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FDM in Small Helicopter Operations

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) want you to have flight-recording instruments on board your aircraft so they can better understand the causes of helicopter accidents and possibly prevent similar accidents in the future. On the surface, it seems like they are asking that we invest a lot of money so they can do their jobs more efficiently, but they would counter with the argument that safer operations reduce costs for everyone.

The NTSB has just released a recommendation to the helicopter OEMs that asks them to install flight-data monitoring (FDM) equipment and cockpit voice recorder (CVRs) on all new aircraft and make provisions to retrofit all existing turbine-powered helicopters. The USHST recommends that the FAA and industry promote installation and use of data recording devices.

As operators, we have always believed that the high engineering and installation costs as well as the increased weight of the equipment meant that these recording devices were only meant for the big helicopters. Today, the cost is coming down, the equipment is lightweight, and installation is simple. 

It’s time to start thinking about the benefits that you can glean from having this equipment in your aircraft.With the information that you gather, you will be able to see if your policies and procedures are being followed, the actual torque and temperature during critical phases of flight, and other information that will allow you to manage your operation.

Paul Spring, a frequent HSA speaker, was an early adopter of FDM in small helicopters. It would be worth your time to read about him in this article from Vertical.

Let’s take a moment to change the way we look at the electronics in our small helicopters and figure out how we are going to use them to our advantage. The technology is there; we just have to start using it.
— Stan Rose
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Ah, Summer – and High, Hot Operations

Now is the time of year when our thoughts should turn to helicopter performance, specifically your aircraft. How much can you lift, how far and how high can you carry it, and can you land safely? This is all information you need to know before your left hand is all the way up and there is no way to arrest your descent as you return to the big blue ball.

Fortunately, your aircraft’s performance charts will help you determine that critical information before you take off for most normal flight regimes. But it turns out there are lots of factors that affect that performance.

When was the last time you actually figured your available performance? Was it at sea level? Was it an early-morning flight, before the heat of the day set in? No wind or even downwind? Wouldn’t you want to know how much 10 knots of headwind could help?

Can you explain density altitude to an eight-year-old? Why is that important? Because to break it down and explain it, you really have to understand it and how it will affect every takeoff and landing on a hot day. Landing on a ridge line uses a different set of skills when it's hot or you are near your performance limits. Probably good to know that ahead of time!

Do you do external loads? Do you hover out of ground effect? Do you operate in and out of ground effect routinely, maybe not that routinely when it’s hot?

Have you thought about tail rotor effectiveness? What happens to your tail rotor if your main rotor droops 10%? Main rotor droop can be a problem on a hot day. It’s better to be ready for it than trying to recover from it in a critical area with little or no reserve power.

Have you thought about using inherent aircraft dynamics to assist you? Do you remember which way to turn to build turns? By the way, you may need to change your scan when it’s hot—it’s important to add all the temperature gauges.

In short, there is a lot to think about when you’re heavy, hot, and high. Try to think about as much as you can before the fact.

Oh yeah, don’t forget about the dust.
— J Heffernan
Maintenance: Taking the Heat (as Usual)
As we approach the hottest time of the year, it is important to be aware of the hazards related to doing aircraft maintenance in harsh, hot conditions. While the rest of the world takes shelter in air-conditioned rooms, the people who keep the helicopters flying often have to work outside, with tools that are hot to the touch, and in the blistering heat of the flight line.

This is not just about being uncomfortable; extreme heat can lead to illness or death. It turns out that our bodies are designed to function within a narrow range of temperatures. A healthy adult is generally between 97 degrees to 99 degrees; when we start to feel warmer than that, our bodies sweat and increase blood flow to the skin to cool down.

We suffer from heat-related illnesses when our bodies’ cooling mechanisms can’t keep up. Maybe it’s just too hot out (FYI, I just saw a news alert that it was 125 degrees(!) in Baghdad, Iraq, this week); maybe your body is having a hard time sweating because you are dehydrated.

Signs of Heat-Related Illnesses

Let’s take a moment to talk about the signs that your body is overworked and not coping well with the heat. Early recognition of these symptoms published by the Department of Homeland Security can keep you from doing long-term harm to your health.

Heat Cramps
  • Signs: Muscle pains or spasms in the stomach, arms, or legs
  • To Treat: Go to a cooler location. Remove excess clothing. Take sips of cool sports drinks with salt and sugar. Get medical help if cramps last more than an hour.
Heat Exhaustion
  • Signs: Heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache, fainting, nausea, vomiting
  • To Treat: Go to an air-conditioned place and lie down. Loosen or remove clothing. Take a cool bath. Take sips of cool sports drinks with salt and sugar. Get medical help if symptoms get worse or last more than an hour.
Heat Stroke
  • Signs: Extremely high body temperature (above 103 degrees) taken orally; red, hot, and dry skin with no sweat; rapid, strong pulse; dizziness, confusion, or unconsciousness
  • To Treat: Call 9-1-1 or get the person to a hospital immediately! Cool down with whatever methods are available until medical help arrives.
Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses

Even though we are all concerned with getting that helicopter back in service, remember that we also need to pace ourselves in hot weather. Don’t let the pressure to return the aircraft to service put your personal health in jeopardy. Take care of yourself — we’ll need your expertise tomorrow, too!

If you must work out in the heat, please follow these tips provided by the Society for Insurance for safely working in hot weather:
  1. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids; drink about 16 ounces before starting and 5 to 7 ounces every 15 or 20 minutes.
  2. Avoid dehydrating liquids. Alcohol, coffee, tea, and caffeinated soft drinks can hurt more than help.
  3. Wear protective clothing. Lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing helps protect against heat. Change clothing if it gets completely saturated.
  4. Pace yourself. Slow down and work at an even pace. Know your own limits and ability to work safely in heat.
  5. Schedule frequent breaks. Take time for rest periods and water breaks in a shaded or air-conditioned area.
  6. Use a damp rag. Wipe your face or put it around your neck.
  7. Avoid getting sunburn. Use sunscreen and wear a hat if working outside.
  8. Be alert to signs of heat-related illness. Know what to look for and check on other workers that might be at high risk.
  9. Avoid direct sun. Find shade or block out the sun if possible.
  10. Eat smaller meals. Eat fruits high in fiber and natural juice. Avoid high-protein foods.

Accident Review: Helicopter Air Ambulance Collision with Terrain

Disclaimer: We do not intend any disrespect for the pilot involved—we weren't there. We are using this accident report as a springboard for discussion and to create some talking points that may prompt other pilots to confront similar circumstances—and live to tell their stories. 

On January 29, 2019, about 0650 Eastern standard time, a single-engine turbine-powered Bell 407 helicopter, being operated as a helicopter air ambulance flight, collided with forested terrain about 4 miles northeast of Zaleski, Ohio. The certificated commercial pilot, flight nurse, and flight paramedic died, and the helicopter was destroyed.

Night visual meteorological conditions existed at the departure location, but available weather information indicated that snow showers and areas of instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) existed along the route of flight.

​The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of this accident was the operator’s inadequate management of safety, which normalized pilots’ and operations control specialists’ noncompliance with risk analysis procedures and resulted in the initiation of the flight without a comprehensive preflight weather evaluation.This led to the pilot’s inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions, failure to maintain altitude, and subsequent collision with terrain.

Contributing to the accident was the Federal Aviation Administration’s inadequate oversight of the operator’s risk management program and failure to require Part 135 operators to establish safety management system programs.

Discussion Points

Issue 1. We all know that “the pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft” (14 CFR 91.3). Unfortunately, the pilot who reported for duty that day, just before 0700 in the dark hours of January, arrived to find the helicopter running and a patient waiting to be picked up at a distant hospital. The pilot on the night shift had checked the weather and accepted the flight:
  • The pilot flying the mission did not check the weather 
  • The pilot flying the mission did not do a preflight risk assessment
Discuss: Taking into account the last two facts, was the PIC able to make a valid decision according to 14 CFR 91.3?
Issue 2. Two other flight programs turned the flight down due to bad weather.
  • Were the pilots made aware of this?
  • In the same situation, is that information that you would want to know?
Discuss: In the interest of safety, does your operation share this type of information with your competitors?

Issue 3. Flight tracking indicates that the pilot flew through one band of snow showers and, in the second one, initiated a 180-degree descending turn. The descent continued until impact with the earth.
  • What are some of the methods that you use to improve your IIMC recovery procedures?
  • Do you practice IIMC procedures on a desktop simulator or in your aircraft?
Discuss: How can you improve your training to prevent an accident like this?
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