AIN Blog: Beware Complacency

 - May 27, 2011, 8:59 AM

One of my assignments here at AIN is compiling and editing the Accidents page for our flagship monthly magazine, Aviation International News. Each month I comb through reports on the NTSB website and others, looking for those accidents that I think will be of value and interest to our readers. Unfortunately, I cannot include them all because of space constraints.

As I search the websites each month, I’ve noticed a lot of helicopter accidents. Most involve the usual causes: mechanical failure or training problems. Wire strikes are also fairly common, but in some of the accidents, you can almost see the moment when complacency crept in along with inattentiveness and/or an unhealthy underestimation of the hazards associated with rotorcraft operations. The helicopter is a complex and unforgiving machine and from some of these accident reports, one can certainly infer that bad things will happen if it is not respected.

Take, for example, a recent incident in which a pilot dropped off a work crew near a reservoir. As they were landing, one of the workers dropped his lunchbox into the water. The pilot, who apparently didn’t want to see the worker go hungry, attempted unsuccessfully to hook the floating food container using a grapple attached to the helicopter’s cargo hook. After this didn’t work, he lowered the helicopter to the surface of the water and tried to use the main rotor as a giant fan to blow the container to the shore. While he was attempting this, the still-dangling grapple (now deep under water) apparently snagged something secure, causing the helicopter to gyrate violently before the pilot brought it down, half in and half out of the water, with a severely damaged tail rotor and boom. Fortunately, all walked away uninjured. The accident report made no mention of the condition of the workman’s lunch.

In another case, a pilot landed his agricultural spray-equipped helicopter on a truck for a “hot” refilling and refueling. All was fine until he misinterpreted a signal from the ground crew and attempted to lift off with the fuel hose still attached. The helicopter rolled and its main rotor struck the ground and one of the ground crew, causing serious injury to both man and machine.

In a similar case, a pilot tried to take off from a New York area airport with the ground-power unit still attached. It was positioned behind the helicopter, so the pilot didn’t notice it until after the rotorcraft was back on the ground, substantially damaged.

Full disclosure: I am not a pilot, so I have not walked the proverbial mile in these pilots’ shoes. But I am entrusted by state authorities with the daily use of a heavy, potentially dangerous machine, my car. I do have a long-ago accident under my belt, and I have since gotten away with stupid maneuvers, such as last-second attempts to cross two lanes of highway so as not to miss an off-ramp.

I can only hope however that, if I were ever entrusted with the piloting of such a wondrous machine as a helicopter, I would make darn sure that nothing unwanted was left attached to it before I attempted to take off.