Police Helicopter Pilot

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Final Report On 2009 New Mexico State Police Helicopter Crash Is Published

The long awaited report on the New Mexico State Police- fatal helicopter crash (June 9th, 2009) was released late last month by the NTSB.  In many ways there are no real surprises in it.  It was expected that the NTSB would find fault with the pilot's decision to take off from the remote mountain landing zone, while surrounded by inclement weather and darkness.  I don't say that to be harsh on the pilot, it was just obvious that they would find fault with it.  But the report goes much deeper than that, examining every aspect of the New Mexico State Police aviation program, the pilot's duties within the State Police, sleep habits, etc.  Essentially no stone was left unturned.  The aviation community and particularly the police aviation community should welcome such thorough investigations.

It seems so redundant to say that we must learn from others mistakes, because that is what we say each and every time we discuss one of these cases.  But it is emphatically true.  To not study, learn, and discuss incident's such as this would be simply unprofessional. 

Each of us make mistakes on a daily or weekly basis, whether flying or on the ground, that potentially could cost us our lives.  The annual death toll on our nations highways proves this to be true.  Hence the old saying "There but for the grace of God go I."  It is in that vein that we look at this report.

The number of lessons that can be drawn from it are almost to numerous to mention.  One of the most glaring however is that this rescue mission into high altitude rugged terrain, in deteriorating weather conditions, in a complex aircraft, with darkness closing in, was undertaken essentially as a single pilot operation, and without the help of NVGs.  Yes there was another officer on board.  But that officer was an un-trained air crew member who had never been up in New Mexico State's police helicopter before that fateful day.  Be assured, one cannot place any blame at his feet.  The vast majority of patrol officers on any agency would have gladly stepped up and accepted the same mission.

As an un-trained air crew member this officer likely had no idea that he was an integral part of the air crew, who has equal authority to decline a mission or decline that take off from that mountain top landing zone in inclement weather.  Even if he had understood this, he did not have any air crew experience on which to base a decision. 

True the FAA gives final authority to the pilot in command.  But as a member of an air crew, with your life as much on the line, the TFO has absolutely as much say so as the pilot.  The saying "two to go, one to say no" means that both crew members have to agree before they can launch on a mission, but it only takes one crew member to say "no" they are not comfortable with the mission.  This rule can of course be invoked at any time, during any air mission.  Just because the TFO has not yet mastered the controls of a helicopter, or passed a check ride, does not mean that his or her concerns on the safe operation of the helicopter are any less valid. 

The NTSB seemed to find plenty of fault within the New Mexico State Police air unit and command.  To include; an attitude among some of the command that was not compatible with aviation safety, staffing issues within the air unit, specifically the lack of trained TFOs, the pilot in command having split duties as public information officer, and the complete lack of any type of risk assessment. 

I will not re-hash the entire report here.  Instead I would encourage anyone who flies, whether you are a member of an air crew or not, to read the report and take your own lessons from it. 

The entire 77 page report can be read here

R.I.P Sgt. Andrew F Tingwall, and Megumi Yamamoto (student from Tokyo)

Tragedy Strikes Pima County (AZ) Sheriff's Aviation Unit

Pima County Sheriff's MD530F & Helio Courier aircraft. This appears to be the same helicopter involved in the fatal crash on Monday.A Pima County Arizona Sheriff's Department helicopter with four souls on board crashed Monday morning around 1130 am while scouting an area for new communication towers.  The pilot, Loren Leonberger 60, was fatally injured in the crash.  Of the three other occupants on board the helicopter two were reported to be in serious condition and on was reported to be in critical condition. 

The civilian pilot, Leonberger, first flew helicopters with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1970.  Prior to coming to work for the Pima County Sheriff's Department he worked as a helicopter pilot for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.  The crash occurred approximately 40 miles northwest of Tucson International airport in a rugged area of Waterman Mountain, in the Ironwood Forest National Monument area.  The exact circumstances of the crash are uncertain at this time according to the FAA.

After the crash one passenger identified as Edwin Nettleton (58), a radio engineer, called 911 to report the crash and advise that he was afraid the helicopter wreckage would fall over a cliff if he attempted to climb out.  He also expressed his concern about fire.  Nettleton told dispatchers that he suffered a broken wrist in the crash.

According the rescuers on scene the helicopter did apparently tumble 100 to 150 yards down the side of the mountain before it came to rest against a tree. 

While the helicopter crash investigation is in the very early stages and it is unknown if weather played a factor, there were some reports of a hail storm approximately 3 miles from the crash site, around the time of the crash.  However, records at the Marana airport, closest to the crash site showed that winds there were calm.  

In the past the Pima County Sheriff's Department operated one MD 530F helicopter, which the same make and model helicopter reported to be involved in the crash. 

The MD 500 series helicopter is a reliable, and rugged 4 passenger helicopter well suited for off field and rescue work in- rugged terrain.  The MD 530F is the preferred patrol helicopter for many agencies including the San Diego Sheriff's Department.  One of the things that makes the MD530F popular among pilots is it's reputation for survivability in crashes. 

The Pima County Sheriff's Department Aviation Unit was featured in an article here at Police Helicopter Pilot.com back in January of 2010. 

Police Helicopter Pilot sends it's condolences to the family of the pilot, Loren Leonberger.  RIP

"Got the wires?" "Got em" High Tension Wires Continue To Be Helicopter Killers!

As a young deputy I was getting my first opportunity to go for a flight in one of our ASTREA patrol helicopters.  The purpose of the flight was to get some aerial photos of a crime scene.  The pilot had landed in an open field near our semi-rural patrol station.  As the helicopter skids left the ground, the pilot started talking to me in a way that I thought was kind of strange.  It went something like "Ok a little left pedal, a little left cyclic, and we're going to go up and over those wires right there."  At the time I wasn't quite sure why he was telling me this, but I thought "OK".

If you were to climb in the back seat of one of our patrol helicopters today, and go on a patrol flight with us, you would here similar talk between the two crew members.  While we don't necessarily verbalize every control input, there are certain things that we do verbalize every time.  Flying over or in the area of high tension wires is one of those times.  When approaching wires, one member of the crew will call them out and the other member will acknowledge them.  It goes something like  this, "coming up on the wires", "got the wires".   You might also here "crossing on the pole", or like one of our pilots likes to say "adding a couple hundred extra feet for the wife & kids." 

What we are practicing here is basic CRM, "Cockpit Resource Management" or "Crew Resource Management" whichever term you prefer.  All pilots are familiar with the concept. 

For us, verbally calling out every set of high tension wires, every time we fly over or near them is part of a disciplined approach to identifying hazards to flight.  In addition it continuously reminds us where every set of high tension wires in the county are located, particularly along some of our standard flight paths.   

No one likes to talk about the mistakes of dead pilots.  But talk about them we must in order to learn and hopefully prevent ourselves from ever making the same fatal mistake(s).  The fiery crash of a Bell 206 helicopter with 4 souls on board, near Auberry Ca. earlier this month is a sad reminder of the dangers of high tension wires.  But there is a little more to this crash than simply flying along and not seeing the wires, or not knowing they were there.  One must read the NTSB preliminary report carefully to see what I am referring to.

wikimedia.org photoIn this case, "crossing on the pole" would almost assuredly have saved the lives of the pilot and the 3 Fish & Game wildlife biologist who were passengers on the helicopter.  If you can envision two towers with a span of high tension wires between them, you would see that the high tension wires have at least some droop to them.  The greater the span, the greater the droop.  But in this case there is a smaller lighter wire running from the top of each tower to the opposite tower.   These wires are often much harder to see, and do not have the same droop as the heavier wires.  In this case the Bell 206 came down a canyon in straight and level flight over the top of the drooped high tension wires, but apparently did not see the smaller ground wire running between the tops of the two towers.  There is little doubt as to what occurred as the crash was witnessed by two USFS law enforcement officers who were in the area. 

Every year in America you can count on one or two low flying helicopters, following freeways during bad weather and often at night, crashing into high tension power lines.  The result is always the same, a fiery crash onto the freeway. 

Whether you are an LE pilot, civilial pilot, future pilot, or even a passenger in a helicopter calling out wires, knowing their locations along your flight path, and even knowing a little bit about them may very well save your life one day. 

Remember, altitude is your friend & "got the wires."