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On August 27, 2009, about 0845 mountain standard time, an Aerospatiale, AS350 B2 Ecureuil, N705LV, impacted a boulder during a takeoff maneuvering turn from the Grand Canyon based Ramada helipad, about 2.1 miles northeast of Grand Canyon West Airport (1G4), Grand Canyon, Arizona. The airline transport certificated pilot was the only occupant in the helicopter, and he was not injured. The helicopter was substantially damaged. The accident occurred during a 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 positioning flight to pick up an additional passenger load at 1G4. The helicopter was operated by Las Vegas Helicopters, Inc., based in Boulder City, Nevada, and was performing its commercial air tour business using the name Stars & Stripes Air Tours. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time, and a company flight plan was filed.
The pilot reported to the National Transportation Safety Board investigator that, earlier in the day, he had departed from the Boulder City Municipal Airport, Nevada, with six fare-paying passengers. Their "Skywalk Deluxe" tour flight uneventfully commenced and he flew the passengers on a 35-minute-long flight to the Ramada helipad, located a few hundred feet west of the Colorado River. The tour flight was performed under FAR Part 135.
Following his uneventful landing at the Ramada helipad, the pilot shut down the helicopter's engine, and the passengers exited the helicopter. Thereafter, the pilot escorted the passengers to a trail head for the remainder of their walk to the boat launch and subsequent ride on the Colorado River.
The pilot returned to the helicopter for his solo flight to 1G4 where additional passengers were waiting for their tour flight. The pilot was scheduled to initiate "up and down" trips between the helipad and 1G4.
The company did not have any ground crew located at the Ramada helipad; the site was unoccupied. The pilot reported to the Safety Board investigator that he was familiar with the helipad. The pilot indicated he was aware that boulders had been placed around the circumference of the helipad. They partially demarked its perimeter border from the surrounding terrain.
The pilot was flying the helicopter from the right seat. He stated that based upon the direction of landing and departing traffic in the area, he planned to take off and depart the helipad in a southerly direction. At the time of liftoff, the helicopter was facing north.
Seconds after becoming airborne, as the pilot was maneuvering during a left clearing turn, the helicopter's tail rotor impacted a perimeter boulder. The helicopter pitched nose down and began to violently shudder, vibrate, and oscillate right and left. The pilot stated that he immediately descended from a hover and landed. The helicopter remained upright.
The 63-year-old pilot holds an airline transport pilot certificate for rotorcraft-helicopter. He has commercial pilot privileges for single and multiengine land airplanes and instrument airplane. He also has sport pilot privileges for weight-shift-control land aircraft. In 1989, the pilot's certified flight instructor certificate for rotorcraft-helicopter expired.
The pilot reported that his total flight time is 9,164 hours, of which about 1,600 hours were obtained flying the accident model of helicopter. During the 90 days preceding the accident, he had flown 164 hours, of which 97 hours were in the accident model of helicopter. During the 24-hour period immediately preceding the accident, he had flown 4.3 hours.
According to the pilot, he resumed line pilot flying duties the day prior to the accident, following 3 days of rest. The pilot stated that he was in excellent health.
The helicopter was manufactured in 1985 and bears serial number 1878. The helicopter airframe's total time is 13,329 hours.
According to information posted on the Federal Aviation Administration's Aircraft Registry web site, the helicopter was equipped with a Turbomeca, Arriel 1D1, engine.
The operator reported that the Turbomeca engine had been removed from the helicopter. It had been replaced with a Honeywell LTS101-700D-2 engine. This engine's total time is 8,776.9 hours. The engine was last inspected 71.7 hours prior to the accident.
The pilot reported that at the time of the mishap, the wind was from about 175 degrees, and its speed was about 3 knots. The sky was clear and visibility was unrestricted.
The helicopter sustained damage to its tail rotor blades, a hole in the tail boom, drive shaft damage, and associated damage to the 90-degree gear box.
Pursuant to standard procedures issued by the pilot's employer, following the accident the pilot was tested for alcohol and drug usage. No alcohol or drugs were detected by the examining medical facility.
While at the Ramada helipad, the pilot did not have a radio capable of communicating with his operations base. The helipad was unattended, and there were no witnesses to the accident.
The pilot was not injured, and he walked to a neighboring operator's facility near the Colorado River where he requested its personnel report of the mishap to their 1G4 operations base. The neighboring operator had been unaware of the pilot's mishap.
In accordance with the pilot's request, about 0910, the neighboring operator radioed its 1G4 operations base. Personnel located there notified Stars & Stripes personnel of the mishap. The Safety Board was not notified of the accident until 1340.
Las Vegas Helicopters, Inc., company management reported to the Safety Board investigator that it has taken the following actions to enhance the safety of its operations:
(1) The larger sized perimeter boulders that partially surrounded the Ramada helipad have been removed;
(2) Pilots landing at the Ramada helipad have been issued cellular telephones that can be used to communicate with their operations base; and
(3) The company's flight following and accident notification protocol was enhanced to ensure timely notification to appropriate authorities if a future mishap occurs.