Engine Reliability in a dangerous flight environment.
It has been a year since I began flying med-evac Helicopters
and it has been an exciting experience. In this article I thought
that I would recap a few of my thoughts and experiences of this
past year as I look forward to another great year of helicopter
flying, albeit in the private sector. The vast majority of my
helicopter experience has been piloting Rotorway Experimental
helicopters. For many years I dreamed of flying the “big” helicopters
and last year I got that opportunity.
I had always thought that turbines were the power plant of choice
for helicopters. Aside from my hours instructing in Jet Execs,
I had limited experience with this type of power plant. Common
thinking is that Turbines are far more reliable than their certified
piston counterparts, in turn the certified piston engines are
far more reliable than those uncertified engines found in most
As a Part 135 certified med-evac pilot, I was finally going to
be flying one of my favorite helicopters. This helicopter, with
it’s big turbine engine, would take me anywhere with near absolute
reliability, or so I thought. My new employer started me out flying
day shifts and within a few months I was flying night shifts as
well. My “hitch” consisted of 7 straight 12+ hour shifts.
Following my 7 days of flying med-evac missions I would usually
leave for 7 straight days of Rotorway or R22 flight instructing.
The med-evac flights were usually conducted over vast stretches
of oak tree forests, lakes, and vast wilderness areas. I knew
that I was flying with a reliable turbine engine, and that perception
reduced the pucker factor of these flights considerably. Often
during these flights I would look at the terrain below and know
that I would never attempt to fly an experimental helicopter over
these areas due to their less reliable power plants.
I was often told that flying an experimental helicopter was one
of the most risky forms of flying. After I started flying med-evac
helicopters I realized that the thousands of hours that I have
accumulated flying hundreds of different Rotorway helicopters
was relatively safe in comparison. I often would launch from our
med-evac base and fly off into the dark with only rough GPS coordinates
provided by dispatch. While I was en route I was told what to
look for on the ground to help locate the scene upon arrival.
Sometimes the scene was easy to find by the myriad of flashing
emergency lights, other times I was looking for a solitary porch
light flicking on and off to signal the location of the remote
residence where I was to land.
Power lines and towers are very difficult to see at night while
one is making an approach into a dark LZ lit only by the night
scanner beacon on the helicopter. It could take only a single
lapse in concentration or one error in judgment by the pilot and
the entire crew and patient could meet an untimely end. Many times
the local weather reporting stations were over 50 miles from our
scenes so I had to determine wind direction and visibilities once
I arrived overhead, and do that in complete darkness. The element
of danger was real and often palpable.
After around 6 months flying med-evac the Bell 206L1 Long Ranger
that I had been flying experienced a complete engine failure.
This occurred over a heavily forested area while transporting
a patient to a local hospital. I was flying the night shift and
this happened during the day shift. Fortunately the pilot was
able to auto rotate into a small field barely making it over the
tree tops before sliding it onto the rough ground of the small
clearing. The medical crew thought that they were going to die
and braced for the crash that did not happen. The medical crew
and patient were taken by ground ambulance to the Mountain Home,
AR hospital that they had been flying to in order to complete
the patient transport. A company mechanic later arrived at the
broken helicopter by ground.
That same night directly after shift change I flew with the same
medical crew in a replacement 206L over that same area and we
were all hoping that this engine was in better shape than the
one that had just quit. I was glad that my autorotation skills
were current. We had been directed to land next to the downed
helicopter in the small clearing so that the mechanic could remove
all of the medical equipment from the downed ship and install
it into the replacement ship that I was flying.
We arrived in the general area by the GPS coordinates given by
dispatch but it was totally dark and a moonless night. I called
the mechanics cell phone and asked him to turn on the anti-collision
light on the grounded helicopter, which he did and I located it's
position. It was a tight approach putting a second Bell 206 Long
Ranger into that tiny field next to the broken one but I did and
we transferred all of the required equipment.
During the following week our regular base 206L (Rocket 88) was
in the shop getting a new engine and I was flying a freshly refurbished
replacement Long Ranger. On the night following the engine-out
of our base helicopter, I got a call to fly to the scene of an
injury accident out in a mountainous part of Arkansas. There was
no moon visible, and the area had no ground lights because it
was located in a portion of the vast Mark Twain national forest.
I had only rough GPS coordinates to get the crew to the scene.
An engine failure during this flight would have been disastrous.
As we approached the scene of the accident the only ground reference
that I had was the single red emergency light on the roof of the
ambulance. The night was extremely humid so the search light only
illuminated the water vapor in the air much like turning on the
high beams of your cars headlights in the fog. Visibility was
nil until I was within 200 feet of the ground at which point I
could start to make out surface features.
It is a real challenge to drop into a black hole in a helicopter
at night while knowing there is steep terrain, mountain peaks,
power lines and tall trees below that cannot be seen and the possibility
of an unlighted tower. While making my final approach I reflected
on the recent engine failure of our base helicopter. I would have
been flying that helicopter this night if the engine held out
a few more hours before giving up.
All went well, we landed and loaded up the injured party and
readied for takeoff. Again my crew and I had to put our full faith
in the engine to get us out of the scene and to the nearest trauma
center. This engine did it's job and we completed our mission.
We do put an awful lot of faith in the engines that power our
helicopters. Turbine engines are very reliable as are piston engines.
We need to remember that all engines can fail at some point. In
the EMS world we are called on to fly in less than favorable conditions
at night, and into places that we wouldn't consider taking our
experimental helicopters. The reason we make those flights is
that the mission is different. Someone’s life is at stake and
it is the job of the med-evac crew to pick them up and transport
them to the nearest trauma facility.
During the past year my base experienced at least 3 partial power(engine)
losses necessitating canceling missions that placed the helicopter
into the maintenance shop. We also had that one complete engine
failure. Our base flew approximately 2,000 hours last year . I
know that seems unusually high failure rate for a turbine engine
but that is what happened to our base ship. It is important to
note that we need to do everything within our power to make sure
that the engine, electrical, and mechanical systems on our helicopters
are installed and maintained properly so that we do not experience
an in-flight failure. For this reason there are several groups
that are exploring optional engine and drive systems for the Rotorway
helicopter. Stay tuned, great things are on the horizon.
Sho-Me Helicopters, LLC