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Even after touchdown, if the rotors are turning, a helicopter can still crash

I still remember my first helicopter flight at Naval Air Station Whiting Field. It was 2001 on a hot and humid summer day in the Florida panhandle. I had just aced the first brief with my flight instructor. At this point, as a Marine Corps student naval aviator, I already had a little over one hundred hours in the T-34, but all of that time was in an airplane, not a helicopter. The training helicopter in use was a TH-57 Bell 206 JetRanger, which is a tail rotor helicopter.

That summer afternoon I was not at the controls until we landed at an outlying field. The flight instructor then, patiently, began teaching me how to hover. He told me that my goal on that first flight was to keep the nose pointed straight, the helicopter at the same height over the ground, and stay in about a 90’ x 90’ box. Hovering is most definitely an art. I was most definitely not artful at first. Yet, towards the end of that hover practice, I was getting it, and I even landed from a hover (probably with a little help). Then we flew back to Whiting Field. I felt good. Then I learned a valuable lesson. One that I never forgot.

The helicopter for the familiarization training flights did not have a rotor brake. As my instructor shutdown the engine, I relaxed the death grip I had on the flight cyclic and collective. My instructor saw this out of the corner of his eye and immediately grabbed the controls. He said something to the effect of “never do that again!” You are still flying until the rotors stop turning. Any transmission or rotor problem after shutdown can kill you. Unfortunately, this is true, and sometimes pilots can’t do anything about it.

Yesterday two people tragically died in Carlsbad, California at McClellan Palomar Airport, when the Bell 407 (N711BE) they were flying spun out of control after touching down. Seeing that video took me back to that hot summer day in 2001. The NTSB is just beginning to investigate yesterday’s crash. The video suggests a possible tail rotor, tail rotor gearbox, or tail rotor drive shaft failure, but it is far too early in the investigation process to determine causal factors. Since 2001, I’ve flown many helicopters, investigated many helicopter crashes, and now litigate helicopter crash cases as an aviation attorney. It never gets easier seeing bad things happen to good people when things go wrong in a helicopter. My thoughts and prayers are with the families. They deserve justice.

By. F. Phillip Peche, attorney @ Bailey & Partners —



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