Watch This!

On the afternoon of March 3, 2000, a helicopter operated by a Miami television station crashed in a suburban neighborhood, killing the pilot and the photographer who was with him. According to early press reports, a witness on the ground had seen the tail rotor "snap off" as the helicopter performed some sort of maneuver. Readers of those reports who distrusted flying machines in general and helicopters in particular must have felt confirmed in their doubts. It would later emerge that the helicopter was innocent; as is most often the case, human actions led to the disaster.

The helicopter was a McDonnell-Douglas MD-600N, an eight-seater with a six-blade main rotor. Nicknamed "NOTAR" (NO TAil Rotor), it uses a fan and louvers in a thick tail boom, rather than the conventional propeller, to control yaw. Thus, the witness's account of the tail rotor snapping off referred, actually, to the tail boom, because there was no tail rotor as such. The tail boom did, in fact, come to earth a couple of hundred feet away from the main wreckage.

It transpired, as the National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident, that the pilot was fond of pushing the helicopter outside its approved flight envelope. He had described to a friend how he would make a fast pass down a runway and then pull up into a steep climb. As speed bled off, he would yaw 180 degrees, like an airplane performing a hammerhead turn. Control forces in the ensuing recovery were "extremely high," he said -- not surprising, since the MD-600N's controls are quite stiff even in normal maneuvering.

Two chopper pilots who flew for other television stations reported that it was the pilot's custom to arrive at a news scene low and stop by pulling the nose of the helicopter up to a "near-vertical" attitude and then pushing over into a hover at the top of the resulting zoom climb. He would fly sideways at high speed; he would pitch the helicopter into an unusually nose-low attitude when transitioning from hover to forward flight. Employees of the station that operated the accident helicopter did not confirm these accounts. One cameraman, however, related a conversation that he had with the photographer who died in the accident. The photographer expressed his concern about flying with the pilot, because his technique was needlessly "aggressive." He would enter a steep bank immediately after lifting off the dolly. He didn't mind the pilot doing it a couple of times, the photographer said, but after seven or eight times it got "annoying," and the photographer had told the pilot so.

An attorney who was receiving helicopter instruction at the Tamiami Airport (TMB) on the day of the accident gave a similar account. "There he is in another one of those 60-degree banks!" said his instructor when they met on the ramp.

"I ... saw Sky 6 on a heading of about 180 at an altitude of about 200 feet," the attorney recalled. "[It] was in a bank of at least 60 degrees ... The bank was so steep that the disk was almost a perfect circle, and Sky 6 was dropping -- losing altitude at a high rate of speed. It soon disappeared from view, blocked from our sight by buildings. My initial reaction was that it was too low to recover from such a high rate of descent and must have crashed. When there was no crash or explosion, however, I said something like, 'He is really hot dogging it!' My thought at the time was that the pilot must have a death wish, or he was perhaps demonstrating the capabilities of the aircraft to someone. However it struck me that 200 feet above the center of TMB was not a good place to demonstrate such a dangerous maneuver ... At this point [the instructor] said that he had seen Sky 6 earlier in the day performing some various maneuvers and that Sky 6 [had] passed very fast and very low over his head. He said something about 'getting a haircut.' "

Later that day, they learned that Sky 6 had crashed. According to the attorney, his instructor remarked that the accident might have been due to the pilot rolling the helicopter or getting it inverted, and that he had done it before. In a subsequent interview, however, the instructor said that his idea that the pilot had rolled or inverted the helicopter came from "scuttlebutt going on around the airport."

Sky 6 had been dispatched to cover the collision of a train and a bus, and was returning to Tamiami when the accident occurred. It had joined up with another helicopter and flown alongside it for a little while, eastbound at 600 feet climbing to 800, as the two pilots chatted. Another news chopper pilot on the frequency heard the conversation. As it ended, the pilot of Sky 6 told the other pilot to keep flying eastbound, and added, "Watch this!"

Both the pilot and the passenger in the second helicopter did watch, as instructed, and they saw the inflight breakup occur. Their accounts of it differed mainly in the magnitudes of the pitch angles they reported, the passenger's estimates being consistently larger than the pilot's.

Sky 6 pulled away from the other helicopter, pitching down 15 degrees (pilot) or 45 degrees (passenger). The helicopter then pulled up into a 30-degree nose-up attitude before pitching up further to 70 degrees (pilot) or past vertical (passenger). It then yawed to the left, started to slide backwards, and the nose began to pitch down. At this point, the tail boom separated.

It became clear from examination of what was left of the wreckage, which was largely consumed by a post-crash fire, that one or more of the rotor blades, flailing under rapidly changing flight loads, had struck the tail boom and severed it.

The National Transportation Safety Board summed up the probable cause neatly: The pilot's ostentatious display and inflight decision to perform an abrupt low altitude pitch up maneuver (aerobatic flight). This resulted in the main rotor blades colliding with and separating the tail boom assembly while maneuvering, and the helicopter's subsequent inflight collision with terrain.

An autopsy of the pilot found benzoylecgonine, a product of the metabolism of cocaine, in his brain and liver. "No cocaine was present," the NTSB report cautiously says, "and it could not be determined if the pilot was impaired at the time of the accident." It is noteworthy, however, that one of the agreeable effects of cocaine is a feeling of power and sometimes reckless self-confidence.

In addition to his apparent cocaine use, the pilot had an interesting personal history. He had been convicted in 1988 of importing 220 pounds of marijuana in an airplane, and had been sentenced to a term in federal prison. In 1992, his airman certificates had been revoked in accordance with part 61.15, which makes any drug- or alcohol-related conviction grounds for certificate suspension. There is nothing to prevent a pilot from acquiring new certificates once a year has passed since the criminal act, however, and he got his back in due course. At the time of the accident, the pilot held a valid air transport certificate for helicopter with commercial privileges for ASEL and glider. The certificate had a single restriction: The pilot was forbidden to carry passengers for hire at night or on cross-country flights of more than 50 miles. Nothing was said, of course, about roughhousing in helicopters.

Among pilots, bold flying often earns more admiration than contempt. The swashbuckling spirit flows, in subclinical concentrations, in the blood of each of us. I have listened over lunch to pilots describing actions and decisions that would have seemed blatantly reckless and stupid if they had resulted in an accident; but, since they had not, they seemed exciting and amusing instead, and were rewarded with choruses of "Wow!" and "Omigod!"

They say that the sky is an unforgiving place, but it's not true. It forgives a lot, and that's why pilots can stretch fuel, drop below minimums, overload airplanes and stray outside their maneuvering envelopes many times without being punished for doing so. Rashness does not bring the certainty of retribution; it merely increases the likelihood of it. Repeated escapes encourage new transgressions. But the line between the necessary risks of flying and the gratuitous ones of showing off is not so fine that one cannot recognize it, if one chooses to do so. Only if pointlessly "ostentatious displays" were greeted with contempt and disgust, rather than tolerance and grudging admiration, would the motive for them disappear.

In an earlier article about another ostentatious pilot, I quoted a memorandum written, almost 70 years ago, by Jeffrey Quill, then chief test pilot at Supermarine, to a subordinate. It is worth repeating:

"I have no complaints," Quill wrote, "about your actual test work but I consider you handle an aircraft in far too slapdash a fashion -- your aerobatic manoeuvres and turns are all sharp and sudden and there is no smoothness or finesse in them, and I can always recognize your takeoffs by the violent way in which you handle the engine controls after leaving the ground.

"I have a feeling that you think this method of flying appears more impressive from the ground, but I can assure you you are wrong ... I want you to get out of the habit of handling a Spitfire in the way that young boys drive M.G. Midgets on the Brighton Road on a Sunday afternoon. It is a cheap way of flying and you will do yourself harm by it because no one will take you seriously."

This article is based on the National Transportation Safety Board's report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to the attention of our readers. It is not intended to judge or to reach any defini­tive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.

Peter Garrison taught himself to use a slide rule and tin snips, built an airplane in his backyard, and flew it to Japan. He began contributing to FLYING in 1968, and he continues to share his columns, "Technicalities" and "Aftermath," with FLYING readers.

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