By David Jack Kenny
It’s often said that Alaskan aviation is a different business than flying in the Lower 48. The immense and sparsely populated landscape, seasonal weather extremes, and scarcity of supplies call for ingenuity and determination at levels rarely needed in more temperate climates. Vast distances with few roads require Alaskan aircraft to serve in roles more typically filled by surface vehicles in Florida or Kansas.
Accident reports suggest that some pilots determine maximum gross takeoff weight experimentally rather than relying on a flight manual. This can be a problem, because even up there the basic laws of physics still apply.
About 5 p.m. on June 19, 2010, a Robinson R44 helicopter crashed on a cattle ranch in the Aleutian Islands, killing the 48-year-old commercial pilot. The NTSB described the location on Umnak Island as “62 miles southwest of Unalaska.”
One of the ranch employees who witnessed the accident told the investigator in charge in a written statement “that he and another employee were in the helicopter with the pilot, surveying the ranch property, when they spotted a bull that had become entangled in plastic wrapping material,” the NTSB report said. “He said he and the other employee got out of the helicopter, and the pilot attempted to herd the bull toward them so they could cut the plastic off. The witness said the bull would not cooperate, and the pilot tried to land on the trailing plastic so they could tackle the bull. The witness also reported that the pilot tried to knock the bull down with the helicopter. He said eventually the pilot got the helicopter's right landing gear skid under the plastic and tried to pick the bull up, but the plastic broke. He said the pilot hooked the skid under the plastic again, but this time the plastic did not break, and as the helicopter lifted the bull off the ground the helicopter moved forward and to the right, and impacted the ground.
“Due to the remote location, the helicopter was not examined by the NTSB.”
Putting aside any doubts about the wisdom of using a noisy, expensive machine with rapidly spinning blades to confront a large, aggressive animal—these ranchers have used helicopters to herd their cattle for years, though maybe not at quite such close quarters—there would still seem to be a problem here. The typical useful load of a carbureted R44 is about 960 pounds, and some of that would have been taken up by the pilot and whatever fuel was on board. Even if the pilot was small and the fuel load very light, it’s not likely that more than 800 pounds of payload capacity remained. The NTSB did not report the breed of the bull, but since mature weights of more than 1,000 pounds are common in most beef varieties, the helicopter probably could not have lifted it even if the weight had been properly centered. Instead, one skid was caught underneath an essentially immovable object while the other continued to lift. From a safe distance, at least, the phrase “dynamic rollover” comes to mind. Some quick down collective might have prevented the roll, but left the helicopter uncomfortably close to an angry bull.
Even in Alaska, there are some jobs for which aircraft just aren’t well suited. Lifting unrestrained livestock would seem to be one of them, especially animals that weigh more than the machine can lift. And a broader lesson applies to those of us who live in gentler climates and use our aircraft in more conventional ways: Focusing on the task at hand to the exclusion of normal risk management can jeopardize the task as well as the aircraft and the pilot’s safety. In this case, the helicopter crashed and killed the pilot and bull.