Helicopters can do things airplanes can’t. Their ability to take off and land in confined spaces is vital during rescues and attractive to charter operators, who can offer clients the nearest thing to door-to-door convenience. But unless they’re properly trained and proficient in flight by reference to instruments, helicopter pilots are just as susceptible to spatial disorientation as their fixed-wing counterparts, and the results are just as ugly.
On Dec. 16, 2006, a Bell 407 departed its base at the Manassas Regional Airport (HEF) in northern Virginia at 12:15 p.m. and picked up a passenger at his home nearby, arriving at a golf course in Ocean View, Del. at 1:30 p.m. The 30-year-old, 3,300-hour charter pilot held commercial and helicopter instructor certificates but was not instrument rated. After dropping off the passenger, she flew to the Sussex County Airport in Georgetown, Del. (GED) to refuel and wait. The passenger was to be picked up at 5:30 p.m. and flown to Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) outside Washington, D.C.. A VFR flight plan to enter the D.C. Air Defense Identification Zone (now a special flight rules area) was on file.
The helicopter departed Sussex County Airport at about 4:50 p.m., but never reached the golf course. Fog had begun to form as the sun set; witnesses about five miles west of the club saw the helicopter enter the fog about 75 feet above the treetops, then fly back out in the opposite direction. It landed in a farm field at about 5:15 p.m.; not expecting a helicopter, the property owner called the state police. A trooper arrived fifteen minutes later and the pilot explained the situation; the trooper later described conditions as “dark and foggy.”
The pilot was able to describe the location to a driver, who brought the passenger from the golf course. The driver pointed out a number of obstructions, including power lines, trees, and irrigation equipment, and asked the pilot if she was comfortable flying in those conditions. Pointing out that stars were clearly visible overhead, the pilot said it was “a piece of cake,” and that she was only worried about getting to Dulles on time. She declined his offer to light the departure zone with his headlights, and he left.
Fog is deceptive; a layer thin enough to see through vertically can completely obscure horizontal vision. A witness about 800 feet away heard the helicopter’s engines start at about 6:15 p.m. He saw it climb vertically just above treetop height, clearing the power lines, and then accelerate forward in a shallow descent until it hit the ground. Poor visibility, estimated at one-eighth of mile, hindered efforts to locate the crash site. Fragments of the cockpit and cabin were eventually found scattered along a 116-foot debris path. There were no survivors.
The NTSB attributed the accident to the pilot’s decision to depart VFR into nighttime IMC. Another pilot she met at Sussex County Airport described her as “nervous” about the weather, checking forecasts and current conditions repeatedly over the Internet, and her cell phone records show that she made 21 different calls to various automated weather stations between 4:29 p.m. and 6:05 p.m. Her employer’s operations manual didn’t just permit her to cancel the flight for poor weather; it required her to. But a well-heeled client had an airplane to catch, and a career pilot suppressed her doubts and tried to get him there.
Even those who don’t fly for a living can come under intense pressure to make a flight on schedule. And even the best-designed company procedures won’t always insulate the go/no-go decision from commercial concerns: Professional prospects depend on consistent performance. But ambition alone doesn’t provide the equipment and skills needed to fly in IMC, and going does no good if you don’t arrive.