Debrief: Take 2 on Helicopter Helmets: Todd’s Story

by Rob Freeman, Program Manager, Rotorcraft Standards, Operational Standards, Standards, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada

1980 was a watershed year for our company. Business literally took off. We finally got an instrument flight rules (IFR) operating certificate, as well as two large helicopters with an offshore oil contract to go with it. We also graduated a number of local students from our new flight school and were able to offer the best ones positions in our expanding visual flight rules (VFR) operations as soon as they received their licences.

Todd was one of that original group—a good-looking local kid in his early twenties, already engaged to a nice girl—who was fascinated with helicopters and showed lots of smarts and promise. He did well on the course, had been flying daily since graduation, and recently had been assigned to a base away from the head office. By early summer, he had already handled an engine deceleration in flight and plunked the float-equipped helicopter onto a pond, with no injuries to the passengers or himself, or damage to the aircraft. A couple of days later—after a review of the circumstances and his actions, and an “attaboy”—he was back in the air.

Several weeks later, when our owner requested a weekend fishing trip to his bush cabin, there was no hesitation to assign Todd to the task. It was to be a simple pick-up from a field by the hotel and a short, straight run of an hour or less to the camp. Onboard the helicopter were a number of regional business colleagues and friends of the owner. The operations manager co-ordinated the trip logistics, with the weekend dispatcher monitoring the flight progress.

It was a beautiful summer day, although—not unusually for the area—the winds were strong and quite gusty. Witnesses at the hotel watched the helicopter start and climb out normally, and then turn west over the low hills into a generally uninhabited area. Shortly after the helicopter disappeared from sight, while still climbing, the engine failed suddenly due to oil coking causing bearing lubrication blockage and subsequent catastrophic turbine seizure. The terrain below was very unforgiving—the only immediate flat area was underneath high-tension lines. Todd attempted an autorotation to a railway cut to avoid the steep, rolling terrain. Stretching his glide to reach the one other level area in sight resulted in the loss of critical rotor RPM, and the helicopter hit hard, primarily on the right side. Some passengers were killed immediately in the crash, and all the rest onboard were badly injured. The owner, in spite of his own serious injuries, dragged himself clear of the wreckage and stumbled a considerable distance over rough terrain to get help. Todd’s injuries were not serious—except for the one hard blow to his head caused by the door-frame during the impact sequence. In spite of a lot of prayers and tears, he died in hospital several days later.

Over the years, it has become increasingly apparent that there are no new accidents. We have to accept some risk if we want to defy gravity. However, in pursuing the holy grail of absolute safety, we should not overlook the simple, obvious mitigants to the severity of these accidents. Wearing a helmet whenever you fly is one of those mitigants. Any off-the-shelf technology that has been shown to significantly reduce injury statistics should be embraced by all concerned.

If you have any lingering doubts, think of Todd and that simple, recreational flight on a beautiful summer’s day.  

TC AIM Snapshot—Language

The use of English and French for aeronautical radio communications in Canada is detailed in sections 602.133, 602.134, and 602.135 of the CARs. The regulations specify that air traffic services shall be provided in English and sets out the locations where services shall be provided in French as well. The tables containing the names of those locations, as well as the pertinent section of the CARs are contained in COM Annex A.

For safety and operational efficiency, once the language to be used has been determined, the pilot should refrain from changing language in the course of communications without formal notification to that effect. In addition, pilots should endeavour to become thoroughly familiar with the aeronautical phraseology and terminology applicable to the type of service being provided in the official language of their choice.
(Ref: Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual [TC AIM], section COM 5.2)

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