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On October 19, 2005, at 1429 Pacific daylight time, a Hughes 369D, N268ST, collided with power lines during climbing cruise flight and came to rest on a beach off Little Geiger Cove on Santa Catalina Island, Avalon, California. The pilot was operating the privately registered helicopter under the provisions of 14 CFR Part 91. The helicopter sustained substantial damage; the commercial pilot and one passenger were seriously injured. The helicopter departed from Palomar Airport, Carlsbad, California, with N22823, a Bell 206B, about 1300 for the personal flight. They were destined for Catalina Airport. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed.
A witness was in his boat in Little Geiger Cove where he had just picked up his mooring. He reported that he saw two helicopters flying towards the island from the west. The first helicopter flew over his boat so close that he could see the pilot and he waved. He estimated that the helicopter was about 75 feet above the water because his mast is 75 feet off the deck of his sailboat. The helicopter continued toward the land and began climbing because there were cliffs directly off of the beach. The helicopter continued in its climb and then impacted the set of power lines. The witness noted that the pilot would have had difficulty in seeing the power lines due to the position of the sun. Prior to the impact, there was no noticeable change in the sound of the helicopter, and it appeared to be under power and full control of the pilot. The approximate elevation of the power lines at the point of impact was 300 to 400 feet above the water level. The sky condition was clear with no cloud cover. The witness reported that he had once flown as a private pilot but had given up flying about 10 years ago.
According to the passenger of the Bell helicopter, who was a witness to the accident, the helicopters departed Palomar Airport and flew north along the coastline until reaching the Long Beach area; the Bell helicopter trailed the accident helicopter by approximately 1/2 mile. The predetermined plan was to arrive at the coastline of the Santa Catalina Island, and then circle it counterclockwise, prior to the arriving at the airport. While approaching the proximity of the island, both helicopters began transmitting over a common frequency 123.45. As the accident helicopter arrived over the shoreline of the island, at an altitude of about 400 feet, the accident pilot radioed that he had a problem. The witness in the Bell looked up and saw the accident helicopter porpoising back and forth before it struck a cliff and tumbled down to the beach. According to the witness, it appeared like the helicopter was attempting to fly forward while something was holding it back. The witness was flown to the site where he assisted the injured occupants until emergency crews arrived. While looking at the helicopter wreckage, the witness noted power lines wrapped around the skids of the helicopter. The witness further stated that two power line poles held the wires. He thought that three wires had originally been attached; however, only one wire remained strung between the two poles. The poles were positioned on either side of a valley, at the approximate elevation where the pilot radioed that he had a problem. The pole on the north side of the valley still had the wires attached that stretched from the pole, down the cliff, to the helicopter's skids. The witness did not believe that the passenger in the Hughes helicopter had any piloting experience.
The pilot of the Bell helicopter was also interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board investigator regarding the accident. After receiving a weather briefing, the pilot departed from Gillespie Field, San Diego, California, with his passenger, and flew to Palomar Airport, where he met the pilot and passenger of N268ST. The plan was to fly up the coast and then at Long Beach, head westbound to Santa Catalina Island, circle it counterclockwise, and then stop at the airport for lunch. They departed Carlsbad about 1400, and flew up the coast to Long Beach. From that point, they headed westward with N268ST leading about 1/2 mile. As N268ST passed the shoreline, the pilot radioed, "We got problems." The pilot looked up and saw "something white hit the mountain, then tumble down and land on the beach." The accident helicopter's altitude was estimated to be 400 to 500 feet above ground level (agl). The pilot immediately flew to the scene but felt uncomfortable landing so he flew up higher and radioed for emergency assistance. As they flew back to the site, the pilot's passenger saw someone moving at the helicopter. The pilot dropped off his passenger so that he could assist the downed helicopter occupants until emergency crews arrived. Once help was secured, the pilot flew to the Catalina Airport. His passenger called and told him that the helicopter hit wires. The pilot had not previously flown this route of flight.
The pilot held a commercial pilot certificate for helicopters. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records showed that a Notice of Proposed Certificate Action dated April 5, 2004, proposed to suspend the pilot's pilot certificate for a period of 180 days due to violation of the following FAA regulations: Section 91.119(a) in that except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below an altitude allowing if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface; Section 91.119(c) in that except when necessary for takeoff or landing, helicopters may not be operated at less than the minimums prescribed in 91.119(b) or 91.119(c), if the operation is conducted with hazard to persons or property on the surface; and Section 91.113(a), in that the pilot operated the helicopter in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger life or property of another. The records indicated that the accident helicopter, while being operated by the pilot, was observed flying at or below 500 feet along the Colorado River, as well as making passes as low as 50 feet along the Colorado River near the Picacho State Recreation Area on October 11, 2003. At a hearing in December 2005, it was determined that Sections 91.119 (a) and 91.119 (c) were violated and the pilot's certificate was suspended for a period of 90 days beginning January 21, 2006.
After repeated attempts to contact the accident pilot, the Safety Board investigator reached him by telephone on November 23. The accident pilot reported that he was still in the hospital and unable to make any comments regarding the accident. The accident pilot did recall that he had a problem near Torrance but decided to continue to Catalina rather than land the helicopter. He could not recall what the problem was or anything related to the problem. It should be noted that during the conversation the pilot stated that he was on medication for his injuries.
On December 23, the Safety Board investigator contacted the pilot once again via telephone. The pilot said that he was flying up the coastline near Torrance when he felt a shudder through the helicopter over a period of about 3 seconds. He continued to fly the helicopter while he was waiting for the trailing helicopter to arrive. Once the other helicopter arrived, they continued the flight to Catalina and upon arriving at the shoreline, he climbed the helicopter to gain altitude over the increasingly higher terrain. As the helicopter was climbing, the pilot began turning it to the right so that he could see the other helicopter. He again felt the shudder and immediately felt that he needed to get the helicopter on the ground. Over a period of about 8 seconds while lowering the collective to decrease in altitude, the pilot surveyed the terrain to the left and decided that it was unsuitable for landing so he intended to proceed to the right. As he maneuvered the helicopter to the right for an attempted landing on a beach, he continued to lower the helicopter and turned to the right. During this turn he impacted the power lines. The pilot said that he could vaguely remember a wire coming through the lower portion of the helicopter bubble near his feet. The pilot did not experience any visual or aural warnings or alarms and recalled that the helicopter was producing full power. The shudder was not through the rudder pedals but through the fuselage of the helicopter. Additionally, the pilot reported having 2,000 hours in the accident helicopter and had not experienced the shudder previously. The pilot said that he did not run into the wires due to his own negligence but felt that he may not have seen them as he was preparing for the precautionary landing.
TESTS AND RESEARCH
The helicopter was examined on November 18, 2005, at a recovery facility. The cockpit area sustained major impact damage, with the majority of the damage on the right (passenger) side. The cabin structure framed the left side, whereas the right side frame was destroyed. The cabin structure was supported by the skids of the helicopter with the right side sitting slightly lower than the left. The collective and cyclic were not installed on the right side. The left side collective and cyclic were manually actuated and produced corresponding movements at the main rotor assembly. When the IIC moved the anti-torque pedal attachment points, movement was obtained to a fractured rod end at the center section control column; the fracture surfaces were angular and granular. From this rod end, movement was obtained to the tail rotor pitch change rod. It should be noted that the actual anti-torque pedals from the right side were not on the helicopter when it was examined. A 10-inch straight-line indentation was present at the lower, left cockpit on the nose, and was perpendicular to the longitudinal axis of the helicopter.
One main rotor blade remained attached to the main rotor assembly. The other four blades were detached from the helicopter. The attached blade (yellow) was curled and twisted around the cabin structure. The green, purple, blue, and red blades all showed trailing edge buckling. The blue and green blade tips were curled and scratched. A section of the purple blade 5 inches outboard of blade station 105 was fractured from the remaining blade. The green blade was twisted approximately mid-blade.
The tail rotor boom was separated from the helicopter where it attaches to the fuselage structure. The tail rotor drive shaft and tail rotor pitch change rod were separated into multiple sections. One of these sections of tail rotor drive shaft was torsionally deformed in the driven direction. The tail rotor assembly separated from the helicopter and two of the four blades sustained leading edge damage. The blades turned without difficulty when manually actuated.
The engine, an Allison gas turbine model 250-C2013, was removed from the crushed airframe structure and examined. The turbine blades would not rotate although rub marks were present on the turbine housing. The exhaust stack on the right side was crushed and there was a burn mark on the cowling that was crushed against this stack prior to its removal from the airframe. The right and left exhaust stacks were removed. The short shaft connecting from the engine to the transmission was sheared from the transmission and the engine at both couplings. All of the fracture surfaces contained 45-degree lips.
The United States Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department showed that the sun transit was at 1238, and that sunset occurred at 1814 on the day of the accident. According to a Safety Board computer program, at the time of the accident, the sun's disk was 39 degrees above the horizon on a bearing of 215 degrees.