Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Windsock suspected in Air Care crash

Pilot: Indicator malfunctioned

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Air Care helicopter that crash-landed atop University Hospital struck the hangar by mistake, possibly because a malfunctioning wind indicator showed far less wind than there actually was, The Cincinnati Enquirer learned Monday.

        According to the preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the end of the windsock “was caught on a crossbar attached to the support structure” when it was examined the day after the May 6 crash.

        Pilot John Robinson, 52, told the NTSB the windsock appeared limp as he began to hover over the helipad, returning alone from a refueling trip to Lunken Airport at 11:35 p.m.

  Pilot John Robinson had more than 10,000 flight hours of experience, including about 120 hours in the Eurocopter BK117-model that crash-landed, the National Transportation Safety Board report noted.
  He suffered serious back injuries and is expected to be out of work another six to eight weeks, Air Care director Dudley Smith said.
        But when NTSB investigators freed it under wind conditions similar to those Mr. Robinson faced, the sock extended straight out, revealing winds of about 10 knots, with gusts in excess of 15 knots, according to the report. (Fifteen knots equals 19.5 mph.)

        Mr. Robinson also told federal investigators that the windsock — which is owned and maintained by University Hospital and Air Care — had been stuck before.

        However, Air Care Director Dudley Smith said Mon day that the problem was never brought to Air Care's attention, and that “we have a concern form, and none were made on that.”

        Mr. Smith added, however, that the windsock was replaced after the crash and the crossbar on which it got stuck was removed. The crossbar held weather monitoring equipment that was no longer in use.

        The report's author, NTSB investigator Bob Hancock, emphasized Monday from his New Jersey office that he reached no conclusion about the cause of the crash. A final report likely will take about four months.

        But, he said, the tail rotor failure caused the helicopter to spin out of control, and occurred seconds after a “loud noise or bang.”

        The report says: “Both sides of the (back) blade fragment had dark red paint transfer marks on it similar in color to the dark red paint on the metal guard of the hangar roof, where vertical slash marks were found about 24 feet above the ground.”

        The back propeller spins vertically, stabilizing the helicopter by working counter with the main, horizontally spinning blade. When control of the back rotor is lost, the helicopter spirals downward.

        “We're still investigating, looking at weather, pilot background and training, and items removed for testing,” Mr. Hancock said. Of the possibility that the incorrect wind reading caused the pilot to miscalculate, he said: “We're trying to find that out, it's an open area. ... The winds were stronger than what he saw.”

        Rhett Flater, executive director of the Helicopter Club of America based in Alexandria, Va., said: “The notion of the windsock is certainly interesting. ... Pilots land and take off into the wind. It's called translational wind (to provide lift). If you lose that, that increases the power requirement, so pilots trade off altitude for power.”

        If winds were blowing in a direction other than “slight southwest” as indicated by the windsock, such a shift could have altered the helicopter's path. The following day, for instance, under what were called similar conditions under which the pilot worked, the winds were swirling. According to the report, winds the next day were “predominantly from the southwest, there were occasional short duration gusts from the north, and occasional periods of calm winds.”

        The illuminated windsock is mounted on the hospital roof about 40 feet above the helipad. The amount and direction of wind are important factors as pilots hover, preparing to land.

        The owner of the helicopter is Petroleum Helicopter Inc. of Lafayette, La., one of the two leading operators of medical transport helicopters in the United States.

        Mr. Flater of HCA hailed the safety record of PHI and the quick reactions of pilot Robinson.

        “The loss of tail rotor function is one of the scariest things you can experience,” he said, “especially here because there's not much time for reflection. It's mostly instinct.”

        The helicopter, valued at between $4.2 million and $4.5 million, was destroyed, according to the NTSB.


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