Should we Use Helicopters for Marijuana Grow Clean-Ups?

In this February photo provided by Susan Barnett, Shane Krogen plays with Susan’s dog Weezee in Fresno.

What a tragedy.

Here is a picture of a 57-year-old man who died when he fell out of a helicopter being used to clean up an illegal marijuana growing operation, in Tulare County, California. He was a volunteer. They set up the operation to have him use a harness to descend from the helicopter. They could have relied on ground transportation, or hikes from nearby locations where the helicopter could have landed more safely in clearings. Instead, they chose to use a much riskier harness/drop system, and it took a life. What a tragedy.

Shoot, that could have been me, or maybe you. Five decades I have spent, always trying to do right, always trying to help. Just like one would expect from a Whistleblower. I have come to refer to this sometimes-annoying personal tendency as ‘my inner Boy Scout’. I may be wrong, but my gut sense (and hope) is that most of us have an inner Boy Scout that guides us to be good and do well. From what I read online about Mr. Krogen, he was a very good person, and much appreciated. Yet, now he is gone and, based on my knowledge of aviation, I shake my head and try to tame a ranting frustration, because this accident should never have happened.

How did it happen?

Suppose one day, a few years ago, you or I heard that volunteers were needed to help clean up natural areas that were taken over to grow pot. We might have thought, wow, we love caring for the environment, and we can ride in helicopters, and be good citizens. Of course, we would have trusted that the operation would  be safe. So, if they told us we would be wearing a harness to do drops from the helicopter to the clean-up sites, we might have briefly thought “wait a minute,” but we likely would have quickly told ourselves, “trust them, this will be safe … and fun too.”

Now, for the record, I am not a big fan of marijuana or hemp. I have never smoked it, and have many times been the one in a small social group who hopes I am not being critically judged when I just pass the pipe on. I would hope my children do not smoke pot either, only because I do worry about brain chemistry and addictions. But, on the other hand, if we legally allow (and promote) alcohol as we do, why in the hell are we so worked up about this weed? Yes, we should eradicate illegal pot grows on public property. But, NO, we should NOT be doing so in ways that needlessly endanger our citizens. And this accident is just the latest example of the excessive and idiotic misuse of helicopters. Would it be reasonable for FAA to clamp down on operations like this, in the interest of public safety? Is it reasonable to be concerned that so many public resources are being ‘collaborated’ toward the debatable goal of pot eradication? Note that in this accident, a National Guard unit was providing the helicopter, and the state Department of Fish & Wildlife was coordinating the activities; a thorough analysis will likely show substantial public funding subsidies were provided at both the federal and state level. Bluntly stated, if those subsidies were not available (and wasted), this good man would not have died.

The Reckless Overuse of Helicopters

When it comes to locating and cleaning up illegal pot grows on public lands, helicopters are properly used in a support role. That ‘support role’ needs to be intelligently considered. The risks must be weighed against the benefits, and the alternatives (e.g., ground access, as was used by others at this particular location) should be used when the risks are excessive and/or the benefits are minimal. Just because we have a helicopter sitting around waiting for something do, that does not mean we should reflexively use it for any task.

My frustration (hence, the short rant below … apologies in advance!) is that in the helicopter industry there is a clear and fatal pattern wherein risks are being ignored and people are dying. Reckless ‘oh, nothing will go wrong’ flying in helicopters is lethal because, at low altitudes, a sudden loss of power or control becomes a near-instant crash followed by a whiplash of violent energy as the rotor impacts and the cabin crumbles. *In aviation, it has been common for young pilots to take low-paying jobs, just to build flight hours. Their goal has been to eventually hire on to good airline pilot jobs, which traditionally have paid quite well (though, that has changed a lot in the last decade). So, these new pilots have often been willing to work at minimal pay as flight instructors or hauling cargo or skydivers or whatever, just for a season or two, to build those hours. It seems plausible that a helicopter pilot drying cherries in an orchard or slinging pallets of harvested Christmas trees might look past the risks, assume everything is good, and do whatever he is told to do, just to build those flight hours. Certainly, most pilots who are focused on building hours will be hesitant to challenge a questionable job assignment from their boss, if he/she thinks it may end their job.And, in my humble opinion, as backed up by the words in FAA’s Mission, Vision and Values statements, it is FAA’s duty to correct this problem … which FAA is simply not doing.

So here is my closing rant… Let’s knock off the brainless and dangerous over-use of helicopters. For crying out loud, people have died in helicopters while air-drying cherry orchards [link to an NTSB writeup, for a 6/12/12 fatal accident]. Nothing has been done to stop idiotic low-altitude flying by helicopter pilots who are known to cut corners and add risks, simply because they are hungry to build flight hours.* How about we start using helicopters intelligently and in moderation, instead of recklessly and in excess? How about FAA start truly regulating aviation safety, to protect the citizenry???

“What a tragic pointless waste of a life.
My condolences.”

– a comment by WillieWorks, posted in an LATimes article on 9/13/13