Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What Was I Thinking?

UPDATE: May 2014

Since posting this, my company has experienced another tail rotor strike at a hospital helipad - the misfortune fell upon a long time friend and coworker. 

It could happen to you too...

I landed at a small hospital's helipad a few days ago, and had a near miss with an obstacle. And this is a topic that I have written about, and thought about, and talked about. What the heck?

Am I dumb?

In a recent post, I wrote about us helicopter pilots operating in a naturalistic environment. This means that our decision making - what we do with the aircraft, is naturalistic decision making (NDM). I can remember exactly the events that led to my near miss, and exactly what I was thinking, and why I was thinking it.

On the way to the Raulerson Hospital helipad in the town of Okeechobee Florida, I asked the crew to tell me all about the hospital and the pad. They described it pretty well, a ground based cement square with trees and wires in the way. They mentioned that the other pilots would "fly past it and come back from the other way." As we approached, I got eyes on the pad and did my high recon.

                                Image oriented to show final approach path. Up is approx 90 degrees.

I could see what the crew was talking about as we approached from the top of the image (headed west), turned right, and made our final approach to the east  (see red line). The H is oriented approximately north/south, and the orientation of the H at a helipad indicates favored approach direction(s). In this case, trees block the north approach path, and a strong wind from the north ruled out landing to the south - downwind. I elected to take a crosswind from the left and flew in calling out obstacles and getting confirmation from the crew that we were clear of poles, wires, and the tree out the right door on short final approach.

As I came over the pad, I instinctively began to put my nose into the corner at the top of the image. Then a conversation with Toyanna Frye came into my mind - literally as I was hovering. Toy is a flight medic at Walterboro SC, who I fly with often. On a not-so-recent flight with her at Walterboro, as I was landing and putting my nose into a corner, she asked me to stop moving so far forward as it made it hard for her to load a patient without having the stretcher fall off the edge of the pavement. The pad at Walterboro is bigger, and obstacle free, so I accommodated her. (Being accommodating has caused much trouble and damage to helicopter pilots and helicopters in tight landing areas. After approach and landing safely, we move the aircraft to make things easy for the crew, and end up hitting things). So I was moving forward at Raulerson, then thought "better" of it and stopped, and landed. Perhaps it was a touch of cognitive dissonance.

I wrote about this topic in another post

I landed, shut down, and climbed out. This is what I saw.

Without trying, I had landed right on top of the H. Force of habit... A bad habit...

I noticed that the lights stood up further than normal and presented a hazard to a low tail like on a Bell 222 or 230.  I walked around to the front. That's when I saw the real hazard, back behind the aircraft.

I walked to the rear.

I never saw that electrical junction box, and it sticks up high enough to make contact with a low tail, especially on a long aircraft landed to the center of the pad.  My tail was about six or seven feet away from making contact, and if I had drifted or come in nose high...

At debrief I showed that picture to the crew who said, "been here a hundred times, never saw that."

I was lucky. This time.

Maybe I should take my own advice, land forward, nose in the corner, and not worry about being so accommodating....

safe flights...

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