Many moons ago, a new-hire pilot told me about a flight he had on his most recent shift. This flight was outside of our normal local operating area, and would certainly involve a fuel stop for the return with our normal fuel loadout. After giving me the general details of the flight, he told me that the low fuel warning light illuminated on short approach into the primary destination: a rooftop helipad in a major city. After shutting down and dropping off the passengers, he elected to start up and depart the pad to the nearest fuel source: a towered airport approximately seven minutes away by air. That’s right: he departed with the low fuel warning light still illuminated.
This past week the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a report about the July 3, 2015 crash of an Airbus AS350B3e conducting Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) operations in Colorado. As seen in video at the base helipad, the aircraft yaws left while skids are on the ground and then continues to yaw left as the helicopter becomes airborne and goes out of camera view. The helicopter reappears as it crashes behind the site, and a post-crash fire develops almost instantly. What happened? What actions could the pilot have taken?
During some recent helicopter recurrent training we discussed various accidents and reviewed videos of said accidents. While analyzing accident video is an important method for learning ways to avoid making the same mistakes, something else can be gleaned from this available evidence: everybody is recording video or taking photos of our helicopter flight. We are in the public’s eyes at all times.
It never ceases to amaze me how frequently two aircraft, with so much airspace available, can converge and require a course/altitude adjustment to prevent collision. As pilots we have to maintain vigilance in scanning for traffic. While Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) and verbal traffic alerts from controllers help, they don’t replace the need to visually scan. At uncontrolled/non-towered airports this becomes even more vital as there are no controllers to help you, and inexperienced and/or poorly-trained pilots are drawn to these locations.
You’re sitting around after having finished some ground instruction with your student. Your flight school also contracts out to local news agencies for photo flights. One station’s photographer shows up to the office, needing to launch for photos of an active search scene. You do a logged, pre-flight briefing via the CSRA Direct User Access Terminal Service (DUATS), with no Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) established in the area published in the Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) section. You met the requirements of 14 CFR 91.103. You push start. Your estimated time enroute is 30 minutes.