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Dying to Please—Again

Posted 2 years 119 days ago ago by Admin

All parents reach a point where they eventually have to trust they have done all they can in teaching their kids right and wrong and what’s safe and unsafe. In the 10-plus years I have been writing this column for Rotorcraft Pro magazine, I have felt like a parent offering advice, guidance, and tools I gained from over a half-century of aviation experience to help my readers bring themselves and their passengers home safely at the end of each flight.  

In this context, as a parent, I despair whenever I learn of yet another totally preventable accident like the recent crash of a Bell 407 in Louisiana marginal weather. The horror of it was caught on several commercial vehicles’ dash cams when the helicopter plummeted, rotorless, then crashed on the Bonnet Carre Spillway on 14 December 2021.  

The pilot, Joshua L. Hawley, 42, was killed immediately after his aircraft hit the raised eastbound span of Interstate 10 at milepost 212. Hawley made the decision to scud-run in marginal weather hoping to make it to an airport to pick up his waiting passengers.   What makes this accident even more tragic is that Hawley was, according to his obituary, a loving husband and the father of three young boys.

After the Kobe Bryant crash in January 2020, I wrote an article entitled “Dying to Please” about that crash, (Mar/Apr 2020 issue).  In it I reviewed past columns I had written over the years that I felt could have had relevance in preventing the Kobe Bryant crash; they also apply to this latest crash. Had both pilots read those lessons, remembered them, and acted on them before making their final fatal decision, their tragedies might not have happened. I urge you to review these articles on the RotorcraftPro.com website—read them and remember them.  They could save your life.  They usually begin on page 10 or 11 in each issue.  Just click on “MAGAZINE” and scroll down. Here is where you can find these potentially life-saving columns:

Nov 2012 “En Route Decision Point”

Sep 2013 “This is Stupid”

Dec 2013 “Nine Hazardous Attitudes”

Jan 2014 “Four mental tools to keep you alive”

Feb 2014       “Qualities of a Professional Operator”

Feb 2012 “CRM Tips for the Single Pilot”

Mar 2015 “The Wrong Stuff—my near fatal IIMC event as a HAA pilot.”

Jan 2016 “Risk Resource Management”

Nov 2017 “Integrity your Biggest Asset” 

May 2018 “You are Safety’s Gatekeeper!”

Mar 2019 “Just Say NO!” 

Jan 2020 “A Case Study NTSB report—Iowa Crash human factors”

After this recent accident in Louisiana, WGNO News in New Orleans reached out to flight instructor Lester Cambre, Jr. for his comments.  Cambre has been flying since 1985 in both airplanes and helicopters.  He told the news team, “I think when the gentleman (Hawley) took off he had good weather and when he hit the spillway area, the ceiling dropped a lot and he might have been trying to get through maybe another mile or so and he would have hit clean air.” 

Cambre points out that there could have been other factors leading up to the accident: “Too often, pilots feel pressured to get passengers where they need to go. In Tuesday’s (Louisiana) case, the pilot was on his way to pick up some people who were waiting at Lakefront Airport. Sometimes pilots make dangerous decisions in the name of getting the job done.” Cambre noted that one antidote to this hazardous behavior is HAI’s “Land and Live”program. He said, “In other words, when you run into a fog bank, there’s a question of whether you should turn back or keep going through it. But even if the helicopter is the latest and greatest, nobody is inventing new ways to crash. It’s the same mistakes that too often cost pilots — and sometimes their passengers — their lives. There’s better technology out there, but we’re still causing accidents the same way we did for 80 years.”

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS–B) data tracked Hawley’s helicopter’s flight path as it flew along I-10 towards New Orleans. The helicopter’s altitude ranged from 70 to 175 feet. NTSB reported that about 0.88 miles from the accident site, the helicopter descended to 50 feet AGL as Hawley continued to fly along I-10. The helicopter then collided with the western guy-wire suspended between two tall trusses which were about 130 feet above the bridge.

After the accident, a United States Coast Guard helicopter was launched to the scene to provide search-and-rescue support. The USCG pilot reported that the weather was visual flight rules (VFR) at Louis Armstrong International Airport (KMSY), New Orleans, but deteriorated to marginal VFR then to instrument flight conditions noting, “The low-level fog allowed the stanchions of the power lines to be barely visible from the east.” 

 Ron Stewart, in an FAA Safety Briefing  magazine article dated 30 October 2020, offers some tips to avoid flying into wires:

  1. Avoid low-level flight whenever it is not essential to the operation.

  2. Become familiar with all known hazards in the operations area prior to a low-level flight.

  3. Brief all crew and passengers to speak up and be specific if they see power lines, towers, or other obstacles.

  4. Look for all indicators of a power line (e.g., right-of-way clearing or support structures).

  5. Always cross transmission lines at the point of the supporting structure.

  6. Be prepared to climb out of the wire environment if any distraction or confusion occurs (e.g., irrelevant crew conversation, radio call, etc.).

  7. Assume that wires are always present in any unfamiliar operations area until proper high reconnaissance confirms otherwise.

Gene Trainor, with the FAA Rotorcraft Standards Branch, writes in 

the FAA Safety Briefing magazine May/June 2019 issue: 

“The FAA is urging pilots to step up their vigilance for wires and unexpected terrain after a rash of fatal accidents occurred last October and November 2019. Seven accidents during October-November were particularly deadly, with 15 people losing their lives. This ranks as the third highest October-November fatal accident total on record in 37 years. The 11 deaths in November set a record for that month.”

We helicopter pilots often face unexpected weather changes en route. That is why it’s imperative we have a plan of action—one that we will implement sooner rather than later. Use the en route decision point developed by the National EMS Pilot’s association (which is if you decelerate 30 knots less than cruising speed, or if you descend to 300 feet AGL during the day, 500 feet at night due to weather, you’ve reached that decision point and you do NOT continue). Another tool: if you think to yourself: This is stupid. Turn around, land, but do not continue. These are tools you should use to trigger a response to stop doing what you’re doing and quit pressing on.  

I keep this quote in mind as I write my column for each issue and I suggest you do too:

“Whenever we talk about a pilot who has been killed in a flying accident, we should all keep one thing in mind: He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgment. He believed it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it. That his judgment was faulty was a tragedy, not stupidity. Every inspector, supervisor, and contemporary who ever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgment, so a little of all of us goes with every pilot we lose”.

Your final ace-in-the-hole is simple: If the weather gets questionable simply, “Land and Live.”  

About Randy:
Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected].