Preliminary Report: Night helo flight proves fatal

 - January 16, 2008, 9:08 AM

WESTLAND HELICOPTERS GAZELLE AH-MK1, EAST HAMPTON, N.Y., NOV. 8, 2002–The 1974 Gazelle (N911XW), a former British Army helicopter registered in the Experimental category, was destroyed at about 11:25 p.m. EST when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Hampton, N.Y. The pilot, William Smithers, 35, of Sag Harbor, N.Y., was lost at sea and is presumed dead. Smithers, CEO of Tradeware Corp., was traveling alone when his helicopter went down near Sag Harbor.

The helicopter departed Long Island-MacArthur Airport (ISP) in Islip, N.Y., at approximately 11 p.m. on a VFR flight to East Hampton Airport (HTO), N.Y. Night VMC prevailed, and Smithers did not file a flight plan. According to a report filed by the East Hampton Police Department, the pilot’s wife expected him home in Sag Harbor that evening but she was not immediately concerned when he didn’t arrive because Smithers’ schedule frequently changed at the last minute. He was not considered missing until the next morning when his car was discovered at ISP and debris from the helicopter was found on the beaches of East Hampton.

The pilot of a Hughes 500 helicopter flying in the area on the night of the accident told investigators there was a lower layer of “scud” around 400 feet that made it difficult to see ground lights. He added that it was clear above the cloud layer and that conditions worsened to the east.

According to ATC, Smithers contacted ISP ground control at 10:56 p.m. and requested a “punch-out to the west.” He later repeated his intention to depart VFR to the west and received a clearance. A few minutes after takeoff the controller requested a clarification from the pilot asking, “November nine one one X-ray whiskey, I show you radar contact. I thought you were going west?” To which Smithers replied, “I’m showing a heading of one-two-zero right now.” The controller informed the pilot, “…that’s southeast. West is two-seven-zero” and the pilot replied, “I’m sorry…I apologize. I am heading east.” The controller informed the pilot that his position was five miles southeast of the airport, he was terminating radar service and approved a radio frequency change; the pilot acknowledged.

A radar plot for N911XW depicted a ground track that departed the airport in a southeasterly direction then turned to the northeast. The track continued in a generally east-northeast direction until reaching Great Peconic Bay. At that point N911XW turned east toward Southampton. The aircraft then passed to the east of Southampton and continued southeast past the shoreline.

According to the NTSB, cruise altitudes over New York’s Long Island vary between 600 and 2,500 feet. About one mile from the shoreline, and at about 1,000 feet, the Gazelle entered a descent. Its initial rate of descent was about 1,400 fpm, but during the 12 seconds before reaching the shoreline the descent rate was 2,500 fpm. The aircraft crossed the shoreline at 200 feet and leveled off over the water at approximately 20 feet. It then continued to the southeast, maintaining an altitude of 20 feet before radar contact was lost at 11:23 p.m. Ten days later a fishing vessel snagged and recovered a significant amount of wreckage later identified as N911XW.

According to Smithers’ father-in-law, the helicopter had been recently purchased for the pilot’s personal use. Smithers took his FAA checkride and had done all of his training over an 18-month period exclusively in a Robinson R22 piston helicopter. The pilot received about one hour of instruction in the turbine-powered Gazelle from the previous owner before taking delivery. After delivery, the pilot flew about 10 hours in the aircraft with a certificated flight instructor acting as a safety pilot.

The NTSB interviewed the owner/operator of Helicopter Flight Training (formally Eastern Helicopters) of Islip, who said his company provided flight instruction to the pilot, rented him helicopters, housed N911XW and provided maintenance support. The operator said the aircraft had been purchased in Colorado and was delivered to Islip by truck.

According to the operator, the pilot’s abilities were average for a beginning helicopter pilot. He said that he counseled the pilot, as he did all of his students, that earning his pilot certificate “was a license to learn.” He also cautioned him not to try to fly in “helicopter weather.” The operator further noted that there was a scud layer “running right down the island” on the night of the accident. Fog was also “moving in and out. Some places it was clear, but toward the ocean it wasn’t. That ocean gets awful black out there. He shouldn’t have been out there at night. He had been warned,” the operator told investigators.

When asked how much experience the pilot had flying at night, the operator said that the pilot had the minimum required for taking the practical examination for his pilot certificate. He added that he did not encourage beginning helicopter pilots to fly solo at night. The flight instructor who acted as the safety pilot told investigators that he flew approximately 10 hours in the helicopter with Smithers and that the helicopter performed and handled well. He pointed out that the aircraft had no stabilization system or force trim on the flight controls. Only the friction on the cyclic control could be adjusted, so the helicopter required hands-on control at all times.

According to the safety pilot, Smithers was competent enough to operate from the airport during daylight and good weather. The safety pilot added that Smithers had difficulty with tasks that required a division of attention and could not maintain heading, airspeed or altitude if he looked down to tune the radios. The fatal flight was the second time Smithers had flown the Gazelle solo.