NTSB: Spatial Disorientation Cause of AW139 Crash

 - June 2, 2021, 10:30 AM

According to the NTSB, the probable cause of the July 2019 fatal Leonardo AW139 accident in the Bahamas was nighttime spatial disorientation, with lack of night flying experience and inadequate crew resource management as contributory factors. The accident killed the two-person crew and all five passengers, including American coal billionaire and helicopter owner Chris Cline.

The helicopter crashed at 1:53 a.m. local time—in what was described as black-hole conditions—shortly after takeoff from Cline’s private island of Big Grand Cay for a 117-nm flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The flight was not reported missing for 14 hours and the wreckage was subsequently recovered in 16 feet of water less than two miles from shore. 

The NTSB report paints a mosaic of poor risk and cockpit resource management, unfamiliarity with aircraft systems, and a flight that was largely out of control from the moment it lifted off until it crashed 68 seconds later. It noted significant fluctuations in altitude, airspeed, climb rates, pitch, and bank angle, with the PIC—the pilot flying—struggling to get the aircraft under control while not knowing if he was going up or down.

Less than 20 seconds before impact, against the din of nearly constant EGPWS aural warnings, the SIC remarked that the crew’s plight was “exactly what happened” during a fatal UK accident caused by somatogravic illusion and resulting spatial disorientation.