Read More: What's New at HAI HELI-EXPO in Atlanta
February 28, 2019

HAI HELI-EXPO® has become a must-attend event in the helicopter industry. The show annually brings the helicopter industry together for four days of meetings, education, and networking. And of course, there’s always lots of excitement on a show floor packed with more than 700 exhibitors displaying the latest aircraft, engines, avionics, and everything an aviation business needs. 

This year, HAI has added some new content to help keep you updated on the latest trends in the industry. From new Professional Education courses and Rotor Safety Challenge sessions to helicopter trendsetters at HAI Connect and a fresh take on the Salute to Excellence Awards—Atlanta will not disappoint. 

Welcome to Atlanta!

HAI HELI-EXPO visits the Gateway to the South for the first time, and there’s plenty of reason for visitors to get excited. Having just hosted Super Bowl LIII in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the city is big enough for HAI HELI-EXPO, with attractions, museums, and history for everyone. The College Football Hall of Fame, the site of the HAI HELI-EXPO 2019 Welcome Reception, is on the east side of the Georgia World Congress Center complex. A few blocks away are the Coca-Cola museum and the Georgia Aquarium, the largest in the Western Hemisphere. A visit to the Martin Luther King National Historical Park is one option, as is a visit to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. Visit for more suggestions or information.

Salute to Excellence Luncheon
Wednesday, March 6, 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm

For more than 50 years, HAI has recognized the outstanding achievements and exceptional merit of individuals and organizations in the international helicopter community. This annual awards event has been moved to the lunch hour, just steps from the show floor so it’s easy to attend this premier event of HAI HELI-EXPO. Tickets can be purchased online when you register for HAI HELI-EXPO or on-site at Attendee Registration.

New Convention Center

HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 will be held in Halls B and C of the Georgia World Congress Center, the fourth-largest convention center in the United States. There will be a connector between the two halls so attendees can travel between the halls in comfort. And the connector isn’t just a way to get from B to C—there will also be food options, seating areas, and music.
Take advantage of the photo booth in Hall B, located between meeting rooms B209 and B210, where you can capture—and easily share—your memories from HAI HELI-EXPO 2019.

Welcome Reception at College Football Hall of Fame
Monday, March 4, 6:30 pm – 9:00 pm

The HAI HELI-EXPO Welcome Reception is always a good time, but this year will be special for all attendees who are fans of college football. Sponsored by Bell, the reception will take place at the College Football Hall of Fame, across the street from the Georgia World Congress Center. Have fun with your colleagues as you debate the greatest college football program of all time. There is also an indoor playing field where you can demonstrate your skills.

New HAI Professional Education Courses

HAI Professional Education courses are scheduled before or after the show. The courses are taught by industry experts and designed specifically for helicopter professionals; tracks include safety, pilot skills, operations, maintenance, inspection authorization renewal, and career development. Professional Education courses require a separate registration, in addition to your HAI HELI-EXPO registration. You can view the complete Professional Education schedule at Read on to learn about our most exciting new courses.

Part 107 UAS Ground School
Sunday, March 3, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm

There’s no denying that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have become a growing part of the industry. For the first time, HAI is offering a Part 107 ground school that prepares attendees to take and pass an FAA Part 107 knowledge test, which enables them to operate small UAS. Previous aeronautical knowledge certainly helps, but this course does not require experience.

Underwater Egress Procedures and EBD Familiarization
Monday, March 4, 8:00 am - 5:00 pm

If your aircraft crashed in water, would you know how to escape? This course—held at the Georgia World Congress Center for half the day, and at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel pool for the other half—provides all personnel working or traveling on or over water with the basic knowledge and skills necessary to egress aircraft in a ditching emergency while deploying an emergency breathing device (EBD). 

But Wait … There’s More

Don’t miss these other great new courses:

  • Aviation Safety Programs and Emergency Preparedness, Saturday, March 2, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • The Emotionally Effective Leader, Saturday, March 2, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Introduction to Vertical Reference Long-Line and External Cargo Training, Saturday, March 2, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Helicopter Flight Instructor Refresher Course, Sunday, March 3, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Introduction to the Dirty Dozen Contributing Factors, Sunday, March 3, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
  • Integrating UAS into Your Current Operation, Monday, March 4, 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm

New HFI Rotor Safety Challenge Sessions

The HFI Rotor Safety Challenge offers a slate of safety education sessions, free to registered HAI HELI-EXPO attendees and exhibitors. This year’s Challenge is sponsored by MD Helicopters. Many Rotor Safety Challenge events are eligible for FAA WINGS and AMT program credits. Plan your day now with the full schedule at

The 2019 Rotor Safety Challenge features some new sessions, including: 

John and Martha King: Avoiding Unwanted Helicopter Adventures
Tuesday, March 5, 2:30 pm - 4:00 pm

After an aircraft accident and discovering their own sense of vulnerability, John and Martha say they have become “born-again pilots.” The Kings use humor and stories from real-world cross-country experience to vividly illustrate principles of risk management and pass along practical and insightful tools you will use forever.

Other New Safety Sessions

Be sure to attend these other exciting new sessions:

  • Increase Focus to Increase Safety, Tuesday, March 5, 10:30 am – 11:30 am
  • Special Instrument Procedures and Increased Risk Management, Wednesday, March 6, 9:15 am – 10:15 am
  • Safety: Neither a Goal Nor a Priority, Tuesday, March 5, 1:15 pm – 2:15 pm
  • Helicopter Ditching and Egress: Evaluate, Prepare, Perform, Tuesday, March 5, 9:15 am – 10:15 am; Wednesday, March 6, 8:00 am – 9:00 am
  • Safely Managing Helipads, Wednesday, March 6, 8:00 am – 9:00 am

New Events at HAI Connect

HAI Connect (#B5014 ) is a space that hosts special events, meetups, interviews, and networking opportunities on a range of subjects relevant to you. This event space is right on the show floor, so be sure to check the schedule often on the monitors at HAI Connect and in the show app.

Chuck Aaron: Get Inspired – a Career in the Helicopter Industry
Tuesday, March 5, 2:00 pm – 2:30 pm

A living legend in the helicopter industry, Chuck Aaron knows his stuff. Join him in HAI Connect for an overview of careers and opportunities in the helicopter industry. 

Read More: Simulator Training Hits Its Stride
February 28, 2019

For many years, the helicopter industry has seen simulator training as something the big operations do. Yes, the top-of-the-line Level D simulators do provide a great training environment. But it also costs a great deal to rent these devices, if one is even available for your aircraft.

Many in our industry prefer to conduct all training in an aircraft. “I want my training to be as realistic as possible,” said one pilot I spoke with, “and what could be more realistic than training in an actual helicopter?”
Actually, training in a simulated environment offers a host of benefits for pilots and operators, including enhanced realism. And the good news is that you don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune to reap those benefits.

Read More: Pilot Pathway Programs Gain Traction
November 13, 2018

One way to expand your pilot recruiting pool? Partner with a flight school.

As recently as 2011, Mark Schlaefli received a stack of nearly 400 pilot resumes at the beginning of every tour season at Papillon Helicopters in Las Vegas. He’d heard about a looming pilot shortage, but it didn’t seem to be an issue. He had plenty of talent to choose from and new pilots calling all the time.

At about the same time, flight schools from around the region began reaching out to companies like Papillon to discuss partnerships that would create pathways to professional pilot careers. Flight schools would benefit by promoting a career path for its pilots while operators would enjoy a steady source of pilots trained to standards vetted by the operators.

“We really didn’t see a need to have such a partnership, with so many pilots sending us resumes, so we didn’t pursue the opportunity,” says Schlaefli, who is now director of operations at Las Vegas–based Sundance Helicopters. “I’ve come to regret that decision. We should have been partnering with schools all along, participating in the development of pilots from an early stage to help ensure qualified pilots.”

Today, not only is the stack on Schlaefli’s desk much shorter, the skill and experience of candidates applying for the jobs is lower than previous years.

“Our industry has an arbitrary 1,000-hour minimum turbine time requirement for new hires, but each year the number of pilots with that experience shrinks,” says Schlaefli. “There is no regulation requiring it. It’s operator imposed.

“We need to think outside the box to keep our pipelines open, such as partnerships and programs to ensure skill and safety in lower time pilots,” he says. “Time in a logbook does not necessarily equal experience or the capacity to be a professional helicopter pilot.”

Schlaefli is not alone. Historically, US Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Air and Marine Operations (AMO) hired the majority of its aviation agents directly from the military, with pilots from regional airlines being a close second. However, competition with airlines for these pilots paired with increased bonuses to remain in military service have significantly reduced the talent pool. At the same time, AMO is expanding, both increasing current pilot ranks and expanding into the unmanned aircraft sector.

Fifteen years ago, CBP required all new-hire helicopter pilots to spend time as a ground agent before transitioning to aircraft in order to gain a strong understanding of the operation. There was plenty of interest and no threat of a shortage of talent.

Today, with all air operations for the CBP now under AMO, the requirement to serve as a ground agent no longer exists. Yet competition is fierce for qualified applicants who meet the agency’s 1,500-hour minimum.

Read More: Testing the Unmanned K-MAX’s (and Our Own) Limits
November 13, 2018

Sometimes trust is all we have. But whom (or what) should we believe in?

Bingo Fuel. It was a caution light none of us had seen previously, at least not while operating the CQ-24A Unmanned K-MAX aircraft. With the vehicle many miles from home base, the light was a real concern: it signified a minimum fuel state for the return flight, the words on the command tent’s big screen for all to see.

The Situation

I was directing a team of contractors testing the K-MAX’s ability to deliver cargo while operating autonomously, part of our workup before we began flying actual missions. We were in southwestern Afghanistan, watching the operator maneuver the aircraft over Forward Operating Base Payne miles to the south of us. Because the K-MAX was over the horizon, the operator was using the Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) datalink.

Maneuvering manually under BLOS was nonstandard, but I had directed it as a contingency in case the Payne equipment, operated by two Marines we had previously trained, became inoperative. We already knew that the K-MAX could autonomously complete a flight, but I thought it useful to know if we could reposition manually if asked to do so by the landing zone controllers. After all, this was a war zone—stuff happens.

We soon discovered that manual control of a hovering, over-the-horizon aircraft was difficult work. The CQ-24A BLOS installation had the same limitation as any other: system lag. Once a control input was made from our command tent, it could take up to six seconds for the signal to bounce off an orbiting satellite, travel down to the aircraft, influence its vector, send the resulting change in attitude, speed, and position back up to the satellite, and then back down to the operator’s graphic user interface (GUI) screen. (This provided team members with the rare opportunity to complain about the speed of light.)

With this lag, it was quite easy to “chase” the aircraft. Our eventual technique was to make a one-second input on the hand controller, release, then wait until we saw the K-MAX’s icon stop on the GUI screen. Repeated as necessary, the process was as tedious as it was inefficient.

Further, the BLOS installation was so basic that there was no guarantee a one-second displacement on the hand controller would produce the same amount of aircraft movement each time. And without external cameras, the operator had to surmise his entire closed-loop feedback from the GUI screen.

More Than a Fancy Science Project

The Unmanned K-MAX had begun as a mere science project years before. The brainchild of Greg Lynch, a Lockheed Martin program manager and former Air Force helicopter pilot, he first fought his own superiors and then Department of Defense officials over the feasibility of an unmanned helicopter delivering supplies to remote locations in a combat theater.

Lynch believed the K-MAX was the perfect platform for this, an aircraft already proven by hundreds of thousands of manned flight hours. The K-MAX design was simple for a helicopter, which meant it was reliable to the extreme. It was also quiet. Its dual intermesher configuration didn’t require a tail rotor, making its aural signature among the lowest in the world.

The Unmanned K-MAX prototype, using off-the-shelf components, began winning the hearts and minds of executives and officials alike through a series of successful demonstrations, culminating in a final test in 2011. By this time, the United States had absorbed significant ground convoy casualties in its two war zones. The military saw the ground convoy as the primary method of satisfying the logistical needs of the warfighter—and our adversaries saw them as targets with high rewards and low risks.

With the military eager to “get supplies off the roads,” nearly overnight the fancy science project gathered sufficient momentum for the Marines to send it to Afghanistan, as is, with civilians as its maintainers and half of its operators.

Read More: On the Trail of the Dragon Slayers
November 13, 2018

My plan was to visit commercial helicopter operators fighting wildland fires in the western United States. It seemed there were fires everywhere, some springing up overnight, and every operator I spoke to said, “Sure—come on out!”

I’d ask, “Where should I meet your folks?” and they’d reply, “Not really sure where they’ll be.”

“When should I be there?” They’d respond, “Can’t really say.”

So with a car full of cameras, beef jerky, and energy drinks, I set out on a journey of discovery and happenstance. And you know what? It worked out just fine.

Read More: ADS-B: It's Crunch Time
November 13, 2018

Here’s what you need to know to create your ADS-B Out compliance plan

With barely 14 months left before the January 1, 2020, mandate for ADS-B installation, it is now crunch time. Most aircraft have one more maintenance cycle before that due date to facilitate the installation of your chosen system. Assuming you haven’t equipped yet, this article will give you the information you need to make your ADS-B equipage decision.

The ADS-B Out Mandate

Both transponders and ADS-B Out are simply surveillance equipment. The transponder and corresponding radar system date back to the 1930s, relying on a radar “ping” to measure your distance and establish your location.

At a little more than a decade old, ADS-B Out is the modern version of this surveillance. It uses own-ship determination of location and then broadcasts your location to the FAA’s NextGen Traffic Management System. ADS-B will allow air traffic controllers to put more aircraft in the same space with closer margins and accuracy.

14 CFR 91.225, which sets forth the regulations for ADS-B Out equipment and use, requires that aircraft be equipped with ADS-B Out for access to rule airspace. It further defines the scope and limitation of rule airspace. You are encouraged to review 14 CFR 91.225 paragraphs (a) and (d) to become familiar with the airspace that will require ADS-B Out equipment, or see figure 1 below, which graphically shows the rule airspace.

Read More: The Pilot's Perspective: Why I Equipped with ADS-B In
November 13, 2018

Equip with ADS-B Out because the FAA says so. Equip with ADS-B In to gain game-changing situational awareness.

The last time the general aviation community had to deal with a regulatory mandate as big as the January 1, 2020, requirement to have ADS-B Out (automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast out) installed in your aircraft was when the FAA required aircraft owners and operators to equip their machines with a transponder if they were to operate in rule airspace under Part 91.215.

Now with the deadline barely a year away, we are faced with another mandate by the FAA to upgrade our aircraft.

In the United States, there are about 170,000 general aviation aircraft, of which more than 10,000 are helicopters. Many of these aircraft owners will elect to equip their machines with the newest technology but some will choose not to, based on a host of reasons.

Should I Equip?

I hope you have read Ric Peri’s excellent article on ADS-B Out (p. 40), which goes into detail about the rule airspace where the ADS-B Out mandate will apply, as well as guiding you through some of the equipage process. I would only add that it is possible to fly from coast to coast without ever hitting that airspace. If you don’t fly in rule airspace—and you don’t anticipate flying in rule airspace—then you are not compelled to equip under the January 1, 2020, mandate.

If your aircraft does not have an engine-driven electrical system, then it is not required to have ADS-B Out. Under this scenario, however, it would most likely not have a panel-mounted radio either, so chances are you are not in the airspaces affected by the ADS-B Out mandate anyway.

Another factor to consider when deciding to equip is where your aircraft’s future owners will want to fly. When you move to sell, will your aircraft—not equipped and therefore limited in the airspace in which it can fly—have the same curb appeal of an aircraft that is equipped?

Added value is difficult to gauge and rarely do we get back what we put in regarding avionics. However, having ADS-B Out will certainly make your aircraft more attractive than a similarly equipped machine if the prospective buyer doesn’t have to figure adding ADS-B into the cost equation.

Read More: After the Violation of an FAR
November 13, 2018

A kinder, gentler FAA? The US aviation regulator is changing its enforcement tactics.

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as or relied upon as legal advice. If you have questions about a specific FAA investigation of you or your company, or about an administrative, compliance, or enforcement action, you should contact an attorney.

What happens after you violate a Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR)? There have been some changes recently in how the FAA handles the process.

Prior to 2015, the enforcement action was the FAA’s primary method for dealing with violators. The agency could initiate an enforcement action, which could include a fine and either suspension or revocation of a certificate, against any FAA-certificated entity, including operators, pilots, maintenance technicians, repair stations, and equipment manufacturers.

In 2015, the FAA adopted a program known as the Compliance Philosophy. An attempt to embrace a just culture, the Compliance Philosophy is built around the idea that very few people get up in the morning thinking about how unsafe they plan on being that day. Most FAR violations are the result of honest mistakes, lack of knowledge, or lack of skill. In a just culture, people are encouraged to admit to their mistakes, and the goal is to improve safety—not to punish.

The FAA announced that it would focus on returning violators to compliance with the FARs and improving safety in the National Airspace System. Thus, the compliance action was born. If you haven’t heard of it, then read on, because the FAA has changed how it deals with some FAR violations.

Letter of Investigation

You usually first learn that the FAA believes you have violated an FAR when you receive a letter of investigation (LOI). The LOI usually ends with the following invitation to discuss the incident with the FAA: “We wish to offer you an opportunity to discuss the incident in person or submit a written statement.… Your statement should contain all pertinent facts and any mitigating circumstances.… If we do not hear from you within the specified time, we will process this matter without the benefit of your statement.”

Your first inclination may be to immediately respond to the LOI, but first, take a moment. Consider whether a response is appropriate and what that response should be. There is no obligation to respond to an LOI—the FAA will neither penalize nor reward you for responding. Furthermore, any statements you make in your response can be used against you. In fact, there are cases where the response to an LOI helped the FAA prove its charges. Because the decision of whether to respond to an LOI and what to say depends on the particular facts of your case, talk with your attorney before responding to an LOI.

An FAA investigation commenced by an LOI can end in one of four ways:

  • No violation found
  • Administrative action
  • Enforcement action
  • Compliance action.

Of course, the best outcome of an investigation is the FAA finding no violation. Another option is the route of an administrative action. This does not result in a violation against you, but typically the FAA will issue a warning notice (that stays on your record for two years) or a letter of corrective action for you to take.

Enforcement Action

The penalties of an enforcement action come in two types. The FAA can issue a notice of proposed certificate action, which either proposes to suspend or revoke your certificate. It can also issue a notice of proposed civil penalty, which proposes a fine.

If you receive either of these notices during an enforcement action, you can submit any evidence favorable to you and request what is known as an informal conference with the FAA. Bring your legal counsel. At the informal conference, the FAA will hear the information you want to present and consider whether this information should affect the proposed action.

As stated by the FAA in its Enforcement Manual: “The FAA does not use the informal conference to gather additional evidence or admissions to prove the charges in the enforcement action. The FAA, however, may use any information revealed by the apparent violator for impeachment purposes if the apparent violator makes a contrary statement about a material fact later in the proceeding.” Thus, when speaking with the FAA, speak carefully, as misstatements can be used against you.

If you are unsuccessful at having all charges withdrawn at the informal conference, then the FAA will issue an order that suspends or revokes your certificate and/or results in a fine. An FAA order suspending or revoking a certificate can be appealed first to the National Transportation Safety Board and then to the federal courts. An FAA order that fines an operator is generally appealed to the Department of Transportation and then also to the federal courts.

Compliance Action

The FAA’s fourth method for dealing with violations of the FARs is the compliance action, which is relatively new. The FAA refers to a compliance action as a nonenforcement method because, if you are offered a compliance action and meet its requirements, then you avoid a violation, which is clearly to your benefit.

Whether to offer a compliance action to a suspected violator, as opposed to pursuing an enforcement action, remains within the discretion of the FAA. However, there are some things that you can do to tilt the odds in your favor. First and most important, compliance actions are only available if the FAA determines that you have not willfully violated the FARs. The FAA says it will have “zero tolerance for intentional or reckless behavior,” and these cases will still be subject to enforcement actions.

The next test you must meet is to be “able and willing” to cooperate with the compliance action. The compliance action is designed to set up an honest and transparent dialogue between you and the FAA about what you did, what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how you will avoid similar situations.

The FAA uses that information to develop corrective measures to return you to compliance. If you complete these measures, you should avoid a violation. The goal, after all, is not to punish you but to return you to compliance with the FARs.

Generally, a compliance action ends with the completion of retraining or counseling, as opposed to a fine or suspension. You must be willing and able to comply with all the terms of the compliance action, including paying all training costs.

Another factor that could increase your chances of receiving a compliance action is having an effective safety management system (SMS) program. Why? This means you have a vibrant safety culture, where you and your colleagues actively work to identify safety hazards, engage in risk analysis and mitigation, and fine-tune your efforts based on results. Notice, I said an effective SMS program; the dusty manual on your shelf doesn’t count.

According to the FAA, under its Compliance Philosophy, it “will encourage a more proactive approach by airports, airmen, and organizations to disclose and develop measures that identify safety risk, prevent deviations, and ensure corrective actions are taken when deviations exist.” If you operate under an SMS, then the Compliance Philosophy’s focus on open communication, hazard identification and mitigation, and training should sound familiar.

The FAA has made clear that your retention of an attorney does not prevent you from obtaining a compliance action. Further, an initial refusal to respond to an LOI does not prevent you from obtaining a compliance action. However, once a compliance action has commenced, then you must voluntarily share information with the FAA.

Further, once you agree to enter into a compliance action, you must make a strong effort to remain in the program. If you are removed from a compliance action—maybe you never got around to completing your remedial training—the required disclosures you made as part of the compliance action can be used against you in an enforcement action.

Another balancing act that you and your counsel must undertake is this: if the FAA has not yet offered a compliance action, should you request one? While that answer will depend on your specific circumstances, I can tell you this: if you decide to request a compliance action, you must do so in such a way as to ensure that you are not admitting to certain things before you know you have the protection of a compliance action. If you are being investigated by the FAA and you wish to receive a compliance action, and one has not yet been offered, discuss with your attorney the best way to present the request to the FAA.

Embracing a Just Culture

The Compliance Philosophy should be viewed as a benefit for all of us who are certificated by the FAA. The FAA is clear that it will launch enforcement actions against those who are reckless or who do not want to comply with the FARs. And that’s as it should be—we need our regulator to keep us safe from those guys.

However, for those of us who make an honest mistake, have a temporary lapse of judgment, or let our skills get rusty, the alternative of a compliance action is a welcome change from an FAA that has embraced a just culture. 

Read More: Accident Recovery: Direct-to Disaster
August 08, 2018

After an accident, it’s usually clear that someone made a mistake ... often more than one “someone.” The official investigation, reconstruction, and analysis by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is less concerned with apportioning blame than identifying those points at which different decisions might have interrupted the resulting sequence of events. Even so, experts can and do draw different conclusions about the relative importance of actions taken by the drama’s various actors.

The October 15, 2008, destruction of a Bell 222 air ambulance was notable in several respects. Its collision with a brightly lit radio tower on a clear night appears to be an early example of the dangers of substituting GPS-direct navigation for systematic flight planning. The accident led the then–vice chairman of the NTSB to issue a rare written dissent from the agency’s finding of probable cause. And the deaths of the pilot, flight nurse, paramedic, and 14-month-old patient intensified public scrutiny of the hazards of helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operations, especially in low visibility or at night.

The Flight

At 9:12 p.m., the Valley West Hospital in Sandwich, Illinois, requested a helicopter transport. The call was relayed through the dispatch center operated by Reach Air Medical Services in Santa Rosa, California. Reach’s local operator, Air Angels, Inc., accepted the flight immediately. However, departure was delayed by difficulties in determining which hospital could take the patient. The ship lifted off from the Air Angels base at Clow International Airport in Bolingbrook at 10:54 p.m., arriving at the Valley West helipad at 11:11.

At 11:38, prior to departing Valley West, the pilot called Reach Air Medical Services dispatch with the information required by company protocol, including the helicopter’s takeoff weight and center of gravity, an initial heading of 080 degrees, and an estimated flight time of 18 minutes for the 38-mile trip to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Fuel supply was given as 1.5 hours. The exact time of liftoff was not reported but appears to have been about 11:49 p.m.

At 11:55, the pilot contacted DuPage Airport (KDPA), a Class D field with a 24-hour tower underlying the outer ring of Chicago O’Hare’s Class B complex. He gave his position as “over Aurora” at an altitude of 1,400 feet mean sea level (msl), or about 640 feet above the ground, and requested transit through KDPA’s airspace. The controller granted clearance but, because the flight was operating under visual flight rules (VFR), did not provide course guidance or obstacle warnings.

Radar track data showed the helicopter maintaining a straight-line course on a magnetic heading of 072 degrees, the direct route from West Valley to Children’s Memorial, at a constant altitude of 1,300 feet msl. The track ended abruptly at 11:58:25 p.m. at the site of a 734-foot radio tower. First responders found that the helicopter had struck the west side of the aerial about 50 feet below its top, crashed into a field, and caught fire.

Skies were clear, and the DuPage and Aurora airports reported 9 to 10 miles visibility. Surveillance footage showed that the tower’s two sets of high-intensity strobe lights were working before the collision.

Equipment, Personnel, and Procedures

Two months after Air Angels acquired the Bell 222 in 1999, they fitted it with a Garmin GNS 430 combination GPS and nav/comm radio. The unit had received a software update in January 2008, and its Jeppesen aviation database was last updated on June 1 of that year. The GPS was not certified for use under instrument flight rules (IFR). While its database included terrain and obstacle information, the software to display this had never been installed. Air Angels’ director of flight operations (DFO) confirmed that their pilots relied on the 430 as their primary navigation source.

The helicopter was also equipped with an autopilot capable of holding headings and altitudes. Typical practice was to fly at 1,500 feet msl in the daytime and 1,500 to 1,700 feet at night, 700 to 900 feet above typical terrain elevations in the Chicago area, at 125 to 130 knots. The DFO recalled that the accident pilot’s most recent line check had been interrupted by a patient call, which he’d handled according to the company’s operations manual. He’d used the autopilot during the en route portion of the flight.

The 69-year-old pilot had flown helicopters in Vietnam. According to his ex-wife, he’d been shot down seven times, and as a result, “most situations did not cause him much stress.” After leaving active duty, he’d continued to serve in the U.S. Army Reserve but apparently in a nonflying capacity.

His civilian career as a professional pilot had begun in 2004. He held a commercial certificate with an instrument-helicopter rating and private pilot privileges for single-engine airplanes, and had renewed his second-class medical certificate the previous January. Nearly 3,200 of his 3,565 hours of total flight time were in helicopters. The DFO, a former U.S. Army OH-58 pilot, described him as “very reliable and conscientious” and said he “flew his landing approaches in a slow and meticulous manner.”

The NTSB’s factual report lays considerable stress on the fact that the aircraft did not have a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS). Two and a half years earlier, the Board had recommended that the FAA require all HAA operators to outfit their aircraft with TAWS; the FAA initially responded by emphasizing preflight planning but also developed technical specifications for helicopter TAWS systems. 14 CFR 135.605, requiring installation and training in the use of approved TAWS equipment by all HAA operators, eventually took effect on April 24, 2017.

However, the report also acknowledges that the radio tower “was depicted on the Chicago Aeronautical Sectional Chart, the Chicago Visual Flight Rules Terminal Area Chart, the Chicago Helicopter Route Chart, and as an obstruction on the air traffic controller’s radar display.” It was widely known as the tallest structure in the vicinity of Air Angels’ base. As noted earlier, there was no apparent impediment to seeing its two sets of high-intensity strobes.

ATC’s Responsibility

Radar coverage in the KDPA tower was provided by live feeds from O’Hare’s approach surveillance radar, which depicts the radio tower. The accident flight’s track, cited earlier, showed it flying directly toward that tower, whose location and height were also on the list of local landmarks and hazards that KDPA controllers were required to memorize during training.

The NTSB’s finding of probable cause included “the … controller’s failure to issue a safety alert” as a contributing factor. It cited paragraph 2-1-6 of FAA Order 7110.65, which requires ATC to “issue a safety alert to an aircraft if you are aware the aircraft is in a position/altitude which, in your judgment, places it in unsafe proximity to terrain, obstructions, or other aircraft.” The order also acknowledges that “it is virtually impossible to develop a standard list of duty priorities that would apply uniformly to every conceivable situation.”

A contrarian viewpoint might note the pilot’s clear interest in avoiding a well-lighted hazard that was shown on all relevant aviation charts and was also familiar to him from more than two years of low-altitude HAA flights in that area.


Though we’ll never be certain why this accident happened, one possible clue emerged from the investigators’ interviews with the Air Angels’ DFO. He described the helipad at Children’s Memorial as “not optimal” thanks to a tall steeple near its northeast corner and an elevator shaft on its north side. The pad itself is 13 stories up and so small that a helicopter as big as the Bell 222 must perch with its tail boom hanging over the edge. The pilot wasn’t familiar with the site, and during an interview with the NTSB, the DFO speculated that “at some point” he would have looked it up in the Illinois Hospital Heliport Directory.

“When the pilot would have done this, [the DFO] could not guess. It could have been at the hospital pad at Valley West … or while en route to Children’s [emphasis added]. However, it would be a likely thing for the pilot to do, especially since this was an unfamiliar helo pad for him. The directory is 139 pages, and could take a little time to find the correct page.”

Might the pilot have engaged the autopilot long enough for a quick review of the landing site in the heliport directory? It’s certainly not impossible — and could explain why he was seemingly heads-down during a VFR flight at night.

Differing Opinions

NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart, himself a pilot and former FAA safety official, vigorously disagreed with the majority’s finding that “the controller’s failure to issue a safety alert as required” contributed to the accident. His three-page written dissent stressed that “for VFR pilots, seeing and avoiding obstacles is solely and exclusively the responsibility of the pilot in command … with no exceptions.” Hart also noted internal ambiguities that made the cited FAA order “not particularly compelling in this instance.”

Greater pilot complacency and reduced willingness of controllers to provide services to VFR traffic could also be unintended consequences of any suggestion that controllers share responsibility for obstacle clearance under visual flight rules.

The Takeaway

From the original gyroscopic attitude instruments through GPS, the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), and ADS-B, technological advances have improved safety while expanding capabilities … but they have also created new failure modes, both human and mechanical. Autopilots make single-pilot IFR possible in helicopters but with the attendant risks of misprogramming, instrument or processor malfunction, or simple inattention. The incredible precision of GPS navigation raises concerns about increased collision risk, especially over busy waypoints.

No one has more at stake in managing these trade-offs than pilots, who are the first to pay the price for any errors, whether their own or someone else’s. They — and their employers — might benefit from healthy skepticism about the safeguards they think they’ve bought. 

Read More: Visit the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center
August 08, 2018

A visit to the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center (AHMEC) is a voyage back to a time when helicopter pioneers bravely tested the possibilities and limits of these machines. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, the museum is a fitting attraction for an area considered by many to be the one of the incubators of rotary-wing aviation in the United States (see the end of this article to see a list of early rotary-wing pioneers in the greater Philadelphia area).

From Idea to Reality

The AHMEC began as a simple wish: to commemorate the innovation and hard work of aviation pioneers from Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley. In 1993, as the American Helicopter Society’s Philadelphia chapter celebrated its 50th anniversary, it charged a committee with establishing a lasting tribute to the local men and women who pioneered the development of rotary-wing aircraft. Many ideas were considered, such as a memorial or historical walk.

The committee decided to open a helicopter museum. Their decision was fueled in part by a pledge by Peter Wright, Sr., president of Keystone Helicopters, to donate three vintage aircraft to the fledgling museum. A major figure in the development of the commercial helicopter industry (and veteran of the storied Flying Tigers, a group of US pilots who volunteered to fly for China against Japanese forces in World War II), Wright was instrumental in establishing the museum.

On October 25, 1993, the AHMEC was incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. Work began under Wright’s leadership, who took on the role of chairman of the board, and a dedicated team of volunteers. The initial goals of the museum were to: preserve the heritage of rotary-wing flight, halt the loss of artifacts significant to its founding and development, and recognize its contributions to society.

After an extensive search for the right location, the fledgling museum’s board rented an 18,000-square-foot vacant hangar at the Brandywine Airport (KOQN) in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The hangar had previously been a production facility for Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm (MBB) helicopters. Educators and volunteers developed the initial exhibit content and renovated parts of the hangar to create a museum space.

Additional financial support from individuals and corporations helped make the idea a reality. Membership grew to 800 founding members, and in just three years, on October 18, 1996, the AHMEC opened to the public.

In 2003, Frank Robinson, founder and president of Robinson Helicopters, made a generous contribution of $1 million to the museum, enabling the acquisition of the Brandywine facility as its permanent home.