An accident fueled by complacency with a very lucky pilot.
It was still dark when the pilot lifted off from the small county airport at 5 AM on Saturday, February 24, destined for the 1,100-acre almond orchard she and the other two pilots on contract were responsible for protecting on a frost control contract. The horizon was barely visible as she climbed to 300 feet, per her altimeter.
On the ground, she had already loaded the moving map image that outlined the orchard and she knew which section of it she was supposed to cover. But as she headed to the orchard about a mile away, the moving map wasn’t indicating her position, making it impossible for her to determine where she was in relation to it.
She checked her altitude again, then reached forward to tap-tap-tap on the iPad’s screen — as she had hundreds of times since the iPad had become her FAA-approved electronic flight bag six or seven years before. The usual routine was tap-tap-tap and then look up to confirm all was okay before another tap-tap-tap. But this time, when she looked up that first time, she saw a row of tall trees right in front of her.
“Oh, shit,” she thought. “This is it.”
She’s not sure whether she pulled back on the cyclic in a vain attempt to avoid the trees, but she knew it wouldn’t matter anyway. Collision was impossible to avoid. Oddly, it happened so quickly that she didn’t even have time to be afraid.
She may have closed her eyes as she went through the trees because she doesn’t remember seeing anything. But she heard the racket as the helicopter’s 16-foot blades, moving at roughly 400 RPM, impacted branches as they pushed through the trees. The tail rotor, skids, and horizontal stabilizers were ripped off but the helicopter’s fuselage kept moving. The pilot didn’t feel the impacts as the helicopter struck the ground once or twice in an open field on its way to its final resting place about 100 yards away from the trees, facing the direction from which it had come.
On realizing that she was on the ground and still alive, the pilot fumbled for her seatbelt and got it open. She climbed out of the wreckage.
The next few minutes are hazy to her. She saw the fire back behind the engine. She was worried that the other pilots, who had departed after her, might see it and think she was hurt so she texted one of them. That was at 5:04 AM.
Then she found the fire extinguisher. While she has no memory of using it — in fact, she thought later that it was broken — she may have pulled the pin and used it to try to extinguish the flames. (According to the police, someone did and she was the only one there.)
She may have still had it in her hand when the phone started ringing at 5:17 AM. It was the pilot she had texted. She told him what happened, assured him that she was okay, and told him to keep flying.
The engine fire got a little bigger. She decided it would be a good idea to move away.
Still not thinking clearly, she called her insurance agent, who is also a friend of hers. It was 5:23 AM and she was on the phone with him for 9 minutes, although she doesn’t remember talking that long. She does remember feeling the pain in her right leg around that time and looking down to see the huge swollen bruise forming. She started wondering if maybe she had broken her leg and decided to sit down. He asked if she’d called 911 and she said she hadn’t. The thought hadn’t occurred to her.
She hung up and called 911. That was at 5:34 AM. She told the woman who answered that she had been in a helicopter crash and that she was okay but might have a broken leg. She said there was a fire but it didn’t look bad. The 911 dispatcher asked for her position and she was able to use Google Maps on her phone to provide cross streets. The dispatcher said she’d send the police and fire truck and EMS helicopter. The pilot, now sitting on the ground as the sky was brightening, begged her not to send a helicopter. She didn’t need it and she wasn’t going to pay for it. She must have said that a dozen times.
The 911 operator kept the pilot talking on the phone until emergency services arrived. “Let me know when they’re right next to you,” she said.
That happened 22 minutes after making the call. There was an ambulance and maybe a fire truck and a police car. Two medics came up to her. A while later, they were helping her into the back of a pickup truck’s crew cab for the short ride across the field to the ambulance. At her request, someone fetched her iPad from the wreckage, along with her purse. She didn’t realize it, but the fire was already out.
In the ambulance, the medics wanted to start an IV. She told them not to. She said she wasn’t hurt that badly.
In the hospital emergency room, they wanted to cut off her pants. She wouldn’t let them. Instead, she got undressed, wondering how she’d gotten grass stains all over her pants, and slipped into the hospital gown they provided.
They started an IV. They dressed a cut on one leg. The bruise there was huge and swelling bad.
They sent her to pee in a cup to make sure there wasn’t any blood in her urine. She was surprised they didn’t want to do a drug test.
The adrenaline that had been running through her veins started to wear off and she found herself shaking. They put a warm blanket around her.
People called on her phone. The other pilot she’d been flying with. Her insurance agent friend. The NTSB. Another pilot who didn’t know about the crash but was looking for a landing light to replace one that had gone out on his helicopter that morning. She talked to them all before 7:30 AM, grateful that the emergency room staff had let her keep her phone.
They took her to get her leg X-rayed. They did her spine, too, even though she didn’t feel any pain there. Around then, she noticed her right hand scraped up and swelling. In the days to come, she’d notice other bruises and scrapes in other places.
A doctor came to tell her that there were no broken bones. He pressed down on various places to see if there was pain in her abdomen. There wasn’t. Just her leg, really. He offered her a pain killer. She told him that most prescription painkillers didn’t work for her so she’d still with ibuprofen. A nurse came with a 600 mg dose.
The doctor offered her an overnight stay for observation. She declined. She checked out of the hospital at 8:29, just three and a half hours after the accident.
The pilot she’d been working with, took her to see the wreckage. By that time, it was fully daylight out. She was surprised the helicopter was lying on its side; she thought it had been upright. She was also surprised by how beat up it was.
And that’s when she started to realize that she might be the luckiest person on the planet that morning.
Wondering why I know so much about this crash? By this point, it should be pretty obvious.
I was the pilot.
Yes, I crashed Zero-Mike-Lima last Saturday morning at around 5 AM. I crashed it because I was stupid and allowed myself to be distracted while flying at night. The fact that I’m alive to tell people about it amazes me every single day. In fact, when I was in the hospital I developed a notion, fed by a life of reading science fiction, that I had actually died and the “afterlife” was just a continuation of real life.
But I’m here and I’m embarrassed.
Throughout this blog, you’ll find posts where I analyze various helicopter crashes. The vast majority of crashes are due to pilot error and my crash is no different. I’ve got about 3700 hours in helicopters, including more than 2200 hours in the one I crashed — hell, I owned it for 13 years! — and I still made a stupid mistake that destroyed the helicopter and could have taken my life.
I’m really not in the mood to analyze what happened now. Hell, it took me a week to write this. It’s actually pretty straightforward: I allowed myself to get distracted while flying at night relatively close to the ground. Duh. You can’t perform a much stupider pilot trick than that.
Various people at Robinson Helicopter saw the photos — I was at Heli Expo this past week — and pretty much agree that the bladder tanks, which I whined about back in 2012, probably saved my life. So there’s that crow to eat, too.
There is some good news in all this — other than the fact that I’m alive, no one else was hurt, and there was no property damage (other than those trees): the helicopter was fully insured and I’m already shopping for its replacement. In fact, I put an offer on a nearly identical helicopter just yesterday. So I’ll be back in business soon enough.
And you can bet your ass that I won’t be on a frost control contract next year or ever again.
I debated leaving comments open for this post. I’m not sure if I want to address them given how I feel about what happened. But I’ll give it a try.
If you want to tell me how stupid and/or lucky I am, fine, but do it gently. I already know. Read the Comments Policy if you’re not sure whether what you have to say will be approved. If the comments section turns into a “let’s beat up on Maria” party, I’ll shut it down.