I received a call from Jim Deeth to tell me that we were leasing two of our Bell BH-206 JetRangers to a new start up company that was located at the Grand Canyon. Isn't it strange how a turn of events, will bring back those we know, back into the same circle. It seems that Dan OConnell who was a good friend of mine and someone I've mentioned in previous posts, is starting a new company called Helitech, Dan had worked for me back in my days at McCulloch Aircraft and then later on I had worked for Dan at Grand Canyon Helicopters. The two helicopters were ferried to the Grand Canyon and they would begin their flight operations doing tour flights over the canyon. Dan OConnell was one of those people, that could create a successful operation with a minimum of staff and equipment. The tour flight business was a good attraction for people visiting the canyon and even on a short flight, you see so much more. On the second day of their newly formed company, this is an account of what was to happen.
On the morning of the accident Grand Canyon Airlines Canyon 6 took off from Grand Canyon National Park Airport at 8:55am for a sightseeing flight over Grand Canyon National Park with two pilots and 18 passengers on board; the pilots were operating their second scenic flight for the day. At 9:13am a Bell 206 call sign Tech 2 operated by Helitech took off from the company's heliport in Tusayan, Arizona for a 30 minute sightseeing flight. At approximately 9:33 at an altitude of approximately 6,500 ft (1,981 m) the Bell 206 and DHC-6 collided, with the helicopter on the left of the Twin Otter and the two aircraft traveling at approximately right angles to each other. The helicopter's main rotor struck the nose landing gear and tail of the Twin Otter. The Bell 206's main rotor was torn off and disintegrated; and the Twin Otter's tail separated; causing both aircraft to crash. All 20 passengers and crew on Canyon 6, and the pilot and four passengers on the Bell 206, were killed in the accident.
De Havilland Twin Otter
Bell BH 206 JetRanger similar to one used on tour flights
Over the years that tour companies have operated these types of flights, the safety record is very good. At that time, their was no traffic control of the aircraft that did these types of flights. The different companies regulated themselves and the routes for each type of tour flight was pretty much the same for each company. Pilots made radio calls in the blind when entering and departing the canyon and also when over prominent landmarks in the canyon. If you stood on the rim of the canyon and looked out to see either an airplane or helicopter that was doing one of these flights, it would look like a small dot in a picture. That is why the radio calls were so important for aircraft separation.
Sometimes though, the system fails and the result is a tragic accident. These two flight crews were highly competent and just failed to see each other in time to avoid this mid air collision. A TWA Constellation aircraft and a United DC-6 collided over the canyon in the 50's doing just this same thing, giving their passengers a look at the canyon.
The reason I would mention any of this, is once more, I was involved in an accident investigation. Maybe on a smaller scale, but all the elements of how an accident is investigated were carried out the same way as any other aircraft accident involving fatalities. The following groups or teams were brought in to begin the investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), De Havilland Aircraft Co. manufacture of the Twin Otter, Bell Helicopter Co. manufacture of the Bell BH 206 JetRanger, representative members of both tour companies involved, local law enforcement and a representative of the owners of each aircraft involved.
One of the two JetRangers that was leased by our company to the tour operator in the canyon was owned by a company in Santa Barbara, CA.. So the owner asked if one of our people would represent him during the investigation. I had spent some time in the Grand Canyon doing these tour flights with a previous job, so Jim Deeth asked me to join the investigating group on behalf of the owner. Two days later, I joined all the members of each party for the first preliminary meeting at the Grand Canyon. The meeting began with introductions and then the members of each company gave an oral reenactment of how each tour flight began from their respective departure points. This would give the approximate departure times, time of entry into the canyon, altitudes and times over landmarks within the canyon during the course of the flight. As each member described the events of each tour flight up until the time of the collision in midair, the times were almost exact to the time of the accident. Either one or both of the flight crews missed the radio calls of aircraft traffic position in the canyon , or they just failed to see each other.
As the meeting progressed, everyone was assigned to different groups to perform different tasks to be carried out during the investigation and then they would report their finding to the next days meetings. I was assigned to a group that would go to the accident sight where the wreckage of both aircraft remained at the floor of the canyon. Our job was to locate all the major and minor pieces of the helicopter and identify the part, measure the distance and azimuth from the main impact. Once the main rotor separated from the helicopter, the main part of the fuselage remained intact, but free fell until striking the ground. Their was no apparent fire on either aircraft and the pieces of the two aircraft were scattered over quite an area.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the crews of the two aircraft failed to 'see and avoid' each other, but could not determine why this occurred. I did learn a lot from this experience and it certainly brings to ones attention how crowded the sky can be, even in a place as vast as the Grand Canyon...........................