FAA Investigates: Police Helicopter ‘Crashing’ of a Football Tailgate Party

Who’s idea was it, anyway, to use a helicopter to fly over tailgating crowds ‘to make crowd announcements’?

Click on the image below for a scrollable view; the PDF file may be downloaded.

OK, let’s suppose a nearby nuclear reactor is melting down, say Three Mile Island (though I understand, yes, it is not actually near the stadium Lot 23 area for Penn State football games!). But, just to put this in perspective, would it be a good idea for a helicopter pilot with an announcement system to swoop down very low over a crowd to issue an urgent message aimed at triggering an immediate orderly evacuation? Well, yes and no. First, how likely is it the announcement will not be heard over the ‘whop whop’ roar of the helicopter? And, second, how smart is it to apply this level of intervention, this form of technology, to potentially trigger a stampede? If there is an urgent need for people to vacate an area, sending in a helicopter at tree-top level or even lower is like throwing gas onto a fire. Not a good idea.

Now, is it surprising that this pilot flew so low, endangering so many people? No, not at all. FAA’s regulations for Minimum Safe Altitude (officially known as FAR 91.119) are carefully worded so as to exempt helicopters from the ‘1,000-ft above’ requirement that all fixed wing aircraft have to comply with. Well, sort of. The ambiguity within FAR 91.119 creates a barn door wide enough to fly a helicopter through … or, at least, it creates opportunities for FAA to justify taking no enforcement actions. The key phrase within FAA 91.119 is this:

“(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.”

Check out the videos online, by tailgaters at this Penn State incident. How was this helicopter going to safely execute an emergency landing without actually crushing or chopping people and ‘property’ below in the congested, open air assembly of tailgaters? And, when the impact causes fuel to burst out and ignite, how does the PA State Police mitigate the ‘undue hazards’ of being burnt to death?

Let’s put this in FAA’s perspective: aviation is good, people are dumb, and we, as the federal ‘regulator’ with sovereign authority for all things U.S. aviation, do everything we can to grow aviation commerce and allow even stupid aviation activities.

  • From FAA’s perspective, why not allow the use of helicopters swooping low and back-and-forth to herd wild horses or cattle … or PEOPLE?
  • From FAA’s perspective, why not ignore the obvious hazard and imprudence of using helicopters for drying cherries, or suspending enormous brush-trimming devices? Why not also ignore the ‘candy drops’ and ‘turkey drops’? After all, candy drops help sell aviation to kids, the same way turkey drops and heli-hunting sell aviation to, well, redneck yahoos … so, both are best ignored, right? [Check out this Heli-hunting video. with two shooters on the left side of a low-flying Robinson R44. Try to estimate the altitude, but try not to ponder too hard the possibility that any human or animal (a dog or livestock?) might be within the aerial hunt zone.]

  • From FAA’s perspective, why not pretend to care about safety – better yet, make ‘safety’ our most over-used word – by creating rules such as FAR 91.119 but carefully including enough ambiguity to ensure every errant pilot can walk away from enforcement – that is, so long as they are not killed by their own stupidity? Did you know: the FAR 91.119 language protects persons and property ‘ON THE SURFACE’, but the pilot (a person) and aircraft (a form of property) are NOT ‘on the surface’, and are therefore disposable?
  • From FAA’s perspective, why not perpetuate a convenient privilege for those people who choose aviation as their hobby or profession? Why not continue FAA’s ongoing failure to meaningfully investigate and enforce violations of FAR 91.119 and other FARs? After all, we wouldn’t want to dampen demand for flying, would we?

It amazes me that FAR 91.119 is so riddled with ambiguity, almost as much as it amazes me that FAA does not really give a damn about enforcing safe practices … at least not when they interfere with the expansion of air commerce. In this context, I suspect FAA will do nothing to correct the excesses that happened with the state police helicopter, at the Penn State tailgate last Saturday.

FAA investigates? We all have our doubts.