19 August 2010

Weather and Wires

Here's my understanding of what happened:
It was a little after midnight when the flight request came in. The pilot checked weather and accepted the flight at 0035 hours.
At 0041 the aircraft lifted and informed dispatch that they were airborne with three aboard.
At 0043 they called called again, saying they were aborting the flight due to weather and returning to base.
The dispatcher assumed the aircraft had landed safely.

At 0610 hours the oncoming day-shift pilot arrived to find the helipad empty. He called dispatch to inquire as to the whereabouts of the helicopter and crew.
It's hard to imagine the tension and emotion all must have felt at that point.
The wreckage of the helicopter was found at 0820 hours. All aboard were killed instantly when the helicopter collided with the water of the Choctawhatchee Bay.

We stay often in Destin, less than 30 minutes drive from the base where this helicopter took off that night. I'm familiar with how quickly the weather can change there.
But it can change quickly almost anywhere. I have on more than one occasion landed the helicopter at our base and walked in to complete my paperwork, only to find the helicopter almost completely shrouded in fog when I return 30 minutes later to put the logbook back in its appointed slot.

I'm more and more cautious as I grow older. As I type this post our local airport is reporting 10 miles visibility, sky clear, calm winds, temperature 24, dewpoint 22. Two airports within 30 miles are reporting 6 miles visibility with calm winds and temperature/dewpoints within 2 degrees centigrade. I expect our visibility will be headed South soon, and if I'm called to fly a patient I'll probably turn the flight down...
I don't want to kill 4 trying to help 1.

All three aboard the fatal flight above were killed instantly and a prompt search for them would have made no difference in the outcome, so I was somewhat surprised to find there was disciplinary action taken against the dispatchers for their actions. They'll no doubt feel guilty for the rest of their lives, and that's too bad.

There is one thing that kills more people in helicopters than any other:
Colliding with wires.
Helicopters lend themselves to foolishness. It's fun to get "down in the bushes" and zip along at high speed... you can better sense how fast you're going when you're down low. But the environment is "dirty" down there...
Wires, support cables, unlit towers and poles, and even kid's kite strings have brought helicopters braving low altitudes to their demise.
And of course those obstacles are worse when you add darkness or weather-reduced visibility to the equation.

"There are old pilots and bold pilots, but NO old, bold pilots" is a saying aviators hear over and over during their careers.
A potentially fatal accident very early in my career convinced me that saying is true.
That accident and that realization helped me to get to this point... where I'll turn flights down when the wind is calm and temperatures and dewpoints come together and the trend is for reduced visibilities.
When I look in the mirror I see gray hair and lots of wrinkles.
If you fly and want to have lots of great stories to tell when you are wrinkled and gray, you need to heed my warning about weather and wires!


On a Wing and a Whim said...

John Graybill, who was an amazingly good pilot, once said to my IA, "You know, I've only ever gotten in trouble when I've gotten close to the ground."

He died last week after decades of flight, by continuing into worsening weather (300-500ft visibility in a supercub).

I'm not that good a pilot; I'll heed his advice, and yours, instead of his actions.

Greybeard said...

Leaves a hole in your heart, doesn't it Wing/Whim?
Thank you for reinforcing my point.

And for those of you that don't click on the comments of others to see what's goin' on in their world, you're missing one of the best parts of blogging. Wing and Whim is doing something you and I have only dreamed of...
She's rebuilding an old classic airplane with her own hands!
You really should go check her out and read of her irritations and successes.

The Old Man said...

Amen, bro. I intend to harass you for years and if you fly stupid I won't get the chance. Call me if the MG deal gives a window.

On a Wing and a Whim said...

Greybeard, you're gonna make me blush. I'm just putting my plane together - like any girl oughta be able to do. It's not ambitious until I fly her down from Alaska to Tennessee later this year.

Yeah, it tears a hole in my heart - lost folks every week in the last three weeks, and while cause is unknown for one (What in bleeping expletive makes a C-17 with no load and light fuel fall out of the sky?) and mechanical for another, the others were clearly CFIT.

Timothy Frazier said...

Sobering. That advice doesn't just apply to helicopters and fixed wings.

Sorry for the loss of friends and comrades.