilot can get you killed. And if there are passengers on board, you’ll kill them, too.

Is that something you want to be remembered for? Do you want to be the subject of another pilot’s blog post about flying like an asshole with passengers on board? Do you want a derogatory nickname like “Kamikaze” brought up by the press eight years after your death when another pilot who works for your company is killed in a crash with his passengers?

How do you think the “Kamikaze” pilot’s family feels about his accident being brought up again? And again?

Think about why these pilots flew the way they did. Were they showing off? Or trying to get a rise out of their passengers?

In both instances, passengers made it clear — verbally, during the flight — that they didn’t want the pilot to fly the way he was. Think about the people pointing to a cliff face or the woman screaming throughout the descent. Why did these pilots treat their passengers with such disrespect? Scare them for no reason? Put their lives in danger? Was this fun for them? When is fun an excuse to risk other people’s lives?

Do you do this? If so, why? When will you stop? When your crash makes a big fireball like the ones in these stories?

Do you understand what I’m trying to say?

Read these accident reports. Two pilots are responsible for the deaths of eleven people with a twelfth person permanently disfigured.

Isn’t that enough to convince you not to fly like an asshole?

I only hope that Wednesday’s accident report isn’t another example for this blog post.

And my thoughts go out to the families of the victims of this stupidity.

13 thoughts on “Required Reading for Helicopter Tour Pilots

  1. Very well said and blunt as always Maria. When will people learn they are not invincible at the cost of others lives. As a helicopter pilot, I hate having to explain the stupidity of others when they ask me what happened.

    • Yes, I guess I did get a little in-your-face blunt near the end. But it really bugs me. 2 pilots killed 11 people who trusted them to keep them safe. And you know that there are more pilots out there, risking people’s lives. If even one of them takes my words to heart and stops flying like an asshole, this blog post may have saved a few more lives.

      Have you seen this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ50uIFmlIU I keep expecting to read about this pilot’s crash in the news. I guess it’s fortunate that he’s only got 3 passenger seats.

      • Yes I had seen that video a while ago. I was thinking the same thing esp. when he did a cyclic pushover and got the low rotor horn/light. Worst part is that the passengers had no idea how close they came to possibly crashing.

        • Yes, that is the worst part. When passengers seem to enjoy flights like that — and tip based on how “exciting” a flight was — they send a message to the pilot that flying like that is good. A stupid pilot, like the one in the video, will keep doing it, pushing harder and harder against the envelope until he ends up like one of the pilots in my blog post. But a smart pilot will remember what he learned about aerodynamics and aircraft limitations and fly safely. All the tips in the world aren’t going to help much if you’re dead.

  2. Maria,

    I think these tour operators need to invest in some form of survelliance equipment to monitor their pilots’ actions. Not only should they be terminated for performing unsafe actions when passengers are on board, but they should be reported the FAA and face possible sanctions as well. Tragedies like the moron in that YouTube clip are bound to occur, and more people will die based off of stupid and unnecessary stunts that get people killed.

    Excellent and informing post….

    • Tour operators do place “spies” (for lack of a better term) on board flights to monitor how pilots fly. These are normally people the pilot does not know or connect with the operator. The two operators in these accident reports do this; I know because I used to work for one of them. I think that — and being “in touch” with what the pilots are doing and saying around base — is enough to have a good handle on what’s going on and who the problem pilots are.

      The trouble is, these operators are simply not taking the next step: discipline. If an operator discovers it has a potentially dangerous pilot, it needs to act — and I don’t mean slapping wrists. There is no excuse for flying the way that Sundance pilot flew — bank angles more than 90°? I was in a helicopter at that bank angle once and I nearly got sick. If the company knew the pilot was flying beyond established limits (30°, which is pretty standard) — and it certainly seemed that they did — they should have suspended the pilot or fired him. Period. Being “short of pilots” is no excuse to put passengers at risk. There are dozens of pilots out there willing to take that job. And failing to enforce a punishment sends the message that the punishment wasn’t very serious.

      But part of it is the mindset of some of these pilots. They don’t have the right attitude. They think they’re hotshot helicopter pilots, pilot in command of a $1 million + aircraft. They’re not hotshots at all. They’re glorified tour bus operators who just happen to be driving around in helicopters. Again — I know this because I was there. I saw how some of the pilots flew — especially near the end of the season when they were all ready to move on to the next thing. Management tolerated a lot of bullshit. None of my fellow pilots that season seemed as outrageously dangerous as either one of the accident pilots covered here, but more than one of them probably should have been given some time off without pay to reflect on how important safety is.

      That’s why I think all tour pilots should read these accident reports. Maybe seeing the results of someone else’s stupidity might wake them up. They could be next.

  3. I have learned to highly respect the ones that operate any type of moving transportation over the years now.
    And that same respect goes out to Captains of Aircraft and Ships down to the low ranking Boatswainmates that pilot those small navy launches up to the Captains Gigs and Landings Crafts. I remember one day back in about 1968 when my ship was over at Hunters Point / San Francisco Shipyard and I was living over in Oakland so they ran a small launch between Hunters Point and the Piers at Alameda Naval Base. I trip of about 6 7 miles across the bay.
    Usually it took us about 25 mins to make that run.
    However one day it turned almost as black as night
    and a storm came in with high winds and rain and well things in a hurry turned very dangerous especially when I looked back at the Boatswainmate operating this craft and saw the look of high stress on his face
    while we were lifting up our feet to stay dry with about a foot of water already in the bottom of the boat. And it was rising fast and by this time it was just over an hour and could still not see any lites or navigation
    landmarks. It was then that I took off my white sailor hat and began bailing water and did not have to tell anyone else what to do as right away all of us were
    now bailing water as quickly as we could. Anyway yes after more than 1 1/2 hours going cross we did make it and when those lights from the pier came into view we were all thanking that Boatswainmate for his
    seamanship right dab in the middle of Oakland Bay.

    PS anyone interested in Rail Fanning these days check out BNSF web site for their new link for Rail Fans and Friends of BNSF Railway and be sure and keep Maria in mind should anyone be able to do a bit of that by Helicopter as it would sure make for a nice venture to get some photos like that. I sure have enjoyed reading all her stories and info though I am not a Pilot I will atleast perhaps be a well informed passenger in the future. Also Maria perhaps a trip to their office in Winslow would be of interest should they ever need your services. And also perhaps they could provide you with maps of the rail lines in Arizona. I used to fly with an old timer railroader in Winslow and that is how he navigated on many of his flights. I used to enjoy eating at the Falcon Restaurant and Kenney Jue’s Entre Chinese Restaurant.
    Thanks for sharing your web site with everyone. I sure enjoy it and all the nice photos too.
    Larry S
    Retired Railroader

    • The unfortunate thing is that a few bad apples and the deaths they cause give the rest of us a bad name. People do put their trust into their pilots. It’s a shame that some pilots don’t deserve it.

  4. We have all heard the old axiom- “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there’s very few old, bold pilots!” Boy, is this true. The biggest crime is that these idiots not only end up killing themselves, but they take other innocents with them. Maria, I have always admired your professionalism, your striving for perfection on each and every flight. Yet I also think I know that with each flight, you try to make light of and enjoy one thing during that flight. I have been flying for 39 years and have over 25,000 flights, but I still absolutely love what I do, be it flying over Canyon de Chelly at 35,000 feet or flying an approach down to CAT III minimums. I am truly blessed to be sitting there and having someone pay me to fly all over the country. I try to have fun, but like you, I have earned what my capabilities are and I also know what my absolute limits are. I dont push the envelope and I still have fun. You and I are extremely lucky!

    • You know how I feel about luck….it’s only part of the equation. You and I worked hard to get where we are and we continue to work hard to stay there. Luck is just a small part of the equation.

  5. i had a very simiar experince in an airplane heading to winslow. it was a lousy day to be flying. by the time we landed my cigarette lighter that was in my shirt pocket was under the pilots feet and i was sitting in the back of the airplane.
    he tried to land once and pulled out and went around. some woman started screaming and i told her to shut up so as not to distract the pilot. we made it the second time around and i was never so glad to be back in winslow as i was that day

  6. This and allt he other pilots are classic “Nice Guys” as described by Dr. Robert Glover in his book: “No More Mr. Nice Guy” Trying to show off to gain passenger approval and show their “competence” by exceedingboundaries which one should CLEARLY not cross. I had my own R44 Autorotation in 2010 with wife on board for a runaway high-rpm situation and taking responsibility of it taught me to be careful and set MY boundaries for what I find acceptable and safe in flying. I am flying AS350B nowadays and try to make sure limits in all areas are enforced. I wouldn’t want to die so soon.

    • I’m guilty of doing many low, fast flights across known, open desert when I lived in Arizona. Nothing that pushed the helicopter to its limits, but low enough to make autorotation pretty sketchy if necessary. (Keep in mind that my speed kept me out of the deadman’s curve, but at 50-100 feet, there isn’t much time to get it done.) My “excuse”? Other than fun, I was testing my skills and pushing my boundaries. The things I learned on those flights are things I could carry forward with me. In a way, I was being a test pilot. (This was my helicopter, of course, not an employer’s.) But I never did this with anyone else on board. If I bought the farm, I’d buy it alone. That doesn’t excuse me, of course, but it at least demonstrates that I feel responsible for my passengers and would never put them at risk.

      After 1700+ hours in the same helicopter, I think I’ve got most of that out of my system now. Good thing, huh? I really don’t want readers blogging about my accident someday.

What do you think?