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Houston: We have a problem


500F
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2012 started off as the one of the safest (if not the safest) year in aviation history, but the past 6 months have taken a turn for the worst.

 

The first 147 days of this year had only 1 fatal turbine helicotper crash in the US. Suspected anti-torque failure.

 

In the 171 days since we have had 11 fatal crashes. Early indications in causation point to:

 

4 Wirestrikes

2 IIMC

1 Spatial Disorientation

1 Crane strike

1 Bird Strike

1 Landing platform failed

1 Unknown

 

Did we just get lucky the first half of the year?

This stuff is nothing new, but the statistics show we have not done enough to address particularly wirestrikes and IIMC.

How do we fix this?

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That's a question that's been pondered over for a lot longer than I have been in aviation. The pitfalls of wire strikes and IIMC seem to just be an industry hazard. The things that helicopters do best puts them in a higher risk of getting caught in one of those two fatal traps.

 

A good analogy would be mining. Mining has inherent risk. And even when precautions are taken, sometimes mines collapse and people die. Many other industries have similar or even higher fatality rates. Aviation is still a relatively safe industry. Could we improve? Absolutely. Will we ever see the day that there are only a few accidents per year? I doubt it. Especially with the rapidity of new power lines popping up everywhere. It's getting harder and harder to avoid them.

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I will concede that not all accidents are preventable but I think most are, I've seen the difference wirestrike avoidance traning makes, and the difference management's perpective regarding risk makes on employees decisions to push the limits on IIMC.

 

I never though of the number of powerlines having anyhting to do with the wirestrike accident rate, I could be wrong I guess, but I just dont see it.

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The absence of accidents do not necessarily indicate safe operations and the occurence of them also don't indicate a lack of focus on safety. That being said, this trend is worrying; just yesterday a 500 had a wirestrike with two fatals and an EMS helicopter hit some power lines in Wyoming.

 

I think the number of wirestrikes and percentage of them that occur in CAVU conditions(86%) should be a good reminder to all of us.

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True, but if the pilot takes the necessary precautions and doesn't get complacent, the number of wires won't matter.

 

I think its important to remember that it can be difficult and sometimes impossible to see wires YOU KNOW ARE THERE!! Cherry drying this last season taught me that lesson. Depending on lighting and background, wires can, simply, vanish! All the training in the world won't enhance your vision. Extreme caution should always be taken, but, like I said, we are human and we make mistakes. I won't quote a statistic but I read on the internet (so it must be true, right?) that most pilots that survived a wire strike stated that they KNEW the wires were there. I don't know about you, but that says something to me. It tells me that unless we can find a way to supercede our sensory input and judgement, there will always be accidents due to wire strikes. With the wire environment growing and becoming more dense, I don't see this trend improving. Awareness training is important. Teaching pilots how to safely judge distance is important, however, with varying thickness, color, background, lighting, weather, etc... the variables that could affect depth perception makes it extremely difficult to tell how far you are from wires you can see. And there is always the possibility of a set you can't see. The best way to avoid wires is to stay out of the wire environment (classified as below 1000 ft). The next best way is to assume they are there and that you can't see them. Ok, so now what? Proceed with extreme caution. Unfortunately, even that might not be enough. We can talk about safety and training all day long, but it will only get you so far. When you are out flying in limited viz, doing work that brings you below 1000 feet. You can't see jack. Just keep your eyes peeled and look for the towers. Assume they are there. Don't push on when you know there are wires that you can't see. That's the best any of us can do!

 

In 2006 I lost a good friend when the MH-47 that he was flying on hit a guy wire for a radio tower. I also had to pull security on a blackhawk that hit another guy wire on a radio tower and killed everyone aboard (including a BG, a COL and a CW5) in 2004. What a mess! Flying in low viz low to the ground. Both times, they knew there were hazards out there that they couldn't see. Both times they pushed on anyway. Don't fall into that trap!!

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Bear in mind that the 500 pilot just came out of 2 weeks initial training with the company, mostly learning about the wire environment, as that is all we do!

 

The wire environment is not necessarily becoming a whole lot more dense, not in most areas anyway. Yes there is new construction in some areas but for the most part, the lines in place have been there for a long time.

Edited by Trans Lift
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Wires scare me more than just about anything else. They can be impossible to see at times, especially at night landing at an accident scene. NVGs help, but there is no magic bullet that I know of. My primary defense is to make every approach steep and very, very slow, and the takeoff vertical. I'm not crazy about hovering OGE climbs, but I try to guard against the most likely hazard, and a wire that nobody has seen is by far the most likely hazard in this situation, far outweighing an engine failure. I don't troll for wires, especially at night.

 

If you fly a helicopter, you have to go into dangerous places. That's why helicopters exist. If you want to stay in the safe places, fly a fixed-wing at high altitudes between airports. That's not what helicopters do, however, so we have to put them in places that can cause accidents if we want to justify using one. There can be no complete safety when flying low, and working in the dead-man's curve. But helicopters have to work there, so there will be accidents now and then. There are too many, of course, and too many as a result of pilots doing things they didn't have to do. Get down low when you have to, but don't do it when you don't. And you certainly don't have to all the time.

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Snipped

 

I understand what you're saying. I know there isn't a fix all, but you know better than anyone that complacency kills. A complacent pilot doesn't keep the vigil eye on the horizon for towers. I know there's more to it, that's mainly what I was getting at, though.

 

Also, Rick's presentation on Wire Strikes at Heli-Success outlined the pitfalls of perception to the T. It was a very humbling presentation and made you really think about the things you can't see. Hopefully it pops up in the More Stuff > Articles section soon for all to see.

 

Since you brought up cherry drying, Mike mentioned something at the FAAST brief before Heli-Success that I NEVER thought of. It's simple too. Hi-Vis tape (pink, orange, other bright contrasting colors) fastened to the tops of the trees near the lines that served as markers he would never fly past. Again, I understand it isn't feasible to do something like this near every wire, but it falls in line with precautions and mitigating risk.

 

 

PS Completely unrelated, but I'm really glad I participate with this forum. I've learned a lot that I'll be able to bring forward with me and I want to thank everyone who contributes.

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I've always wanted to invent some type of LED blinking light that could be clipped onto wires around what field you are flying in or around areas where helicopter traffic is greater...or even onto every wire every between each pole...

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I understand what you're saying. I know there isn't a fix all, but you know better than anyone that complacency kills. A complacent pilot doesn't keep the vigil eye on the horizon for towers. I know there's more to it, that's mainly what I was getting at, though.

 

True, but its certainly more than that. When you are 70' AGL the horizon is blocked by trees etc. You need to be able to read the hardware as well. As anotehr poster said. you need to understand where invisible wire could be and dont go in until you are sure its not there.

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