Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cine-Exec Part 3....1987

I worked at Cine-Exec for almost two years.  It was good to be back working for Jim Deeth at the helm.  In the short few years I had know Jim, we had developed a great working relationship.  Jim was partnered with a professional photography, Dan Wolfe, who was the owner of the company.  Again, a group of good pilots and staff makes the job so much easier.  Most of the time I was working out of the satellite office located at the Long Beach, CA airport. On occasion, I would be asked to  do some flights for the Burbank office.

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.[1] 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.[1] 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.[1] The helicopter's main rotor struck the nose landing gear and tail of the Twin Otter.[1] The Bell 206's main rotor was torn off and disintegrated; and the Twin Otter's tail separated; causing both aircraft to crash.[1] All 20 passengers and crew on Canyon 6, and the pilot and four passengers on the Bell 206, were killed in the accident.[1]
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...........................

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Hazards to Helicopters

Recently on TV, their was a news item that showed a helicopter making a perfectly normal landing, when suddenly just before the helicopter touched down, it started to thrash about and come apart as if it were in slow motion.  The main rotor came into contact with a wire or cable in the landing area.  This resulted in a chain reaction of the helicopter self destructing.  Once the rotor system becomes unbalanced, the results of all that uncontrolled energy then separates all the other helicopter components.

Every once in a while, when I have been in a conversation amongst some of my non flying friends,  I'll be asked about the dangers of flying helicopters or you might say hazards.  I never felt that what I did on an every day basis,  flying helicopters, was the very least bit dangerous.  Certainly several things come to mind, but wires are probably one of the most likely problems, coupled with low visibility and low ceilings.  Or the combination of all three can ruin your day.  You may have noticed when driving on major freeways where power lines cross the highway or in mountain passes, large brightly colored balls are attached to the wires to mark them for low flying helicopters or even airplanes in some cases.  In the days before modern electronic navigation devices like GPS.  Pilots often followed highways, railroad tracks or any other surface landmarks that would enable them to reach their destination.  Even today, this is a common practice, but when you get down that low, sometimes you just can't see the wires soon enough.  Once the helicopter has made contact, the wires will come in contact with the main rotor mast and usually down the helicopter by pulling the complete mast and main rotor out of the helicopter.  Has this ever happened to me?  No, but I sure have come close a couple times.

One cold winter morning, I was getting ready to depart Joplin, MO and then follow a local highway to Jefferson City, MO.  This would have taken approximately 3.0 hours to cover the 200 plus miles.  I was flying a Hughes 269A helicopter that was equipped with an aux fuel tank, so I had more than enough fuel to make the flight non-stop.  I called and received a weather report, and was assured that the low stratus and fog near the surface would be non existent once I got a few miles outside of Joplin.  I took off from the local airport and headed out of town to the Northeast.  I located the highway that would take me to Jefferson City and leveled off a few hundred feet above the ground.  Visibility was very poor and I was able to just duck under the low ceiling.  I had reduced my airspeed to around 50 MPH and continued this way for about an hour hoping that the conditions would improve as I had been told by the weatherman.  Conditions didn't get any better and I found my self dropping down lower as the ceiling and visibility got much worse. Common sense would tell you to turn around and return via the route you started from.  I did attempt to do this a couple times, but the weather had closed in and I had no place to go.  Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted what looked to be an open field near the highway and I elected to land.  The landing was uneventful and I shut down the helicopter to wait out the fog and low ceiling.  It was early in the morning and I had know idea of where I was at.
It was very quite and I guess no one heard the helicopter when I landed.
I sat there for what seemed like a long time and then I could hear the laughter of children walking nearby.  I would guess out to the highway to catch the school bus.  The time was near sunrise and usually when the temperature/dew point are this close, conditions will get much worse.  So after an hour or so, the sun finally began to burn the fog away and I could start seeing a little of where I was at and what was around me.  I had landed in the middle of this field that was surrounded by power lines.  I was sitting in a box of wires on every edge of the field.  This was my lucky day.

On one other occasion, I was making a flight from Long Beach, CA to the airport in Ventura, CA.  I was flying a Hughes 369 helicopter (or to some, it was called a Hughes 500).  A five place turbine powered helicopter.  We departed after sunset and it was getting very dark outside.  Flying around Los Angeles at night is like one giant Christmas tree with all the lights. So no problem with navigation or seeing the ground.  I had four people on board and there was a lot of conversation back and forth between the passengers.  This can be distracting, but I was trying  not to let this bother me.  As I passed over the West boundary of the San Fernando Valley I headed West towards the Ventura area.  The terrain is mostly low rolling hills with very little ground illumination.  I elected to stay high until it was time to begin my approach to the airport.  Off in the distance I could start seeing the lights of the city.  So it was time to check in for a landing clearance and start losing some altitude.  For some reason I misread the altimeter, when I thought I was passing through 1000 feet above the ground, actually I was lower than I thought and I was close to 100 feet above the ground.  The Ventura area is right at sea level, so no problem until I reached down and flicked on the landing light.  Looming just ahead of the helicopter was a set of high tension power lines streached across several steel towers at about the same height as the helicopter. It was too late to make any corrections and I just cleared the wires by just a few feet.  A near fatal mistake on my part, but again a certain amount of luck was again in my favor.

Believe it or not, many helicopters are equipped with wire cutters.  A very sharp blade is located a the top of the canopy and another blade on the lower side of the nose.  These blades can cut a steel cable one inch in diameter at a forward speed of 25 MPH like it was butter.  It doesn't always work, but one more method of making helicopters safer.

Wire Cutter location on a Bell 206 Jet Ranger

Unicorn like Wire Cutters

Several mountain passes near Los Angeles have claimed the lives of some of my friends that were not so fortunate when trying to make their way to higher ground by attempting to follow the highway with low visibility and ceilings, and then flying into high tension power lines.  While flying around the greater Los Angeles area, I made a point of knowing where these power line hazards were located.
When you make good decisions, the outcome can make for a great day flying helicopters................more on this later..............

Monday, January 2, 2012

Cine-Exec Part 2

Once you have been in the helicopter charter business for a while, most flight operations are pretty much the same.  Usually operated under F.A.R. rules Part 135, which is the authority for the operator to perform helicopter charter flights for passengers and cargo.  Our operation was pretty diversified, that we also did other types of flights under F.A.R. part 91 which would be general operating rules.
This would allow you to do some flights not under the strict rules of FAR 135 but with a lot of limitations.  Flight training was usually done by the newer pilots and I think in every case, I had very few positions as a pilot, where I wasn't involved in giving flight instruction at some time.  I had my fair share of taking new pilots though a training program and getting them to the point that they could qualify for a pilot's license.  I was glad that I had moved up and put this all behind me, but on this one occasion, I was called upon to train four non English speaking Japanese students.  I should clarify that and say, that one of the students could speak excellent English and the others had English classes in their homeland school, but did not use it often.  So combine the challenge of mastering the control of a helicopter with the lack of good communication, you could say I had my work cut out for me.  Everyone of our staff flight instructors was going to get a piece of the action, so I volunteered to do the first two weeks of training. Three students were in their late 20's and one student was in his mid 40's.  He also was the one that could speak English.  All of these people had some prior helicopter flight instruction in the Robinson R-22, but the remainder of the training was to be completed in the Aereospatiale AS-350 A Star.  This would be like going from a Ford Pinto to a Mercedes.  As I have stated earlier in previous post, most helicopter control functions are pretty much the same.  The biggest differences would be the turbine engine and boosted hydraulic flight controls.  Also in helicopters manufactured in the United States, the main rotor turns counterclockwise, and in the Aereospatiale, the rotor turns clockwise.  This means the pilot will have to use the right anti-torque pedal, instead of the left pedal to control the thrust on the tail rotor during higher torque/power applications.

Aereospatiale AS 350

Robinson R-22

Aereospatiale AS350 Cockpit

Robinson R-22 Cockpit

I'm not knocking the R-22, it is a fine training helicopter and the transition into turbine powered helicopters I think would have been better accomplished with more flight time in the Robinson.  The need for beginning the training in the A-Star (Aereospatiale) at an earlier time in the training program was dictated by the Japanese government.  Their license requirements are pretty much the same as the United States, but with the exception of some differences and limitations.

Flight instructing in helicopters is a real challenge to say the least.  The other issue, is that once you have graduated from the ranks of being an instructor, you just want to move on and leave the task of teaching new pilots how to fly helicopters to somebody else.  However, you don't always have a choice.  I think in time, most people can learn what's necessary in the beginning, but it can be really trying at times.  In time the learning curve will start to peak and then it's a matter of refining all the little elements of each required maneuver in the training program.  Spending time giving good ground school, is also one of the necessary steps to get the job done properly.

I spent the first two days in the classroom reviewing the flight manual, cockpit checklist and the aircraft preflight.  This was well spent time, but not always to the liking of the company, as they are most interested in flight hours which produce more revenue.

It sure worked well for me.  Each day, the students would arrive at the airport early and go over the preflight as a group and the aircraft would be clean from one end to the other.  This is one thing I found about the Japanese students, they are very serious about learning and dedicated to do the very best they can.  I flew with the students approximately one  hour at a time, but I made sure they were all on board the aircraft during the flight training.  When one student finished his flight training period, we would set down and change pilots for the next hour of training.  In that way we could get several hours of training in one day without too many stops other than for refueling the helicopter.

The two weeks time went by very quickly and the Japanese students were well on their way to completing this phase of training and I would soon be on my way back to the Los Angeles area.

Several weeks later, the training was completed and all the students passed their flight test for their pilots certificates.  This is the part I most enjoyed about being a flight instructor.  It's a good feeling  to know that you could pass on to someone else new knowledge and skill.  Besides that, I enjoyed the two weeks stay in Northern California and to have made some new international friends. More to come in the next post.............