Midair Collision Between a Cirrus and a Helicopter, at the controlled airport in Frederick, MD

(click on the image to view the WJLA news video)

Helicopter crash debris at a storage facility. (click on the image to view the WJLA news video)

Three died when a midair collision happened between a fixed-wing arrival and a helicopter, in the traffic pattern at the controlled airport in Frederick, Maryland [KFDK]. The fixed-wing aircraft was a Cirrus; it had departed in the morning and was just finishing a three-hour flight, returning from Cleveland, TN.

At the time, three helicopters were training in a lower flight pattern, underneath the fixed-wing arrival traffic pattern. The helicopters apparently are part of a training program at Advanced Helicopter Concepts, and are based near the south end of the airport. One of them, a Robinson R44 helicopter, collided with the Cirrus. Just seconds before, the controller had reported the Cirrus in sight and told him to maintain his altitude, with the apparent intent being to keep the Cirrus a few hundred feet above the helicopters. It appears that the Cirrus was just establishing midfield on the left downwind leg to Runway 30, while the helicopter was midfield downwind for a grass practice area, when the collision occurred.

Here is a copy of the satellite image for KFDK. The collision happened near the added orange circle, as the two aircraft crashed at the left red square (helicopter) and right red square (Cirrus). The Cirrus was on a left downwind, setting up to land on Runway 30 (the shorter runway, from the right edge to the top-middle of this aerial). 20141023.. KFDK airport sat view, marking 2 crash locationsA closer look shows the helicopter crash location at the storage lot (small red circle) and the Cirrus crash location in trees just southeast of the large building (larger yellow circle).20141023.. KFDK sat view, marking two debris locations
Weather was likely not a factor. As indicated by the METAR data copied below, clouds were high (above 4,000-feet all day), visibility was always at least ten miles, and the temperature and dew point was always comfortable. The most notable weather detail were relatively strong — but also fairly steady — winds out of the north-northwest.

As is clear from the ATC archive at LiveATC.net, this accident happened while the tower controller was using Runway 30. [CAUTION: this archived ATC recording includes screams just after the impact.] [Transcript copy (by aiREFORM)] Based on ATC transmissions, the flights were likely 700- to 1,000-feet above the ground when they collided. The Cirrus’ parachute system deployed, and almost certainly saved the lives of the two on that aircraft.

Time temp dew wind speed vis. clouds alti.
23 Oct 11:48 am EDT 63 43 NNW 20G25 10.00 BKN040 29.94
23 Oct 12:45 pm EDT 64 45 NNW 13G29 10.00 BKN040 29.92
23 Oct 1:45 pm EDT 66 45 10.00 BKN042 29.91
23 Oct 2:45 pm EDT 66 45 N 17G23 10.00 BKN044 29.90
23 Oct 3:37 pm EDT Accident
23 Oct 3:53 pm EDT 66 45 NNW 18G24 10.00 SCT048 29.91
23 Oct 5:45 pm EDT 70 43 NNW 8 10.00 BKN060 29.89
23 Oct 7:45 pm EDT 68 39 NNW 10 10.00 OVC060 29.92

One thing not yet clear is how ATC at Frederick manages their flight patterns for helicopter training. The flight patterns for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft can conflict dangerously. So, the management at each air traffic control tower has to sit down with airport operators and devise workable plans, to help ‘de-conflict’ the traffic flows. These traffic flow plans are then made official (and signed by the parties, such as the helicopter training company) as letters of agreement or memoranda of understanding. At airports with helicopter training programs, the best strategy is to keep the helicopters flying in one area, and keep all the fixed-wing airplanes away. But, more commonly, there is a need to stuff the helicopter training pattern in underneath the fixed-wing pattern. In any case, the controllers need to be especially vigilant to protect those higher risk areas where the different patterns cross.

Here are some links:


ANALYSIS: A 4-Hour Fuel Burn-off Following a BizJet Hydraulic Failure

A Hawker business jet departed the Centennial Airport [KAPA] at 11:03AM local time, carrying a passenger on a flight to Latrobe, PA [KLBE]. Had everything been normal, it would have landed less than three hours later. On this flight, though, a mechanical failure forced the flight to return for a landing.20141009.. HS25 KAPA-KLBE at FL390, route screencap, with states

It was believed that a tire ruptured during the takeoff, and caused damage to the hydraulic system. So, the flight crew got approval from ATC to fly delay patterns with the sole purpose being to burn off all extra fuel prior to a gear-up landing.

In the diagram below (a ‘classic view’ covering northeast Colorado, from Flightaware), the flight takes off to the south at KAPA (bottom left corner area) and eventually lands to the north at [KDEN]. Annotations have been added to help illustrate the route flown; a few locations give geographic reference, and local times (orange) help to show the sequence of loops. Essentially, the flight had taken off to the south and then climbed to 23,000-ft. It had a speed well over 400-knots when it was turned around near Yuma, CO. The flight then proceeded back to Centennial, and set up for a possible landing. Instead of landing, the flight flew southbound over the airport, then turned east and began a series of random loops, probably while a final plan was being worked out. More than an hour later, the flight was routed north, where the flight crew made seven large circuits to the north of Greeley. Then, at approximately 3:00PM, the flight turned inbound for a landing at Denver International Airport.20141016.. KDEN HS25 fuel burn to land after tire damage ion KAPA takeoff, times addedThe landing was successful. A foamed Runway 34L received the no-gear aircraft, creating a shower of sparks while the Hawker decelerated. A small fire under the fuselage was quickly extinguished. Here is a video from Denver’s Fox 31:

FAA’s Regulatory Excess & Delays are Hampering the U.S. Drone Industry

A few years ago, FAA grabbed control of the U.S. drone industry, primarily as a project to apply excess employee resources. FAA has since banned most drone uses in the U.S., and the nascent industry is foundering while FAA falls behind in the development of industry rules. U.S. operators have been driven underground; their ability to locate funding or procure insurance is impacted, and potential customers are deterred by FAA’s daunting (though arbitrary) rules.

Meanwhile, a commercial-drone boom is happening outside the U.S., where national policies are much more accommodating. Take Germany, for example. One of the largest players is Service-drone.de GmbH, in Berlin. The company has sold more than 400 drone systems and has more than twenty employees. Their website offers some excellent examples of efficient drone applications such as photogrammetric mapping and powerline construction and maintenance. Here are two embedded videos showing use of an octocopter:

Here is a short excerpt, from the start of Jack Nicas’ Wall Street Journal article:

In four years, Service-drone.de GmbH has emerged as a promising player here in the rapidly expanding commercial-drone industry. The 20-employee startup has sold more than 400 unmanned aircraft to private-sector companies and currently is pitching its fourth-generation device.
Over the same period, Seattle-based Applewhite Aero has struggled to get permission from the Federal Aviation Administration just to fly its drones, which are designed for crop monitoring. The company, founded the same year as Service-drone, has test-flown only one of its four aircraft, and is now moving some operations to Canada, where getting flight clearance is easier.
“We had to petition the FAA to not carry the aircraft manual onboard,” said Applewhite founder Paul Applewhite. “I mean, who’s supposed to read it?” Mr. Applewhite, like many of his U.S. peers, fears the drone industry “is moving past the U.S., and we’re just getting left behind.”

As presented in the article, FAA says its drone policy “… reflects concern for the safety of people in the air and on the ground. It rejected any comparison to foreign regulators, saying the U.S. has far more low-flying private planes that are at most risk from drones….”

This is ridiculous. If FAA really cared about safety, they would be accelerating deployment of drones to eliminate unsafe helicopter uses, such as pipeline surveys. Plus, the altitudes needed for drones are safely underneath the altitudes used by regular aircraft. Frankly, the only possible traffic for these drones would be low-flying helicopters, which are flying unsafely if they are in fact cruising within a few hundred feet of the ground. FAA could regulate these helicopters – and needs to, which would also reduce noise impacts (e.g., see the helicopter problems on Long Island, NY or near Palos Verdes, CA).

So, in the larger analysis, FAA is continuing to refuse to properly regulate helicopters, and FAA is impeding drone development, all of which sustains the status quo for aviation today in the U.S.

As one drone retailer in Liberty, TX said: “It’ll reach a point of no return where American companies won’t ever be able to catch up. The U.S. is definitely falling behind.”

A Job Done Better by Drones

Yet another helicopter accident pointing out how some aviation jobs would be better handled using drone technologies. This time, a Bell 206 helicopter lost power and crashed while on a pipeline survey. Nobody was killed, but one of the three on board was seriously injured near Woodsboro, TX, on October 2nd. 20141001.. B206 crash pic, Woodsboro TX

These flights are typically done at low altitudes, and with slower speeds as needed to more closely study potential pipeline issues. At these altitude/speed combinations, an engine failure cannot be recovered into a safe landing. In many cases, the crash initiates a fire, and numerous casualties.

The benefits of doing this work with drones are many, including:

  • fewer lives would be placed at risk
  • far less fuel would be consumed
  • far less noise would be generated

Is it time for FAA to quit impeding the use of drones for applications such as this?

October 4, 2014: A Fatal HEMS accident in Wichita Falls

20141004.. crash fire pic, Wichita FallsShortly before 2:00AM local time, an emergency ambulance helicopter crashed in Wichita Falls, TX, killing the patient and injuring the pilot and both flight nurses.

20141004.. United Regional Health, helipad and reported accident siteNews reports indicate that the Bell 206 helicopter, based in Duncan, OK, had been dispatched to move a 26-yr-old man who had been shot in the Waurika, OK area. Google maps indicates a ground ambulance would have been a fairly direct drive, 38-miles in just forty minutes, to get to the hospital in Wichita Falls.

Here is a clip from an online satellite view. The crash location (red circle) is roughly one block from the helipad (smaller orange circle) at United Regional Health Care System.

Weather appears to have not been a factor. The METAR sequence at [KSPS] shows clear skies, calm winds, good visibility, termperature 51.

The Air Evac Lifeteam website describes the company as the largest independently owned and operated air ambulance company in the U.S. Based in O’Fallon, MO, it serves 15 states with more than 110 helicopters, operating primarily out of rural bases in the Midwest and South.

The company’s recent accident history includes (click on dates to view NTSB report):

Note that nearly all of this company’s fatal accidents have occurred in the middle of the night, in darkness. The only fatal accident in the daytime was due to a mechanical failure (a defective rotor disintegrated, in a mid-day flight). Fatigue may be an issue, too; the pilots are routinely assigned 12-hour shifts.

Why fly at these dangerous hours? Most likely, for the ‘golden trout’ profits. A 2009 news posting at EMSflightCrew.com had this quote:

…A typical HEMS flight can generate a payment of $20,000 or more. To garner these payments, operators have an implicitly built-in incentive to fly — despite such proven deadly factors as marginal weather at night. One HEMS pilot described every patient as a golden trout. “We need to go get these trout,” he said, because of the generous Medicare reimbursement….

This needs to change, and we depend on FAA to make this change happen.

See also:

Lies, Damned Lies, & FAA Overselling of NextGen: Houston Metroplex

It’s not a secret among pilots, mechanics and most FAA employees: when an FAA official says ‘A’, you will do well to think ‘B’. Not just when FAA dodges revealing details of the latest birdstrike or controller error, or when they deny trashing a safety Whistleblower, but also when FAA is in their frequent PR/spin mode. Like when they are trying to sell the Public and Congress to (PickOne: waste/spend/invest) billions on programs like NextGen and Metroplexes.

NextGen is the collection of ‘new’ satellite-based technologies (though ‘new’ is inaccurate, because most of these technologies have been in use for decades). Metroplexes are the application of these technologies to alter flight paths and airspace design near the nation’s busiest commercial airports. In the big picture, FAA is seeking to award $Billions$ in contracts to firms and contractors within the aviation-industrial complex, which also happens to employ many retired FAA officials. And, as has almost always happened in FAA’s 55-year existence, the agency is over budget and behind deadlines in their latest ‘upgrade’ scheme. So, they bring in the spin squad.

20140618.. KIAH NextGen MetroPlex celebration speech pic, Huerta (Foxx, Rinaldi, et al)

June 18, 2014

A June article at Wired.com helped push along FAA’s spin. The article happened because, on June 18, 2014, a PR event was staged, ‘celebrating’ the Houston Metroplex. FAA Adminstrator Huerta, DoT Secretary Foxx, and NATCA President Rinaldi all flew down to Houston, to join airline and airport officials for a staged presentation with set speeches. This was all tightly managed and coordinated, too; for this PR event, there was an FAA Press Release and a DoT Press Release, plus a set of videos uploaded to YouTube (here is one: a 2-minute explanation of airspace design changes, with an upbeat musical jingle):

What was FAA Selling?

The two key improvements proposed for the Houston Metroplex had to do with arriving aircraft. The sales pitch claimed that arriving flights would fly shorter routes; in fact, the diagram below (from a 7/22/2013 article) shows a proposed NextGen arrival (green arrow) angling in over Interstate-69 to a short final approach. This was shown to improve upon a conventional long downwind to a 35-mile final (red box pattern).20130722.. screencap from GCN article on NextGen, KIAH graphic by FAA (pic only, no text)Here is a closer look. Conventional downwinds have typically been turned onto a base leg as far east as Dayton (around 30-miles out). A more efficient base turn over Lake Houston (around 13-miles out) can happen, if traffic allows. But, the problem is that United-Continental, the major airline at KIAH, schedules their flights (and small feeders) in surges. This forces ATC to use the long downwind legs as a tool for spacing and sequencing. No NextGen technology can fix this traffic saturation problem. Nonetheless, that does not stop FAA from promoting NextGen spending.

20141003.. KIAH west flow satellite view (east to Dayton)

A longer view: From Dayton to the Airport.

20141003.. KIAH west flow satellite view (east to Lake Houston)

A closer view: From Lake Houston to the airport.

The sales pitch also claimed the descents would reduce fuel burns by using steeper approaches, without ‘level-offs’. The ‘before’ (in orange) shows many level sections, while the ‘after’ (in green) shows steady and steeper descents from 100 miles out.20130619.. KIAH before-after descent profiles, from DoT-news release

FAA produced sharp graphics (and even videos), and they claimed that we will see some significant changes, which would substantially reduce overall fuel burn. Both changes were fine goals, but a goal is not worth much if little progress is made toward achieving it. And, so far, at Houston, there have been no substantial changes in the arrival patterns for the biggest airport, KIAH.

In Reality, the ‘Improvements’ Did Not Happen

FAA spearheaded the celebration and many attended. Were they celebrating a change and delivering improvements, or were they just cheerleading and deceiving the Public with yet one more fabricated sales pitch?

The proof is available online. All you have to do is use the available websites like Flightaware.com or FlightRadar24.com and look at real arrivals (and arrival descent profiles) for real flights, even those landing right now. Just go to either site and select any flight, randomly. Chances are, when you open the views showing the flight route and descent profile, you will see conventional long finals with on average two- or three- level-offs. No changes.

Here is example one, from June 28th, an American Airlines MD82 inbound from KDFW. The base turn is near Dayton, and the final leg is more than 25-miles long. As a matter of practice, the controller normally directs a downwind flight to maintain a set altitude, typically 3,000- or 4,000-feet; in the screen-cap below, this MD82 is at 2,900-feet. Months later, on October 2nd, this same flight was turned to a final at more than twenty miles out, after two level-offs, at 7,000′ and 5,000′ altitude.20140628.. AAL2435 KDFW to KIAH, map showing long base turn
And here is another example, the October 2nd arrival of United Flight #1555, a Boeing 737 from Phoenix [KPHX]. In this case, a long downwind leg is flown, and the turn to final is east of Lake Houston, at nearly 20-miles out. Note the two level-offs, at 6,000′ and 4,000′ altitudes.20141003.. KIAH map view for UAL1555, B738 from KPHX20141003.. KIAH descent profile for UAL1555, B738 from KPHX

How to Study the KIAH Arrivals

Air traffic controllers are averse to work; they are normal people that way. So, they will set up direct routes and minimize the number of level-offs as much as they can. At a large airport like KIAH, if the majority of arrivals are inbound from the east, ATC will tend to bring the arrivals straight-in, landing to the west. So, if there is steady arrival traffic from the east, arrivals from the west will have to be sequenced into the downwind. However, during slow periods, such as in the early morning hours, ATC may use timing to bring in arrivals from both directions (east and west) and land them at opposite ends of the same runway. Always, the objective for ATC is to minimize time spent working each flight, while applying set rules to ensure the flights remain properly separated. This strategy for working air traffic pre-dates the sales pitch by FAA last June; there was no significant change after FAA officials gave that sales pitch.

You can study these arrivals yourself. Here’s how:

  1. select KIAH as your airport at Flightaware.com (here is a link).
  2. Study the list of arrivals by selecting the ‘More’ link. Look for arrivals that are against the flow; for example, from the west when most arrivals are from the east.
  3. Select one of those flights and a list appears for the same flight number, with links to weeks worth of previous flights. Click on any of these links and look for downwind arrivals.
  4. Click on link in the data box, under ‘Status’, where it says ‘Track Info & Graph’; this produces the vertical profile, as well as flight parameters, from which you can quickly identify level-off altitudes.

FAA’s Arbitrary Drone Use Approvals are Improperly Favoring Major Studios

20140929.. FAA allowing limited drone use, impact on Indie Films (screencap from B.Dewhurst Post)

(click on the image to view the article)

An article by Benjamin Dewhurst at No Film School poses a good question, and points out how FAA is effectively favoring large corporate film producers while impeding smaller, independent outfits.

If there was a valid aviation reason for FAA’s actions, we could accept it. The problem is, there is no valid reason. FAA is acting only to protect financial interests, specifically the companies and pilots who make money providing helicopter support to the film industry. But, FAA’s arbitrary actions also protect FAA itself; this agency has hundreds of employees (and contract employees, too) who are pretending to stay busy with the ‘work’ of setting up regulations for low-altitude drones that have no real safety impact on larger airplanes and helicopters which can only be safely and legally flown at higher altitudes.

Most drone uses are under 300-feet altitude above ground level (AGL); safe manned flight is at or above 1,000-feet AGL for airplanes, and at or above 500-feet AGL for helicopters. If FAA really wanted to serve the larger Public, they would immediately impose a rule forcing all manned flights to minimize flying below an altitude of 2,000-feet AGL. That is, the minimum allowable altitude for cruising at level flight would be at 2,000′ AGL or higher. This would greatly reduce noise impacts, and it would provide a huge vertical safety buffer to enable quiet, low-energy drone usage at lower altitudes.

The Relative Safety of Drones vs. Helicopters

Within his article, Mr. Dewhurst states his belief that helicopters and drones have comparable safety risks. This is not correct. He notes, accurately, that drones can (and will) be used for an increasingly large portion of shots … not just for cameras, but also for lighting and other support. But it appears his assertion about relative safety ignores a vey important reality with helicopters. The most dangerous use of a helicopter is typically at low speeds, more than ten feet off the ground but less than a few hundred feet off the ground. Why? Because helicopters need a few hundred feet to recover (and prepare for a lower-risk crash landing) should their power fail. Nearly all use of helicopters for movies happens within the dangerous ‘deadman’s curve’, the low-altitude and low-speed combinations that maximize helicopter risk.

FAA has looked the other way for decades while helicopter operators do more and more risky ‘jobs’, all to expand aviation commerce. Pilots have died air-drying cherries, slinging pallets of cut Christmas trees, spraying crop fields, hovering low doing powerline maintenance, etc., … all because they lost power while they were too low to recover. The helicopter manuals warn pilots to not operate this way, but the pilots do it anyway, and FAA ignores it. To learn more, check out ‘ height-velocity diagram’ in an online search, or see this aiReform Post.

As for the relative risks of drones vs. helicopters, the only safety hazard for drones carrying a camera or lighting are small spinning plastic rotors. Helicopters are lethal due to their greater size, and far more dangerous due to their fuel load. When a helicopter crashes, the risk of fire and explosion is substantial, and there is a long history of fatalities — to helicopter occupants as well as to those on the ground — going back to the invention of the helicopter.

See also:

Boeing Slows 787 Production Rates, to Catch Up with ‘Traveled Work’

Boeing reacted with aggressive denial of charges in the recent news investigation about the 787 Dreamliner, Broken Dreams: The Boeing 787. One charge that nobody even tries to challenge, though, is that this new aircraft has been chronically plagued with delays, even before the first prototype was ready to fly.  The delays have continued in recent months.20140918cpy.. B787's on KPAE FlightlineA new airliner is large, thus difficult to hide … and made even more difficult when ‘spotters’ are avidly pursuing their hobby. Every day, these guys watch out for new aircraft and then share their photos online. The ramp area at Paine Field in Everett is loaded with lots of 787′s, each of which will quickly be flown off when all work is finished. These aircraft are a huge investment; thus, the airlines have no interest in letting them sit for extra days at the factory ramp.

Evidently, Boeing is doing so much ‘Traveled Work’ in recent months that the local paper reports total production is down. Furthermore, some Boeing workers are sharing ‘anonymously’ that they had to work 10- and 12-hour days and on Saturdays, to fix problems. Overtime in Boeing factories is not uncommon, but workers say their workload this time has been greater than usual. The workers have to answer anonymously, because Boeing forbids its workers from speaking publicly about the program.

Here is an excerpt from one of the many insightful comments, responding to the article:

“The FAA needs to send real inspectors, from Washington D.C., not the good ol’ boys that are stationed in the area, and do a complete investigation of the program from the bottom to the top. Come talk to the hourly guys that are doing the work BEFORE they talk to the top brass. They would pull the PC700 on the 787 program in a NY minute. It is funny that the quality of work on the Everett Flightline is great at the north end, Stall 101 and 102 being the best, and by the time one gets to Stalls 108 through 201, ….they all wear hockey helmets and the product shows!”

see also:

A Congressional Letter to FAA, Seeking to Reduce Aviation Noise Impacts

In a recent letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, 26 Congressional Representatives have asked for a ten decibel reduction in FAA’s aviation noise standards. Their aim is to improve citizen health, property values, and quality of life for the millions of U.S. Citizens who are adversely impacted near airports and flight paths.

Below is a png copy of the letter (or click this link for a PDF copy):

If you are concerned about FAA’s long history of ignoring the impacts of aviation noise on communities, please contact your representative and ask them to support this letter. Here is a link to locate your elected official (using your zipcode):  http://www.house.gov/htbin/findrep?ZIP=97106&Submit=FIND+YOUR+REP+BY+ZIP

The John Woods Whistleblower Case

20140909.. John Woods pic from AlJazeera article
At 32-minutes into Broken Dreams: The Boeing 787, the cameras reveal Starkville, Mississippi and then focus in on the story of Whistleblower John Woods. An expert in the manufacturing of composites for aviation, Mr. Woods spoke up for safety at the South Carolina Boeing plant … and he was soon fired. Click on the YouTube display below, and the video will start at the point in the video where Mr. Woods’ story begins.

Mr. Woods was employed in the private sector, but his story is entirely representative of what happens to FAA air traffic controllers, inspectors, and others who similarly speak up for safety. The fact that he is an older employee with many decades of experience is also notable; often, when FAA retaliates against their own employees, they do so to pressure them into early retirements. The pattern is this:

  1. Employee responsibly speaks up about a safety issue.
  2. The Employer is threatened, and retaliates, eventually firing employee.
  3. Employee files a Whistleblower case to higher authorities, such as to FAA’s Office of Audit & Evaluation (Clay Foushee, manager).
  4. After a lengthy delay, the higher authority concludes nothing can be substantiated and drops the case.

In the end, and often after years of delay, all the Whistleblower case processing gives the Agency or company exactly what they want and need: a cleansing of those ‘problem employees’ who have the audacity to speak up for safety. And the dismissed employees? They are each left trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered life.