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Thunderstorms Breed Every Type of Bad Weather

Manassas in the Rear-View Mirror, Coming Up on L.A.

On July 12, the Helicopter Safety Alliance (HSA) held a safety stand-down at the Manassas Regional Airport (HEF) in Northern Virginia. In addition to presentations by HSA personnel, including Stan Rose and J. Heffernan, we were pleased to have Bruce Webb of Airbus Helicopters explore the topic of "flying blind" and how seeing is not always believing. Helicopter maintenance expert Bill Hopper spoke on human factors in aviation maintenance.

Chris Hill, director of safety for HAI, briefed the audience on a new reporting tool developed by the association. The HAI Aviation Reporting Program (HARP) is a one-stop portal where helicopter pilots can report a variety of aviation hazards, including accidents, drone issues, near midair collisons, laser events, and wildlife strikes. The tool will direct your report to the appropriate reporting authority, if one already exists, such as the NTSB for accidents and the FAA Wildlife Strike Database for bird strikes. HARP is free to use; you can learn more at

We would like to thank the staff of Manassas Airport, who gave us the space to hold our seminar. A very pleasant surprise came when we discovered that the airport lobby contains the Freedom Museum. This free exhibition, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, allows visitors to experience the stories of men and women from the northern Virginia area who served on the battlefront and the homefront in the 20th century. If you are in the area, now or in the future, do not miss these stories of ordinary Americans who became genuine heroes.

Our next stand-down will be held on August 16 at the Robinson Helicopter Company in Torrence, California. Frank Robinson founded the company in 1973, and today it has produced over 12,000 helicopters for the world market. Don’t miss this opportunity to attend a good safety seminar and get a look at the Robinson facilities.

Before the HSA seminar, on August 14 and 15, the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) will also hold a meeting at the Robinson factory. These safety personnel from all facets of the helicopter industry will discuss helicopter accidents and strategies for eliminating them.

Please spread the word, and register and attend if you can. You can register for both the USHST Annual Meeting and the HSA L.A. Regional Helicopter Safety Stand-Down on the FAA Safety Team website,
-- Stan Rose

Helicopters, Trains, and Thunderstorms

Do you know what is by far the stupidest human trick? Trying to beat a train across a grade crossing with a car or truck. The result is so predictable, the circumstances are rarely even reported any more.

Think about it: a car or pickup (the usual weapon of choice) weighs 2000-3000 pounds. The average freight train weighs 600,000+ pounds (200 times the weight of the vehicle) and can stop in about a mile.

It's impossible to get an exact closure rate because you have to guess at the speed of the train and don't know the angle between the railroad track and your path. Even if you did know those factors, people who can do trigonometry in their head, on the move, are way too intelligent to race trains to a grade crossing.

In most of these accidents, the train doesn't hit the vehicle (like it does when someone drives around crossing-guard arms). Instead, the vehicle hits the train, because eyeball math tends to be just a little bit off.

Want to know the aviation-equivalent stupid human trick? Running from weather, usually a thunderstorm, to get to your intended point of landing. In this example, the thunderstorm is the train, and the landing zone is the grade crossing.

But I have radar, you say. Well, can it see behind you? Can it give you angular crossing speeds? How accurate is the depiction on your display? Is it plus or minus 10 feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet, a mile? Are you ready to bet your life on it?

How fast is the storm going? Is it speeding up or slowing down? Is the top moving as fast as the bottom of the storm or faster? How far in front of the storm does turbulence extend? (BTW, did you know that lightning can strike 30 miles from the storm?)

How do you change the odds in your favor? My friend, Matt Zuccaro, says, "Land the damn aircraft"!

In this case, I think he's probably right. A helicopter on the ground, with the blades stopped and hopefully tied down, is as aerodynamic as a bulldozer of the same weight. Plus it's not bad shelter from wind and rain.

Wait the weather out. It's easy to restart and follow the weather to your destination. Leave the stupid human tricks to those who want to race trains. Keep your place in the gene pool.
-- J. Heffernan
Bruce Webb leads attendees at the Manassas Helicopter Safety Stand-Down through the ways in which our brains and our eyes don't always agree.
FAA Airworthiness Concern Sheet
We have received reports of latent failures of FreeFlight model FDL-978-XVR ADS-B units. Troubleshooting determined that some units failed completely, while other units failed intermittently. Attempts to update the software and change any unit settings failed, as most parameters were “greyed out” and unable to be changed. Additionally, the failed units gave no indication of failure to the pilot.
This failure will result in loss of ability to see airspace traffic on the ADS-B display, or be seen by other aircraft on their ADS-B display, which may reduce the capability of the airplane or the ability of the crew to cope with adverse operating conditions to the extent that there may be a significant reduction in safety margins or functional capabilities.
We request that any users of the FreeFlight Systems model FDL-978-XVR ADS-B units who have experienced similar failures contact the FAA point of contact listed above with the unit’s model, serial number, whether ADS-B In and/or ADS-B Out fails to function, and whether or not an error was detected by the unit’s self-diagnostic.
Reply to:
Name: Jacob Fitch
Title: Aerospace Engineer
Office: Fort Worth Aircraft Certification Office
Department: AIR-7F0
Street Address: 10101 Hillwood Parkway
City, State, ZIP: Fort Worth, TX 76177
Telephone: (817) 222-4130
Make: FreeFlight systems
Model / Series: FDL-978-XVR
Serial Numbers: N/A
Reason for Airworthiness Concern:
Latent failure of FreeFlight Systems ADS-B unit, model
number FDL-978-XVR, to display air traffic or transmit
location to other aircraft with active ADS-B

August 14: L.A. Regional Helicopter Safety Stand-Down
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Monthly Safety Briefing: Thunderstorms

A thunderstorm, when observed from the ground, is a beautiful sight! Like an old lava lamp, a cell is formed when warm, moist air from the surface is elevated into colder air higher in the atmosphere. As we know, warm and cold air do not mix well, and the warm air can accelerate upward, drawing additional heat and moisture up into the cool air at altitude.

And then the fun begins. Updrafts and downdrafts cause friction and sheering forces. When the warm air cools, the moisture aloft turns to rain, hail, snow, or supercooled droplets that create icing conditions.
These events are not quite as beautiful when you are flying in and around them. Even outside of the visible storm, there are forces at work that can ruin your day.

At this time of year, there is sufficient heat and moisture in the atmosphere to form thunderstorms on most days, particularly in the East, Midwest, and South. We need to be on the lookout for the hazards associated with convective weather activity, take proper precautions in preflight planning, and know what we are going to do if we encounter these conditions during a flight.

What Are the Hazards? A good place to start your safety meeting is to get everyone on the same page about the aviation hazards associated with thunderstorms. Check out this newsletter from NOAA and the National Weather Service to learn about the life-cycle of a typical thunderstorm and the hazards to aviation associated with flying in their vicinity.

Make sure everyone knows the difference between a SIGMET, AIRMET, and CWA. Does your company have SOPs that apply to these weather conditions? Do they show on your flight risk assessment tool?

Preflight Planning. For thunderstorms, the most important category of weather alert is the Convective SIGMET. These are issued in the conterminous United States if the following conditions are occurring or expected to occur:
  • Line of thunderstorms at least 60 miles long with thunderstorms affecting 40% of its length
  • Area of thunderstorms covering at least 40% of the area concerned and exhibiting a very strong radar reflectivity or a significant satellite or lightning signature
  • Embedded or severe thunderstorms expected to occur for more than 30 minutes.
Create a proactive plan for dealing with any expected weather. If thunderstorms are forecast in your operational area by 5 pm, when should you wind up flight operations? What happens if they come earlier than expected?

Dealing with the Unexpected. As good as it is, modern forecasting isn't 100% accurate. It's important to have a plan when you find yourself between a thunderstom and your destination. How to Avoid Thunderstorms. Pilots should observe the following rules for any flight routed near potential or actual thunderstorm activity:
  • Avoid all known thunderstorms.
  • Never go closer than 5 miles to any visible storm cloud with overhanging areas, and strongly consider increasing that distance to 20 miles or more. You can encounter hail and violent turbulence anywhere within 20 miles of very strong thunderstorms.
  • Do not attempt flight beneath thunderstorms, even when visibility is good, because of the destructive potential of shear turbulence in these areas.
  • At the first sign of turbulence, slow down to reduce the forces on the rotor system.
  • If your aircraft inadvertently penetrates the thunderstorm, maintain a straight and level altitude on a heading that will take you through the storm area in the minimum time.
Good planning and awareness of the hazards will allow you to operate safely during the thunderstorm season. Remember that it is better to look at the wonders of nature from a safe place on the ground than to fly yourself into the violence that is hidden in and around the storm.
-- Stan Rose
Helicopter Safety Stand-Downs are held in conjunction with the FAASTeam and are eligible for WINGS and AMT credits!

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