ANALYSIS: 2016-03-27.. Fatal Helicopter Crash at Skytop, PA

20160327scp.. Skytop, PA vicinity (terrain view, VFRmap.com)A news report identified the lone victim as an 81-yr-old male.

Accident location was reported to be on land owned by Skytop Lodge, in the heart of the Poconos. The lodge is located in the upper right corner of this VFRmap.com terrain map.

Weather may have been a significant factor. The nearest METAR reporting station with online ASOS data is Mt Pocono, [KMPO], approximately 8-miles southwest of the crash site. As shown in the table at the bottom, conditions at KMPO show a very low overcast layer; the two observations surrounding the estimated crash time show ceilings of just 200′ and 300′.

Point of departure was reportedly Doylestown, PA [DYL], which is located to the northeast of Philadelphia. The distance from Doylestown to Flying Dollar Airport is 53nm; from Flying Dollar Airport to intended destination Mountain Bay Air Park is 10nm.20160327scp.. plausible scud-run route Stroudsburg to Skytop, PA (VFR sectional)

In poor to marginal flight conditions, a scud-run by a helicopter would typically follow highways. Leading up to this fatal crash, the pilot likely would have chosen to overfly Stroudsburg and continue in a NNW direction over highway 447, then turn NNE at Canadensis to follow Route 390 (Kummel Hill Road) to his destination airport, Mountain Bay Air Park. [PA49]. But given the hilly terrain and very low ceilings, the potential for a terrain impact would be high.KMPO.20140327.. 0753 to 1332 (METARdata)

How Could FAA Help Prevent This Type of Accident?

Simply impose a safety regulation that makes it illegal for helicopter pilots to engage in low-altitude scud-runs. FAA defines ‘Minimum Safe Altitude’ in their rule, FAR 91.119. But, the rule includes numerous huge loopholes. Specifically:

  • the minimum is set at 1,000-ft above ground level (and 2,000-ft AGL over ‘congested areas’, but these minima are broadly negated by vague language. The opening line of FAR 91.119 reads: “Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes….” There is no clear definition of what constitutes a ‘congested area’. Also, this language enables pilots to excuse off any flight below 1,000-ft, by simply claiming the lower altitude was ‘necessary for takeoff or landing’.
  • the safety-intent of FAR 91.119 is further negated for helicopters, as FAA included a clause that excepts all helicopters from compliance. The clause, FAR 91.119 section (d), which states that the minimum altitudes do not apply so long as “…the operation is conducted without hazard to persons or property on the surface.”

The simple fact is, whatever happened on this particular flight, current rules imposed and regulated by FAA make it entirely legal for a helicopter pilot to proceed even as low as 10-ft or 20-ft above a highway surface. This practice, known as ‘scud-running’, is done at great risk and while also substantially impacting people on the ground. Impacts include not just the noise of these low helicopter overflights, but also the alarm and stress of seeing an obviously dangerous flight happening. Frankly, such low overflights could even create a distraction leading to a highway accident.

So, FAA needs to begin serving the entire population, not just the industry FAA is supposed to be regulating. In this case, to guard against helicopter scud-running, and to reasonably minimize helicopter noise impacts, FAR 91.119 needs to be modified to remove all ambiguity and include these elements:

  1. helicopter flights must remain clear of clouds and at least 300-ft below the cloud ceiling during all portions of the flight; this includes departure, cruise, and arrival.
  2. helicopter departures must proceed to a cruise altitude that remains at least 1,000-ft above ground level (AGL), reaching that minimum altitude within 5-miles of the point of departure.
  3. helicopter arrivals must shall not descend below the minimum cruise altitude of 1,000-ft above ground level (AGL) until within 5-miles of the intended landing point.
  4. unless authorized by the FAA administrator (which includes ATC), helicopter flights must also be conducted at least 1,000-ft laterally from all structures and all persons on the ground. The only exceptions to this are during the transition from departure to cruise or from cruise to landing, and within 2-miles of the actual departure point or landing point. During all such transitions, the pilot is required to follow a route that minimizes distance/time flown with less than 1,000-ft lateral separation.

Let’s be very clear: if these rules were in place and followed, this accident would not have happened, and this man would still be alive.