Always be Ready for Anything to Happen
Here is it half way through 2007 and it has turned out to be quite an exciting year so far, and that kind of excitement is something I could use less of. As most of the readers know I am a professional helicopter pilot who has made a career out of helping folks by inspecting and test flying their new helicopters. I also assist the builder with rigging and balancing of the main and tail rotor system before we begin their flight training in their own ship. I have been doing this over 2 decades now along with having a real job for much of that time. As kit helicopters become more and more popular I find that I become increasingly busier with helping builders and new owners with their machines so I have put my other career aside and work full time in the kit and certified helicopter training arena.
My wife and I took a much needed break last winter and traveled to California to visit friends and family. While there several folks called me to get some help with their flight training. After performing my usual safety inspection on a new 162f and doing some fixing and adjusting we began flight training.
Now one would think that with nearly 20 years of building, flying and fixing Rotorway and other kit helicopters, I would have seen and experienced everything that could happen to one. Here are a few events of the past 6 months that have been real eye openers for me and I hope that by sharing them with the readership, they will not be repeated by anyone else.
January 2007. Flight training in the new Rotorway 162 F was proceeding nicely. It was a very well built helicopter and there were only a few minor glitches found that were easily remedied. We began the normal hover training: anti-torque pedals, collective, cyclic, throttle, now combine 2, 3, and then all controls. While we are in safe proximity to the ground doing initial hover training we are also test flying the helicopter. If something gets loose, leaks, or breaks, we can set the helicopter down onto the surface in an instant and stay safe, or so was my thinking on that beautiful sunny California winter day.
We had several hours on the new helicopter and the training was progressing nicely. It was time for my student’s first lift off without my assistance and he did a pretty nice one. With the Rotorway helicopter the pilot applies aft right cyclic as the ship gets light on the skids and as the helicopter lifts into a hover the cyclic is brought back to the neutral position to maintain a stationary hover. When my student lifted off he brought the cyclic back to neutral but the helicopter began moving to the right. I nudged the cyclic left but it would not move in that direction. Thinking that my student was blocking the control against my left cyclic pressure and the helicopter was accelerating left I announced “I have the controls!!”
My student immediately pulled back from all of the controls and the helicopter continued to accelerate to the left. I applied up collective to gain some altitude so that I would have time to gain control of the helicopter and found immediately that the cyclic control had become jammed and would not provide any left movement. Suddenly I was hit by the realization that we were about to crash this brand new helicopter and my only concern was that we would be able to walk away from the wreckage. The helicopter was now around fifty feet above the ground and traveling sideways to the right at around 30 mph with no cyclic control and accelerating.
The wind was strong and from the east, we were now facing south and turning right. I told my student “ I have to put us down, brace yourself!” My hope was that we would not get hit by the main rotors when we slammed into the ground at thirty plus miles per hour sideways. At least we had a chance but if we continued to climb or accelerate, our chances for surviving the ground impact would be greatly reduced.
I lowered the collective to stop the climb and the helicopter tilted and turned further to the right as we descended. Just before impact with the ground I applied full left anti-torque pedal which turned the nose of the helicopter back into the wind and actually brought the skids level due to the tail rotor force being applied under the main rotors. We were now momentarily level but flying rearward at a high rate of speed so I applied forward cyclic which slowed the helicopter as it again rolled to the right and I had to climb to clear the ground while shooting sideways again.
This time I applied full left anti-torque pedal dumped the collective and applied full forward cyclic. The helicopter turned left back into the wind, and leveled itself. Just before touchdown I pulled collective as we made ground contact. The skids hit the ground, the left skid dug into the soft sod as the helicopter rotated about 45 degrees to the right pivoting on the buried front skid, and then dropped back onto both skids.
There we sat to my absolute astonishment, rotors winding down, ship level, student oblivious to the danger that has just passed. He said something like “wow, that was cool” – I don’t recall his exact words because all I could really hear was my heartbeat pounding inside of my Bose ANR headset.
Lesson learned, I now check and double check all control stops with wrenches to insure that they are tight and locked and cannot move at all laterally.
Several years ago I was at Homer’s fly-in when a new 162F ran out of fuel on approach and the pilot lowered the collective, flared, and buried the tail boom into the bean field prior to the helicopter bouncing up onto its nose and hitting the main rotors, then flipped onto it’s side. I thought long and hard about what I would do in the same situation and decided that it would be best to come down flat with lowered collective, pull collective pitch before ground contact, and slide it on if the ship had the longer skids vs. the short factory roll-over inducing skids.
In April of this year I was instructing up in Idaho in a new Rotorway 162f. It was my third trip to this student’s location. The first trip up we finished the helicopter. The second trip up was when we did his initial phase I hover training at which time I encouraged Pete to flip his front landing gear bow and install longer skids. During this trip were conducting his altitude training and were doing normal approaches to a local airport. While on approach at around 50 feet AGL and around 40 mph the helicopter began to shake and we heard a banging noise. I took the controls and thought that we had thrown a belt. When I lowered the collective to maintain RRPM the engine quit.
Now I was in the exact situation that happened at Homers, on approach, low altitude and air speed, engine dead. It is amazing how much information one’s brain can process in a short period of time. In a fraction of a second I decided to land flat into the grass area next to the runway and kept the helicopter level while I resisted the urge to fare. Just before ground contact I applied up collective and slid the helicopter on. The first photo shows where we first made ground contact.
The second photo shows the flipped front landing bow and extended skids that saved Pete’s helicopter. The helicopter sustained absolutely no damage during the landing.
The last photo shows what we saw when we removed the rocker cover from the engine.
The condition was repaired and the Pete’s helicopter is once again flying.
I immediately lowered the throttle just enough to stop the climb and just before landing I increased throttle to set the helicopter onto the ground relatively softly. We discovered that the locking collar that both of us had checked prior to the flight had slid down to the point that the forks of the swash plate had exited their slots and had rotated to the point that the collective could no longer be lowered.
We found that the torque on the nut to the bolt that applies the clamping pressure to the main shaft holding the collar in place was correct but that the threads on the bolt were corroded and the proper torque did not yield the proper clamping pressure.
From Canada I went to PA where I inspected and instructed in 3 Exec 152’s
that had been modified with dual ignition. Each of them had a loose locking
collar and on one the forks would actually come out of the collar with
full up collective. This ship had been flying and I was there to give
this pilot some auto rotation instruction. See the photo of how I found
Bills locking collar.
So here we are mid way through the year and I have experienced two in-flight control lockups and an engine failure on approach. If I had been asked if one could survive a control lockup like I have described, I would have said that the ship would have crashed and the mortality of those on board would be questionable, at best. What I found out was that when a crisis occurs, somehow one’s training and experience kick in and we were able to survive several potentially fatal events unscathed.
I have learned even more about inspecting these ships, I am always learning
and then sharing what I learn with those who want to gain from my experiences
and mistakes. I always look back and think, I should have known to look
for that but I did not, each occurrence described here was a new one for
me. I am sure that they have each happened to others but if they are not
shared publicly, how do we learn?
My hope is that my sharing of these experiences will not scare the reader, but will encourage them to look in these areas to insure that they do not repeat the safe event.
Remember that you are the one that needs to insure that the helicopter that you are going to fly is in an airworthy condition.
Fly safely and be ever vigilant.