By David Jack Kenny
It’s an instructor’s nightmare: Despite their CFIs’ best efforts to foster both judgment and skill, some students make it through their checkrides (and perhaps earn advanced ratings) without ever calibrating their self-assurance to match their actual proficiency. Whether student or certificated pilot, the aviator who’s overconfident but underskilled tends to come nose-to-nose with uncompromising reality. Often that encounter isn’t gentle.
On May 27, 2011, a Brantly B-2B helicopter lifted off from the Hayfork airport in the mountains of northern California. Its owner, a 120-hour student pilot, planned to fly solo to Weaverville, some 17 nautical miles to the northeast. The country in between is rugged: The most direct route crosses steep hills that rise above 4,000 feet. These produce considerable mechanical turbulence on windy days, and this was a breezy afternoon. The Weaverville airport was reporting west winds gusting to 22 knots, while gusts of 16 to 17 knots were recorded at various unofficial reporting stations in the area.
A friend of the pilot’s saw him starting the helicopter and made radio contact. After asking about his destination and fuel status, the friend photographed the Brantly hovering before it departed. When it hadn’t returned almost three hours later, he notified the sheriff’s department. An Alert Notice was eventually issued; the next afternoon, the wreckage was found on a 45-degree slope about 3.5 miles short of the Weaverville airport. The accident investigator described the terrain in the vicinity as consisting of “intersecting crests, ridgelines, and valleys with elevations ranging between 1,800 and 4,400 feet.” Dense forest covered the site, but only two trees showed any sign of damage; both were within 20 feet of the main wreckage. The nose-first impact crushed the cabin, killing the pilot.
If 22-knot gusts sound like a lot for a student pilot, it’s because they are. The 50-year-old had been endorsed to solo the Brantly less than two weeks before the accident, and the limitations on that endorsement included maximum winds of 12 knots with no gusts.The instructor who’d provided it was at least his ninth in the past three and a half years, and the student’s relations with his previous instructors had sometimes been contentious. The NTSB reported that the accident pilot’s total flight experience could not be determined because several pages were missing from his logbook. In the course of a dispute an earlier CFI had actually ripped them out, an incident the student had reported to the FAA.
The investigators interviewed several other instructors who had flown with him. Some of their assessments were harsh. One said flat-out that “he was one of the few people he met who he thinks should not be flying helicopters.” Among the reasons: “ … that the pilot didn't grasp the ‘helicopter concept,’ that he was not very safe, and did not understand the hazards involved in flying helicopters. The training did not ‘click,’ and he did not see a real learning progression.” Another “described the pilot as overly confident in his abilities, and [said he] would often make typical student mistakes, like rolling the throttle the wrong way, or pulling collective wrong way, maybe more than most students.” The friend who’d photographed his departure characterized him as “stubborn and headstrong,” a description echoed by the CFI who had finally endorsed him to solo. That same instructor added that even after the pilot managed to meet the requirements for solo flight, he remained “easily distracted, and found it hard to concentrate. He would often branch off into conversations at inappropriate moments during flight training.” While “ he knew how to properly conduct a preflight and prepare a cross‐country flight … he rarely did it correctly with [his CFI] present.”
That combination of overconfidence and stubbornness extended beyond his flying. His last CFI recalled that the student was also something of an inventor, and “often made unapproved changes” to the aircraft in an effort to improve its performance. The instructor refused to fly with these installed, and insisted that the owner restore the helicopter to its original configuration. Before training began, however, the owner broke the collective friction lock, so training proceeded without it. The instructor agreed that the helicopter seemed underpowered, and it had no governor, so close monitoring was needed to prevent rapid decay of the main rotor RPM. Constant throttle adjustments were also required, and it had no low-RPM warning horn.
The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the accident to “the student pilot's decision to fly in windy conditions that exceeded his capabilities, which resulted in his subsequent loss of helicopter control.” This seems accurate enough as far as it goes, but the accident chain stretches back well beyond the decision to take off on that particular afternoon. The refusal to be governed by the limitations of either his solo privileges or his aircraft’s type certificate betrayed a heedlessness that experience might eventually have corrected—had that experience not been fatal.