2020 Quarter 4

The Magazine of Helicopter Association International

About This Issue
ROTOR Staff 2020 Q4

Pilot Marco Gnos and his Bell 205A-1, operated by Summit Helicopters, departs Arizona’s Payson Airport (KPAN) after refueling to return to the Polles Fire, a wildfire burning about 11 miles west. A resident of Arizona, writer/photographer Mark Bennett documents that state’s busy fire season in a photo essay.

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Katrina Remembered
Thomas McKenzie 2020 Q4

First came the floodwaters. Next came the helicopters.

US Coast Guard (USCG) Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer 2nd Class Joel Sayers, suspended beneath a hovering orange USCG rescue helicopter, is lowered to the rooftop of a home. His mission: to save an elderly woman clinging to that roof, the house now surrounded by rising floodwaters. It is Aug. 29, 2005, the first day of Hurricane Katrina rescue operations and mere hours after the flood levees failed, releasing billions of gallons on storm-sieged New Orleans.

As Sayers touches down, the woman anxiously rushes toward him, pointing and shouting to be heard above the roar of the rotors; her husband is trapped in the attic below their feet, unable to escape. Sayers drops down and looks through the small opening in the roof the woman managed to escape through. The face of her trapped husband peers back.

Unable to widen the hole any further using the rescue helicopter’s lightweight crash ax, Sayers realizes he needs something with more weight—and a better plan. He speaks to the man through the ragged opening, shaking his hand, calming him, assuring him, and promising to return soon. He then ties a brightly colored strip of cloth around one of the roof’s visible vent pipes to better identify the house before convincing the woman to leave her husband behind … temporarily.

Katrina Strikes

Recently, we observed the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, widely considered one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. Forming over the Bahamas on Aug. 23, 2005, the storm crossed into southern Florida as a Category 1, gathering strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before wreaking catastrophic damage on parts of south Florida and stretches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and unleashing mass flooding in the greater New Orleans area.

In A Failure of Initiative, the 2006 federal after action report by the US House of Representatives that examined the response to Hurricane Katrina, both the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center received praise for their forecast efforts. Storm track projections were available nearly 56 hours before Katrina’s arrival, with the landfall prediction off by a mere 15 miles.

In its preparations for Katrina’s arrival, the USCG issued broadcasts to mariners—repeated radio warnings to the offshore recreational and commercial fishing communities—and pre-positioned key rescue assets to safe areas ahead of the storm, thereby ensuring airframe survivability and promoting a rapid response posture as soon as the weather conditions permitted.

Despite all early warnings and preparations—and as it remains today with economically challenged communities where seasonal natural disasters are common—thousands of New Orleanians were simply unable to evacuate ahead of the storm. But Katrina wasn’t just a storm. The extreme rain, surging waters, and high winds stressed the city’s extensive flood protection system to the breaking point.

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Power Play
Paul Seidenman 2020 Q4

Will electric motors propel the next generation of helicopters?

Climate change has accelerated research on alternatives to fossil fuels, with electric propulsion viewed as a leading contender. While the fixed-wing and advanced air mobility sectors are blazing the trails, research and development into electric propulsion for helicopters is also in progress, although to a much lesser degree.

Currently, electric helicopters account for only about 5% of all publicly known electric aircraft developments, according to the Roland Berger Electric Aircraft Database. As Nikhil Sachdeva, project manager and lead for electric propulsion at the London-based consulting firm explains, the electrification of a helicopter simply requires replacing the fuel tank and turboshaft assembly with a completely electric power train comprising a battery, power electronics, electric motors, and the necessary cabling.

“These subsystems are already seeing success in small general aviation aircraft and in urban air mobility, and we expect them to be relevant for small to medium-sized helicopters,” Sachdeva says.

One constraint on electric propulsion for all vehicles is the current limits of energy density, which is the amount of energy stored in a battery per unit volume. Sachdeva adds that further improvements are constantly being made in battery energy densities and costs, primarily driven by the automotive sector, that extend the range of electric-powered helicopters and enable larger helicopters to be electrified.

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Is AMT Education Ready for the 21st Century?
Jen Boyer 2020 Q4

Pandemic conditions may accelerate Part 147 reforms.

Well before COVID became a household word, the aviation industry was already struggling with meeting the demand for qualified aviation maintenance technicians (AMT). For years, the number of applicants for AMT training has been outstripped by the number of experienced AMT leaving the field, leading to forecasts of crippling labor shortages. Another hurdle to building a sustainable pipeline of AMT talent, according to industry observers, is the antiquated Part 147 regulations that limit the flexibility of AMT schools and their ability to deliver graduates trained for the modern aviation workplace.

Originally established under the US Civil Aviation Administration, a precursor to the FAA, 14 CFR Part 147 governs all aspects of training toward an airframe and power plant (A&P) certificate. AMT schools must teach a prescribed number of hours on general, airframe, and power plant topics; 1,900 of those hours are required to be “class-seat hours,” where students must be physically present. Graduates must pass the FAA written and oral tests, based on the agency’s mechanic Airman Certification Standards (ACS), to receive their A&P certificates. Neither the regulation nor the subject areas it dictates be taught have been significantly revised since 1962.

Under Part 147, AMT schools aren’t only told what curriculum to teach, they’re told exactly how that curriculum must be taught, and they must obtain FAA approval to modify operating procedures. For example, each AMT student must still learn wood and fabric repair techniques suitable for antique aircraft, while their schools face a daunting regulatory gauntlet to receive approval for teaching avionics and health and usage monitoring systems.

Proponents of reform argue that the FAA’s antiquated mandates for AMT education inhibit those schools’ flexibility to operate in an accredited education environment; accredited institutions are generally given flexibility on curriculum and how that curriculum is delivered. Industry observers also charge that the 58-year-old Part 147 curriculum contains large gaps, such as helicopter-specific systems and maintenance, that leave students ill prepared for work in modern aviation. They urge the adoption of Part 147 reforms that would allow schools flexibility in how they deliver the curriculum required by the ACS while fully preparing students to meet industry needs.

Industry advocates, led by the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC), a group that represents US AMT schools, have been working with the FAA for more than a decade to modernize Part 147. Unfortunately, the drawn-out process has led to FAA-proposed rules that further limit flexibility. In response, the industry has employed a different strategy for change: to force reform through congressional mandate.

In December 2019, the Promoting Aviation Regulations for Technical Training (PARTT) 147 Act was introduced in Congress (S. 3043 / H.R. 5427). The industry-supported, bipartisan, bicameral bill, if passed, would direct the FAA to use community-drafted, performance-based regulations to define the A&P curriculum and to defer to the Department of Education in areas concerning the quality of education. The FAA would maintain oversight of an AMT program’s facilities, equipment, and instructor qualifications. The FAA would still control the ACS, which in turn drive AMT education curriculum, providing the agency with the means to evaluate the performance of individual students, as well as the performance of the AMT school, through analysis of student passage rates.

The overall result of the law would be the modernization of how aviation technical schools teach, which includes the flexibility to adequately support the aviation industry’s technical workforce needs.

Along Comes COVID

In the spring of 2020, as the PARTT 147 Act was gaining momentum in the US House and Senate, COVID struck. Overnight, AMT schools across the country closed. Administrators and faculty began assessing how to respond to the virus. Educators of all types across the country have demonstrated the pitfalls of pivoting to an online learning platform; this was exceptionally difficult for AMT schools, given the FAA approvals required to deliver any of the mandated 1,900 class-seat hours virtually.

By the end of March, the FAA announced a “short-circuit” relief program that allowed AMT schools greater flexibility to use electronic and online training and assignment delivery during the pandemic. Many schools took advantage of this offer.

In May, ATEC surveyed its member schools about the impact of COVID on their operations. The group asked the same questions again in September to gauge the level of change across the aviation maintenance training industry. In May, two schools announced they’d suspended operations. This number increased to five in September. Conversely, the number of schools moving to some level of online instruction steadily increased as the pandemic dragged on.

“In the United States, we have about 180 certificated programs, with a little under half of them responding to the survey,” says ATEC Executive Director Crystal Maguire. “All of these schools were traditionally hands-on, with only four having received permission for any online content prior to COVID. By this summer, about 60% of our schools had some content online.

“Interestingly, the majority of the schools would like to maintain the level of virtual instruction beyond the pandemic time line,” says Maguire. “This is a piece of the flexibility we seek.”

Unfortunately for some, the flexibility wasn’t enough in the face of the current Part 147 regulations. ATEC estimates that 20% of the country’s AMT schools have suspended their programs, either temporarily or permanently, since March.

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Bad Assumptions
David Jack Kenny 2020 Q4

Unclear responsibilities between pilots can lead to a deadly outcome.

A flight review conducted by a CFI without significant make-and-model experience has come to be recognized as insidiously hazardous—especially when the client is also the aircraft owner.

It’s natural for the instructor to believe the client knows the aircraft, while the client simultaneously trusts the instructor to keep them both out of trouble. The result can be a dangerous vacuum of authority, with each party expecting the other to take the initiative in responding to the unexpected. In a truly urgent situation, this ambiguity can be disastrous.

A similar, if more obvious, dynamic applies when an experienced airman not trained as an instructor serves as a novice’s “safety pilot”—not in the 14 CFR 91.109 sense of training in simulated instrument conditions, but to guard against errors in procedure or judgment while flying VFR. Whether prompted by insurance requirements or general caution, the practice rests on the assumption that the high-timer will pay close attention and be quick to intervene when needed … neither of which is necessarily second nature to someone whose extensive pilot-in-command time doesn’t include teaching.

Add in the potential fatigue from a long cross-country flight—say, to deliver a newly purchased aircraft—and perhaps creeping complacency after uneventful hours in the air, and the veteran’s presence may provide less of a safeguard than either party believes.

The Flight

On Sep. 25, 2018, an Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3e departed from the company’s factory in Grand Prairie, Texas. On board were four people: the 42-year-old private pilot and owner of the aircraft who’d just taken delivery of the helicopter; his two sons, ages 11 and 14; and the 53-year-old safety pilot, who was director of operations and chief pilot of two commercial operators that flew the B2 model of the AS350. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed his presence to “insurance coverage purposes,” though he’d also become friends with the owner over the summer.

Three days, 20 flight hours, and more than 30 assorted “sightseeing, fuel, and rest” stops later, they landed at Juneau International Airport (PAJN) in Alaska. After refueling, they took off again shortly before 10 am on Sep. 28, bound for their next fuel stop in Yakutat on the Gulf of Alaska.

The owner was the pilot flying, as he apparently had been throughout the trip. His plan was to leave the safety pilot in Wasilla before flying the last 60 miles home to Anchorage.

After clearing the mountains west of Juneau, the helicopter descended to 500 to 700 feet, heading northwest along the coastline. As it crossed Glacier Bay National Park about 60 miles northwest of Gustavus, the pilot asked the others whether they’d like to land on a beach to stretch their legs. A minute later, the safety pilot pointed out a long stretch of beach to their right, and the pilot began a right turn. The safety pilot’s hands were off the controls, and his feet were on the floor.

The pilot then twisted the throttle from the Flight to the Idle position and lowered collective slightly. Rotor rpm decayed into the gauge’s yellow cautionary range within 5 seconds.

Seven seconds after reducing power, the pilot reached for the center console to mute the low-rpm warning horn. Rotor rpm continued decreasing to its recorded low of 254 rpm, and 18 seconds after the initial power reduction the helicopter crashed into Lituya Bay.

All four occupants were thrown from the wreckage. The elder son regained consciousness in the water and managed to make it to shore. He was eventually rescued by the US Coast Guard and hospitalized in Anchorage. The safety pilot’s body washed ashore about three-quarters of a mile from the accident site. The bodies of the pilot and his younger son weren’t recovered.

The Pilots

The aircraft owner–pilot had more than 1,000 hours of fixed-wing experience. He’d logged 59 hours in the Robinson R44 while earning his helicopter rating. On Jun. 4, 2018, he completed the factory AS350 B3e transition course with 3 hours of dual instruction in the aircraft and 1 hour of simulator time. He got another 1.5 hours of dual at the factory on Aug. 5, giving him a total of 4.5 flight hours in the accident make and model. Over the summer, he flew 18.3 hours in an AS350 B2 operated by the safety pilot’s company.

The safety pilot’s widow told investigators that the owner–pilot’s skills impressed her husband and their company’s check airman: both considered him “a really good stick.” By the day of the accident, the owner–pilot had accumulated an estimated 103.8 hours of helicopter time.

The safety pilot held a commercial certificate with single-engine land, multiengine land, single-engine sea, and helicopter ratings, but he wasn’t a flight instructor. Of his estimated 15,350 flight hours, 4,350 had been flown in the AS350 series. His company flew no B3 models, however, and during an interview with investigators, the surviving son said his father seemed much more familiar with the details of this model than did the safety pilot.

The Aircraft

The 2018 model helicopter had flown just 13.7 hours when delivered and about 40 hours by the time it crashed. It was equipped with a Genesys Aerosystems HeliSAS autopilot and stability augmentation system and an Appareo Vision 1000 cockpit image recorder that captured four frames per second. The FADEC (full authority digital engine control) system and the associated event data recorder (EDR) of the 952–shaft horsepower Safran Arriel 2D turboshaft engine recorded engine parameters and failure flags at 1-second intervals.

Normal procedure in the AS350 B3e is to twist the throttle from Idle to Flight during run-up and leave it there until completing the postflight engine and rotor shutdown checklists. Moving to Idle in flight would be done in a practice autorotation, but the NTSB noted that the beach wasn’t an ideal landing zone for a full-down auto, and the survivor told investigators they hadn’t done any autorotations on the way up from Texas.

The Analysis

By the time the investigators arrived, the wreckage of the fuselage had washed onto the beach and been partially covered by sand. More than 25 gallons of fuel were recovered on-site. Examination of the wreckage ruled out fuel contamination and showed no evidence of pre-impact failure of the engine, transmission, main rotor, or collective and cyclic controls. The tail boom and tail rotor were never recovered.

In the last 16 seconds captured by the FADEC and EDR recordings, the twist grip went from Flight to Idle to Flight to Idle and back to Flight. All recorded parameters responded appropriately to those inputs.

The Appareo recording captured not only images but also GPS coordinates and pitch, roll, yaw, and acceleration data. The last data stream showed that the helicopter was level at 618 feet and 116 knots, pitched 6 degrees nose down, before the pilot rolled the throttle to Idle. The instruments showed 395 rpm at 8.5 first-limit indicator (FLI).

Within 5 seconds, the FLI needle dropped to 1.75 and rotor speed decayed to 328 rpm; the only control input was slight left pedal by the pilot. The helicopter gained 12 feet of altitude while losing 4 knots of ground speed. The panel’s Horn light illuminated 1.75 seconds later when the pilot muted the low-rpm warning. Rotor rpm was down to 290 at 1.25 FLI. The helicopter hadn’t yet begun to descend but continued to slow, pitched 3 degrees nose up.

Four seconds later, “loose objects in the cabin showed an indication of a negative g-force.” The twist grip was still at Idle, and rotor speed was 259 rpm. Slight forward-left cyclic inputs were recorded, but it was unclear who made them; both pilots had their hands on their grips. Impact occurred 6 seconds later. The helicopter fell 600 feet in the last 10 seconds.

The Takeaway

The details of the accident sequence defy ready explanation. Why did the pilot twist the throttle to Idle at 600 feet—after making 30-plus normal landings in the preceding three days? Why did his safety pilot fail to correct that move immediately, or at least after the panel’s twist-grip annunciator lit up? And why did the pilot mute the low-rpm warning horn rather than lower collective?

With the bulk of the pilot’s helicopter experience in the R44, whose low-inertia rotor system’s susceptibility to blade stall made it the subject of a Special Federal Aviation Regulation mandating specialized training, the horn might have been expected to trigger him to instantly lower collective.

The survivor told investigators that both his father and the safety pilot froze on the controls—and that he knew something was wrong right away because the phone on his knee “flew up and stuck to the ceiling.” 

Shortly after the accident, he told a state trooper that his father looked “like a two-year-old … sort of in shock.” He recalled both pilots “snap[ping] out of their trance” just a second and a half before the helicopter hit the water, with his father yelling, “No!”

Not at all unclear is that a high-timer’s scrutiny of a new pilot doesn’t necessarily provide the safety margin both expect—particularly if that high-timer hasn’t cultivated a flight instructor’s reflexive paranoia. 

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HAI Scholarship Recipient Nic Tillim
Jaasmin Foote 2020 Q4

Student aspires to use piloting skills to help wildlife conservation.

Nic Tillim has known flying helicopters would be his life’s mission since his father introduced him to aviation at the age of three.

Nic’s dad works for a prominent family in Johannesburg, South Africa, that operates a private fleet of aircraft through its aviation business Fireblade Aviation. The company conducts a variety of missions, including game conservation, charter, and tour flights.

Most of his father’s missions didn’t permit Nic to ride along when he was growing up, but Nic relished the work photos his father would show him when he returned home. Nic was certain that, one day, he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps and pursue a career in aviation.

In March 2018, a year after graduating high school, Nic started flight training at Henley Air in Germiston, South Africa. He received his private pilot license (PPL) in November of that year, gaining 50 flight hours.

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Arizona in Flames
Mark Bennett 2020 Q4

Arizona suffered multiple wildfires during the spring and summer of 2020, with one ranking as the fifth-largest ever in the state. As ideal weapons against these blazes, helicopters were deployed early and often, but the fires just kept coming.

Arizona often sounds the starting gun for western North America’s wildfire season due to its climate (hot and dry) and widespread vegetation that dies or goes dormant (which, either way, dries out), starting in the spring. Those conditions and fuels then meet either lightning or, four times out of five, human sources of ignition such as untended campfires, tow chains dragging and sparking on the road, flicked cigarettes, fireworks, or any number of easily preventable causes. Then it’s conflagration time.

Once lit, Arizona’s varied terrain can accelerate a fire’s spread and hamper its control. Rugged canyons spread fires both upslope, as you would expect, but winds can become twisted in those canyons, driving the fire also down or across to the opposing face. That terrain also hampers access by ground crews and aircrews alike. Even relatively flat expanses of grasses pose challenges, as winds both drive the fire directly and carry embers far beyond the involved area, igniting noncontiguous lands.

What’s needed are tools to quickly bring the fight to the fires. 

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HAI on Social
ROTOR Staff 2020 Q4

The tips that keep on giving! The seven power networking tips discussed by Stacy Sheard, chair of the HAI Board of Directors, in her profile in the Q3 issue of ROTOR were both entertaining and extremely helpful to HAI’s social followers around the world.

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