Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Helicopter Crash in Alaska

NTSB Report
This was the only crash I experienced in my flying career. My boss told me afterward that if you stay in this business long enough, there are those that have and those that will.

There is a negative safety attitude in aviation where someone says, "It can't happen to me." Any time I buckle into a helicopter I realize I might not have the opportunity to unbuckle. I'm very fortunate in the above event that I was able to unbuckle. I'm also very grateful that I didn't lose my dog. I view flying as an exercise in stacking the deck in your favor. Even though you are able to do that, you never really know how the cards may fall.

We were camped at Charlie Lake Alaska.
View Larger Map I didn't remember the lake name from the previous story of Sadie not wanting a bath. On the morning of our crash the survey crew consisting of an instrument man and a rod girl requested I take them back to the place they were working the previous afternoon.

I pulled on some rain boots and called Sadie to go with us. The Hughes 500 has a bench seat in front that can sit three. The pilot sat on the left side and the instrument man sat on the right. Sadie sat in the middle. Molly the rod girl sat in the back.

It was a pleasant flight to the job location. I returned to the same ridge I had landed on the previous afternoon. After touching down I reevaluated the wind conditions. The crew really needed to go to a rocky outcrop on the end of the ridge. I made them hike there the previous day because the winds were not favorable for landing on the rocky outcrop. The winds were considerably calmer this morning, so I asked the crew if they would like for me to get them closer to where they needed to go. They said yes.

I increased pitch to get airborne again and proceeded to the rocky outcrop at a high hover. When I reduced my collective pitch to descend on my chosen landing spot at a five thousand foot elevation I experienced a left yaw followed by warning lights illuminating with audio alerts. It was all the indications of an engine failure. In a turbine helicopter, if the engine is going to quit it will most likely quit when you make a power adjustment either up or down. I had just reduced my power.

My training kicked in and I automatically reacted. I reduced my collective to full down to enter autorotation while applying right pedal and reducing my throttle to flight idle. Then I evaluated my potential landing area. It was rocky and craggy with no good area to sit down safely with a power off landing. I reasoned that there was a high potential of ending up rolling down the mountain. My brain said I needed to get farther away from the mountain to try to autorotate to a better area. I then instinctively did what could have been a very dangerous maneuver.

I simultaneous increased collective and moved the cyclic to get us farther away from the mountain. We went from 15 to 20 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) to 300 feet AGL in a split second. This was a critical maneuver because when the engine quits only centrifugal force and the wind feeding through the rotor system will keep it spinning. If you do not reduce power or if you increase power like I did after reducing it you will slow your rotor system down. If it gets below a certain point you will not be able to regain enough rotor RPM to autorotate safely and you will fall like a rock.

All of this happened much faster than I can tell the story. After moving laterally away from the mountain I told myself that I have to now lower my collective and take what I get. Because if I didn't we would fall like a rock. I once again lowered my collective to full down. The 300 feet of AGL altitude I had gained, not by climbing but by moving laterally away from the mountain top quickly diminished as the aircraft fell closer to the mountain side. But, as it fell my rotor RPM increased and I increased airspeed. It seems like we fell to within a yard of the mountain. Then we scooted along the steep slope of the mountain for what seems like a good 700 feet until I got enough airspeed to pull away from the mountain.

My pucker factor was pretty cranked up as we scooted a mere few feet above the surface of the slope. I know I was praying as I willed the aircraft from hitting the mountain. After scooting along the slope for what seemed at least 700 feet and finally getting enough airspeed to pull away from the mountain I relaxed some. Whoa, that was close, but we still weren't safely across the finish line.

I had a split decision now. I could turn up the valley and try to make some nice flat tundra off in the distance. If I could make the tundra that would be very nice. But, before I got there I would have to cross some tall trees and a cliff. I wasn't sure if I could glide that far and terminating in the trees and cliff could easily be catastrophic. The other choice was turning down canyon. From my altitude it looked like I had a choice of a multitude of gravel bars with no tall trees or cliffs. This choice had a slight four knot tail wind. It is almost always better to land into the wind, but as inviting as the tundra seemed if I could make it the gravel bars seemed like the more conservative course to take. So I chose it.

After making this decision I checked all of my flight instruments. My engine had not completely failed. I apparently had a low side governor failure. I next rolled my throttle completely on hoping my engine would recover. It did not. I should have then closed my throttle completely and turned my fuel switch off, but through hangar flying I had a small amount of poison introduced into my thinking. Normally hangar flying is beneficial, but in this case a buddy told me about a friend of his that had an engine failure and after the crash they put the aircraft engine on a testbed and could find nothing wrong with it. So, they accused my friend's friend of rolling his own throttle off. So stupidly I decided to leave my throttle full on. I told myself that no one will accuse me of rolling my own throttle off. I also told myself that having been a military instructor pilot I had done many practice autorotations and this would simply be like one of those.

Also a little pride kicked in. I had been trained well and considered myself to be a good pilot. I thought of calling my boss after a successful termination and teasing him about needing a new engine if I did a good job on setting this bird down without power.

This period of time was like the eye of the storm. A hurricane hits with a lot of violence. If the eye of the storm passes over you it becomes peaceful, but another wallop is soon to follow.

As I got closer to what I thought were gravel bars from three thousand feet above I realized they were not gravel bars but bolder bars. Before I touched down I told myself that I was going to need more than a new engine landing to this mess. I knew I was going to take damage. I just didn't know how much.

At fifty feet I decelerated my aircraft to lose forward airspeed. At ten to fifteen feet I applied some cushioning collective pitch, then just prior to touch down I applied the remainder of my collective pitch to effect a soft touchdown. And we did touchdown soft and pretty right on top of two large boulders. Good job Robert! Pride well deserved! (Don't you know pride comes before a fall)

The top of the two boulders were not sufficient enough to support the helicopter, so it rocked back and the tail rotor struck the ground. All was quiet though. I thought it was over. We had safely crossed the finish line.

I could tell Sadie was concerned. She had never experienced a landing like this. After everything came to rest I released all the controls and turned to Sadie to tell her everything was going to be alright.

I got "Sadie, everything is going to..." out of my mouth when because of the slight jarring of the tail rotor striking the ground and the large collective pitch increase which tells the governor that the engine needs more fuel what ever had malfunctioned decided to right itself. A ton of fuel got shot to my helicopter's engine with my collective pitch full up.

You can find a debate among helicopter pilots about what to do with the throttle in the situation I faced. Some say leave it full on to get a little assistance at the bottom. All the Army manuals say close the throttle completely and turn off the main fuel prior to touchdown. If I had followed those manuals I would have had a head swollen with pride from the excellent job I had done setting that disabled helicopter down. I learned the hard way why they say to shut everything down.

Rocky Mountain Dave

When my engine received that full shot of fuel we ended up back in the air swapping ends as fast as the rotor blades turn. We were spinning so fast that outside was not a blur, it was just one solid color. My head was shaking so violently I thought it could literally shake off of my body. If I had not let go of my controls to tell Sadie everything was going to be alright, I would have immediately closed my throttle. As it was centrifugal force would not allow me to get back to the controls.

These thoughts went through my head, I thought of calling my boss previously and teasing him after doing a good job, now I wondered if I would get to call him, then I wondered if I would get to call anybody. Then the realization hit me that this was going to kill us, it was really going to kill us. When that thought hit me, I shouted as loud as I could, "God I want to live!".

The quiet was instantaneous. I had to look down at myself to check that I was still alive. When I realized I was I asked my passengers if they were okay. They both said they were. I then said, "well lets get out of this thing".

There was a small engine fire. I got the aircraft's fire extinguisher and put the fire out. Everything that was loose in the helicopter was scattered all over the boulder bar. Papers were everywhere and Sadie Dog was gone! I spent the next forty-five minutes looking for her. She was nowhere to be found.

The helicopter had come to rest in the small stream bed that ran through the valley. The skids were knocked off and the clam-shell that housed the engine was caved in from striking a large boulder that shut the engine off at the moment I shouted, "God I want to live!" It was easily a 50/50 chance that my head would have struck that boulder. I asked the instrument man to help me tilt the helicopter up so that Molly could look underneath it for Sadie Dog. Before we did, she asked me if I really wanted to know. I told her I have to know one way or another.

Sadie was not under the helicopter. I didn't know what else to do as far as looking for her, so I got the ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) out of the helicopter and decided to climb the mountain with it so the signal could get out better and rescue could find us.

A quarter of the way up the mountain I stopped to look around. About a quarter of a mile away from the crash site I spied a little black and white thing running as fast as she could back to the crash. Sadie had evidently been tossed out of the helicopter during its death spin and hit the ground running. I shouted, "Sadie! Hey Sadie!" She heard me and stopped to look in my direction. When she saw me a huge wiggle went through her whole body, then she cut a beeline for me. But, she only ran about twenty feet when she stopped again to make a double-take and see if it was really me. When she saw me the second time another huge wiggle went through her whole body and then she started running toward me again.

She didn't stop until she got to me. When she did she whimpered, "Uhmm, Uhmm, Uhmm." I said, "Yea baby that was bad". But I had tears of joy running down my check having been reunited with my dog. We climbed the mountain together and set the ELT down on top. Then we headed back down to the crash site. When we got within twenty feet of the helicopter she whimpered again. When a rescue helicopter showed up to pick us up, she didn't much want to get on board, but she did. She was still a great traveler and a great companion dog.

I sure miss you Sadie... we had quite the time!

SurvivalDog out...ciao

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