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Beyond The Helicopter Rating

Robinson Pilot Safety Course
Attendees at the Robinson Pilot Safety Course get to exaamine components up close and personal

As of December 31, 2018, there were an estimated 32,831 active helicopter pilots in the U.S. The Robinson Helicopter Company has graduated almost that many pilots since the mid ’80s from its four-day Robinson Pilot Safety Course.

So after passing my commercial helicopter add-on check ride—and propelled by a robust suggestion from my alma mater, Hillsboro Aero Academy—I signed up.

Robinson offers 13 classes a year at the factory in Torrance, California, and several more internationally through its overseas dealer network. The course covers safety tips and best practices, with breakout sessions as appropriate for the R22, R44, and R66 machines, respectively.

According to Kurt Robinson, president and CEO of Robinson, the course was born to share critical lessons learned and knowledge accumulated over decades of fleet-wide experience. “We want you to know what we know,” he said.

With that introduction, we dive right into the lesson with an uncensored review of major fatal helicopter accidents, an introduction that features no-holds-barred accident videos, analysis of cause and circumstance for each accident—and each presented with lessons learned, warning signs codified and root causes compiled.

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Conventional wisdom regarding accidents in a complex machine like a helicopter may suggest mechanical failure as the bulk cause of helicopter accidents, but the facts say otherwise. Ninety percent of all R22 and 100% of all R66 (so far) accidents are the direct result of pilot error.

The ubiquitous presence of GoPro and smartphone cameras delivers gritty material for review, material that presents—time after time—the stark and haunting consequences of poor judgment, sloppy airmanship, overconfidence or a timid and unprofessional reluctance to say “no go” when the inner voice whispers so. The material becomes up front and personal to each pilot in the class.

Emotional maturity is the most important safety element that a pilot can have. A deep-seated realization that your EGO is not your AMIGO is the cornerstone characteristic of a superior pilot—a true aviator—and the course content brings attendees back to this cardinal point over and over again.

Following the introductory session, practical lessons begin, first with an extensive tour of the production line, including a clear presentation of how and why things are designed and built the way they are, followed by deep-dive sessions into Helicopter Theory, Critical Flight Conditions, Performance, Limitations & Emergency Procedures. All of it is presented in the practical context of day-to-day flight operations and the attendant pressures brought to bear on the machine and the pilot.

I found Aircraft Systems, Preflight Inspections and the maintenance sessions extremely useful.

Personally, I have confidence in my preflight of an airplane. But as a newbie helicopter pilot, I was unsure of my ability to recognize a subtle clue that something was off during preflight.

This course put an end to that insecurity.

On hand for each session was a bare helicopter frame with working control linkages clearly visible and accessible and a display table with unserviceable components for touchy-feely inspection by each attendee—some damaged, some worn out of limits, some subtly cracked or corroded.

Each anomaly was pointed out as the part went around the room, the cause of the condition (negligent or poor maintenance/abusive operation, etc.) was clearly explained with details on how to avoid the development of similar damage.

Helicopter components
Robinson’s Pilot Safety Course shows attendees helicopter components.

In some cases, worn parts are not directly observable by the pilot during walk-around, so the instructor points out why, how and what to inspect indirectly by feel, smell and maintenance mirror.

Significant and statistically relevant aeronautical hazards are covered. These include operational hazards unique to helicopter operations, such as wires, turbulence, loss of tail rotor effectiveness and more. And they are reviewed in the context of actual documented accidents.

Performance calculations and real-world geographical and environmental traps are reviewed and discussed—tips and tricks to avoid these traps, ones many have never even thought or heard of, are shared with and added to each pilot’s experience base.

When all the tours and classroom work is done, each attendee flies with an instructor to polish their skill and deepen their integration with the machine.

During this special flight (under “adult” supervision), we gently touch the boundary of key operational limits—limits normally given a wide berth in the course of day-to-day flying.

And we stay there just deep and long enough to know what it feels like to poke your nose into the beginning of big trouble.

For this newly minted Robinson pilot, the course delivered experience, insights and informed confidence, without the risk, that I might not otherwise gain in 10 or even 15 years of real-world flight.

I will do this again.

Read Part One of Lou Churchville’s quest to earn his helicopter rating: Getting to Know The Beast

Read Part Two of Lou Churchville’s quest to earn his helicopter rating: The Good And Bad Of Airplane Muscle Memory

Read Part Three of Lou Churchville’s quest to earn his helicopter rating: Check Ride Time

The post Beyond The Helicopter Rating appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: NY Pols Work To Ban Helicopter Flights. Fight With FAA Looms.

FDNY on the scene of a helicopter crash
Members of the FDNY at the scene of a helicopter crash in New York City on Monday, June 10. Photo courtesy of the FDNY

Politico’s Transportation Newsletter is reporting that several New York State and Congressional lawmakers are reaching out to New York City Mayor (and presidential candidate) Bill de Blasio in their attempts to get New York City to ban all “non-essential” helicopter flights over the city, though it’s not clear if that applies to all of the boroughs, a subset of them or just Manhattan.

The push from New Yorkers to ban such flights is in part due to the crash last month of a charter helicopter atop a Manhattan building, which killed the pilot while causing no injuries to anyone on the ground and little damage to the building.

Regardless, the question of who has the authority to do this, the City or the FAA, is at the forefront. It’s long-settled law that the FAA is the sole regulator for traffic, and thank goodness for that. Can you imagine a National Airspace System in which every governmental authority could regulate the airspace above it? No, we can’t either. 

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Still, a trio of powerful US representatives from New York—Jerry Nadler, Nydia Velazquez and Carolyn Maloney— argued in a letter to de Blasio that the City does have the right. Furthermore, according to Politico, they want to hear from FAA Administrator nominee Steve Dickinson what he intends to do about the issue.

For his part, de Blasio does seem to know the law and responded to the Representatives that the FAA is the only entity that can ban such flights, not the City and not the State. But what he could do, he argues, is to shut down the New York City helicopter facilities, which would greatly reduce helicopter traffic over the city. We know from watching the decades-long Santa Monica Airport saga just how easy that is, but it is clearly possible, if not politically tenable, not to mention the fact that it would also impact “essential” helicopter operations, which we take to be police and EMS operations.

What will happen? Our guess is that after putting up a very loud and public effort to ban something that they know won’t be banned, the lawmakers will be happy to let the effort die after their constituents’ collective sense of outrage has faded, which is likely to be any day now.

The post Going Direct: NY Pols Work To Ban Helicopter Flights. Fight With FAA Looms. appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

New York City Helicopter Crash Update: Pilot Shouldn’t Have Been Flying

FDNY on the scene of a helicopter crash
Members of the FDNY at the scene of a helicopter crash in New York City on Monday, June 10. Photo courtesy of the FDNY

Investigators of the fatal New York City helicopter crash apparently are rapidly moving to a new theory of the crash. The pilot of the Agusta AE109E, Tim McCormack, who died in the crash atop a Midtown building, wasn’t qualified for the flight and that the mission was likely inside a Presidential TFR (no-fly zone) in Midtown Manhattan. The crash took place close to the Trump Tower, which has a longstanding flight restriction associated with it. 

The FAA is suggesting to reporters that the flight might have been conducted in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) with low clouds and a rainstorm. Flying on instruments is not legal at the low altitude and over the heavily populated area the helicopter was flying over. Moreover, the FAA is now saying that the pilot was not in contact with ATC on the flight, which was a repositioning flight to New Jersey after the pilot dropped off a passenger at an East River heliport and while he was traversing Manhattan. 

The story got even more alarming when the FAA revealed that McCormack was not instrument rated, something that is legally required for pilots flying in IMC. 

The NTSB and FAA are continuing to investigate the accident. 

Related Reading: New York City Helicopter Crash Wasn’t Terrorism

The post New York City Helicopter Crash Update: Pilot Shouldn’t Have Been Flying appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

New York City Helicopter Crash Wasn’t Terrorism

Google Maps Image of New York City
A helicopter crashed on top of a building in this area of New York City on Monday, June 10, 2019. Image courtesy of Google Maps

Early reports on Monday, June 10, 2019, out of New York City were that a helicopter had crashed into a building in Manhattan.

FDNY on the scene of a helicopter crash
Members of the FDNY at the scene of a helicopter crash in New York City on Monday, June 10. Photo courtesy of the FDNY

The wording of that sparks a response in many people, especially New Yorkers and their neighbors in the Tri-State area, many of whom commute into the city for work every day. Those were, after all, the very words of concern that most of us heard first on the beautiful, clear-blue sky morning of September 11, 2001. In that moment, our world had changed (though we didn’t yet know how much it had) An airplane, the reports on the radio and on TV said, had “crashed into a building.” It was one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. And soon, another airplane would fly into another building—the other tower. And the Pentagon would soon be hit. And a fourth airliner would crash in Pennsylvania. And the Twin Towers would fall as hundreds of millions watched on live TV, or in the case of many New Yorkers, watched in horror with their own eyes.

For all we knew, a war was starting, with whom and for what reasons we knew not. Which made it all the worse. It was a horrible time for America, a horrible time for the world. And as it turned out, a war was beginning, just not the kind of war anyone imagined it would be. It is, however, a war we’re still waging, with no end in sight some 18 years later.

Monday’s crash was nothing like that, and those early reports were wrong. The helicopter crashed on top of and not into a building. The building was 787 7th Avenue, in Midtown, near the Rockefeller Center and The Museum of Modern Art, an area of the city chock-a-bloc with skyscrapers and nowhere suitable for an emergency landing.

The helicopter was an Agusta AW109e, a small, twin-engine model, a version of one of the most successful helicopters ever. They’re used for a variety of roles, everything from search-and-rescue to medical emergency transport, executive transportation and charter, among others. Small helicopters like this operate all over Manhattan, though they land only at a few designated heliports. Twin-engine helicopters have that second engine mainly because with two they can lift a lot more payload. And the second engine gives some redundancy should one of them fail.

The crash closed down blocks of New York as police and fire responded to the accident, those men and women in uniform not knowing exactly what kind of harm they might be rushing into as they headed out to do what they did on September 11th, help innocent people who find themselves in harm’s way. President Trump tweeted his support for those first responders, and America held its collective breath to learn more.

The scene of a helicopter crash in New York City
The scene of a helicopter crash in New York City. Photo courtesy of the FDNY

As it turned out, the risk was minimal and isolated to that one rooftop. It wasn’t terrorism, just a crash of a small aircraft, presumably with some kind of mechanical issue.

There have been reports that the as yet unidentified pilot of the craft, who died in the crash, called air traffic control to say that he had an emergency. Setting the helicopter down on top of the roof of a building—it hit very hard and was destroyed in the process—his act very probably saved lives, perhaps many lives. By putting it down on top of that building instead of trying for an open area on the streets below where, New Yorkers know, there are few open areas, he chose a riskier path but one that probably saved lives.

The whole story isn’t out yet, but at this point it looks as though the pilot, far from using an aircraft to do people harm, chose to make his emergency landing on an extremely small and difficult surface in order to do the exact opposite of harm.  That’s the real story.

The post New York City Helicopter Crash Wasn’t Terrorism appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: Urban Air Taxis: Let’s Talk Fake News

Uber Elevate Multicopter
A screen capture from an Uber video showing its vision of a future multicopter friendly urban landing zone.

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There’s been a spate of stories lately about the rise of companies investing in the development of new forms of air transportation aimed at giving people a quick and easy way to get from A to B in an urban environment. The aircraft are mostly some form of multi-copter, you know, like the little drones you can pick up at Best Buy for anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to a couple thousand. I’m guessing the thinking goes like this, and it’s a guess because they’re not thoughts I’ve ever had myself.

“Okay, so these little drones are really cool. They’re not that hard to control—you can even use your phone to do it. Yeah, but what if they were bigger, big enough to carry people around. Wouldn’t that be cool? Okay, it’s settled, let’s do it. Calling the venture capital firms now.”

This is all well and good, but when it comes to aviation there are a few steps to take into consideration before launching in the wild blue here. First, before I’d spend any money, I’d ask myself if it’s ever been done before. The answer to this is “yes” and “no.” Yes, there’s urban air transportation now. Helicopters do it. In case you’re not familiar with them, they are a prehistoric form of quad copter. And they carry millions of people all over urban areas taking them anywhere they want to go at cheap prices. Well, that last part was all a lie. Think, opposite of that. Helicopters are enormously expensive to operate, they can go into very, very few places in urban settings, usually a handful of dedicated helicopter ports. In New York City, one of the biggest cities in the world, there are just a few grouped together along the East River or Hudson River shorelines. Why is that? Because helicopters can’t really fly in urban environments. They can fly around the edges of cities. So if you take a helicopter to, say, the East 30th Street Heliport, you then need to get ground transpiration to where you’re going from there. The helicopter isn’t ground transportation. It’s air transportation. Limos and Town Cars are ground transport.

The idea of small heli-style pod craft operating in the city is an interesting one. Where do they land? How do you keep innocent bystanders from getting chopped to pieces (which wreaks havoc with insurance rates)? And how do you avoid the dozens or hundreds of other multicopters buzzing about the canyons of Manhattan?

A tweet by Sporty’s VP and frequent P&P contributor John Zimmerman raised the question of how urban air taxis would deal with bad weather, the kind he highlighted in the tweet with the METAR at an airport showing 500 overcast with seven miles of visibility with winds gusting from 31 to 41 knots? And he asked, “How do you out-innovate Mother Nature?”

And how do you out-innovate decades of experience we have with a couple of generations of really smart people who would have loved to have created just such a system of close-in public air transport but who couldn’t not because their tech wasn’t good enough but because the environment was antagonistic to such operations?

You don’t. But by now I should probably stop complaining and see if I can’t get some of those sweet VC bucks before they dry up. Looking at it that way, I’m sure it’s doable. Don’t ask me how, but I’m sure it is.

The post Going Direct: Urban Air Taxis: Let’s Talk Fake News appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.