Is it better to be lucky or good? Yes

Is it better to be lucky than good? False choice. Cover the board and aim for the lucky two and well, although this philosophical mobius strip leads to the inevitable conclusion that skill has a lot to do with luck. I’m chatting about this because just six months ago I wrote a blog about how 2021 has been a bad year for me personally when it comes to fatalities. Four friends or acquaintances died in collisions.

This year it’s not much better. In the past month, two friends emailed to report the deaths in crashes of people they knew. Both were previously certified pilots returning to flying, perhaps because Basic Med made it possible. I’m not disparaging this program, I’m just noting that expanding the driver pool has always had a blood price and maybe still does.

Getting back to luck, the video we’re releasing this week of a crash at California’s Cable Airport in January 2022. The lucky part is that any pilot who ends up in a 90 degree bank 30 feet without roll control survives the vagaries of gravity and flat dirt that isn’t too harsh. (The video was posted by Aviation Safety Network.)

Details of the accident are that the pilot of a Cessna 120 approached Cable’s Runway 24. On short final, he encountered rotor wash from a Huey helicopter operated by the local Sheriff’s Department which caused an uncontrolled roll to the right at low altitude. The aircraft impacted in this attitude – nose first – and spun down a slide that narrowly missed the end of a hangar block. The pilot was slightly injured, but the aircraft was seriously damaged.

I read a lot of crash reports and about one in 50 turns out to be, well, really interesting. This was one of those, as the pilot attached his own detailed analysis and statement of what happened that gives far more detail than the NTSB’s minimal analysis. In all, with the report of the pilot, it is possible to draw something from it; without that, not so much.

If the pilot’s statement was accurate, there were two helicopters operating at the airport, neither of which observed recommended airport procedures. One of the helicopters crossed in front of the Cessna without announcing its intentions, according to the pilot’s report. He was in the process of applying go-around power when he encountered rotor downwash and lost control.

The pilot provided his own historical analysis noting that there are not many such accidents in the database. Is it because pilots know to avoid helicopters or because medium to heavy helicopters don’t mix well with light aircraft? I guess more the latter than the former. A Huey – think Bell 204/205 – weighs around 9500 pounds, so in a slow hover it pushes a lot of air and creates a lot of local turbulence.

But a big heavy-lift helicopter like a CH-53 (46,000 pounds) or a CH-47 Chinook (50,000 pounds) raises quite a ruckus. They are not commonly seen on civilian airfields, but they are far from unheard of either. I once saw a pair of CH-53s doing low passes at First Flight Airport in North Carolina. They also show up unannounced at other airports. My old Connecticut home base of Waterbury-Oxford has had regular visits from Blackhawks (13,000 pounds) from the nearby Sikorsky factory.

Guess I knew they needed to be given plenty of separation, but if I knew you’re supposed to be at least three rotor diameters away – per AC 90-23G – I forgot. In addition, in a slow hovering taxi, a helicopter also disturbs the air a little above. And even on the ground, three rotor diameters may not be enough. Here’s another rotor wash encounter that didn’t result in a crash, but did cause the alarm nonetheless.

So, to be honest, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have ended up in the same situation as the Cable pilot. The helicopter was crossing his path, so it wasn’t as if the wake had to be lingering. But now we all know not to do that.

One aspect of this story that does not appear in the NTSB archives is the chaos helicopters sometimes cause on the ground that do not result in crashes or reportable incidents. Not to generalize too broadly here, but helicopter pilots are sometimes oblivious to the minor problems they cause on the ground when taxiing in a hover. I saw one here in Venice when a Jet Ranger taxied past a line of passing planes – not all of which were tied down – and blew a few out of position, although none damage was not one. The mother of all devastating terrors is the V-22 Osprey. In this 2010 incident, 10 people were injured thanks to a crew unaware of what was happening downwind. This one was even more spectacular and completely destroyed a hospital’s emergency helipad.

During my flying career, I’ve often left a plane secured only with chocks while I took a toilet or lunch break. It would have taken, what, a minute or two more to tie him up? I don’t expect a V-22 to show up, but then again, neither does this hospital. Like it or not, we’re alone there and we can’t rely on fixed-wing or rotor pilots to always do the right thing.

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