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  • Killer Weather

    York man died in helicopter crash after pilot became disoriented in storm

    A diamond mining troubleshooter, from York in the United Kingdom, died in a helicopter crash in Africa when the pilot flew into the ground while trying to fly through a thunderstorm in the dark, an inquest heard.

    Guy Summerfield, from Osbaldwick Lane, Kevin Ayre, from Leigh in Greater Manchester, and two other passengers were killed instantly along with their South African pilot who had become "disorientated".

    The two-helicopter team was returning from checking the site of a fatal road accident involving a truck delivering drilling supplies to a site in Angola four days earlier in November 2007, an inquest heard this week.

    Mr Ayre, 50, and Mr Summerfield, 36, were operations managers in a joint venture organisation. Their flight home was initially delayed by heavy rain but it was then decided to take off despite a warning a storm was on the way, the hearing at New Earswick Folk Hall on Tuesday was told.

    Both Eurocopter Squirrel helicopters were forced to land 30 minutes after sundown because of the bad weather, it was said.

    The aircraft had been in operation in Angola for four days. The airframes were one and a half years old - relatively new, the hearing was told.

    But both pilot were trained for night flying and the weather started to clear. So a decision was made to press on to the team's base camp. But shortly after take off, all contact was lost with the doomed Eurocopter.

    The surviving one returned to an agreed emergency rendezvous point to wait for the missing helicopter to reappear, but the wreckage was found in a nearby clearing along with the bodies of all on board.

    Also killed were Australian David Hopgood, Chief Operating Officer for the mining company, the South African pilot Kottie Breedt and Namibian drilling expert Louwrens Prinsloo.

    An investigation by the Angolan authorities revealed the cause of the crash was "pilot spatial disorientation".

    This was due to "bad weather, night flying and unfamiliar terrain"according to York Coroner Donald Coverdale.

    He said the 112-page file on the crash told "a story of tragedy in Angola".

    Recording verdicts of accidental deaths from multiple injuries on both victims, he added: "In all the circumstances, what has happened here was just a tragic accident. Attempts to get any further information have proved fruitless."

    The hearing was told the diamond hunt in Angola - which was called off following the tragedy - involved a number of firms working for mining giant BHP Billiton.

    Mr Coverdale said the investigation of deaths abroad was always difficult for a coroner. He said he would ideally have liked a report on the state of the helicopter but he could not compel its production.

    Widow Elaine Ayre said her husband was a fit and healthy man who had worked all over Africa for 20 years.

    Mr Summerfield's widow Rachel had flown to South Africa to collect her husband's remains but had not responded to attempts by the coroner to contact her about the inquest.

    Sav's Rant:

    "A diamond mining troubleshooter from York died in a helicopter crash in Africa when the pilot flew into the ground while trying to fly through a thunderstorm in the dark, an inquest heard."

    Anyone who's been in the helicopter industry for more than a decade will most likely know someone, or know of someone, who's been caught-out by poor weather, in some cases with catastrophic consequences.

    When I was introduced to the helicopter industry in the 1970's, bad weather was one of the 'top killers' among single-pilot VFR helicopter operations. 40 years on little has changed.

    Its been discussed on fora elsewhere - and I can only repeat what I've said before many times; Don't fight with weather because if you do, and if you keep doing it, it will most likely kill you!

    Let me also say .. that even with the advances in cockpit technology over recent decades, single-pilot IFR in poor weather in a helicopter is still a risky business. I will go further and say that I believe that the only effective means of mitigating risk levels while flying IFR in poor weather in a helicopter seem to be those which are achieved when the flight is conducted in a twin-engine helicopter with full CAT-A performance, crewed by a professionally trained two-pilot crew (ie. not just two pilots flying together) who regularly fly IFR in poor or marginal weather. Anything less than this is, in my opinion, to put yourself and your passengers at risk.

    What am I saying? That one shouldn't fly SPIFR? No I am not saying that. SPIFR in a capable twin (one with the performance to climb out of a 'mess' should you get into one) on a clear night or with scattered cloud shouldn't be a problem for most instrument rated pilots but .. flying SPIFR in deteriorating weather and the statistics show that pilots (especially those who don't get the chance to fly IFR regularly) often find themselves becoming uncomfortable and/or disoriented.

    At this year's Heli-Expo, HAI President Matt Zuccaro launched the HAI's 'Land and Live' initiative:

    "Zuccaro got the idea for the initiative after reading several accident reports that he felt could have been prevented had the pilot made a precautionary landing. The initiative aims to eliminate the excuses pilots make for pressing on despite such safety inhibitors as bad weather, maintenance issues or lack of fuel, even though helicopters can quickly and safely land on nearly any surface. Zuccaro spoke with law enforcement representatives, FAA enforcers and helicopter operators, all of whom strongly supported the idea — a fact Zuccaro hopes will eliminate pilots' fear of getting into trouble for landing where they had not initially planned to land."

    I wholly support this approach .. and also the one where the pilot says: "I'm sorry but we can't fly now, the conditions just aren't good enough" and where the flight never leaves the ground!

    There is nothing more tragic than attending a crash site, sometimes just hours after an accident, when the weather has significantly improved and saying to yourself (as I have done) "If only he had waited just a couple of hours."

    So please .. to anyone reading this .. single pilot in bad weather, as a general rule .. STEER CLEAR!

  • #2
    I have to agree with Savoia.

    The number of times we have bad weather accidents is inexcusable. I'm glad that the 5 hours' instrument experience has been dropped from the PPL requirements - far too often people regarded that as being the equivalent of an instrument rating, forgetting that IR rated pilots require currency - all too often they get into trouble 2 years down the line!

    The other thing that such people forget is that helicopters have a minimum speed for controllability, the point where all those stabilising surfaces kick in and you can safely take your hand off one of the controls to change a radio frequency. For most helicopters, it is around 45 knots - in the Dauphin, it creeps up to around 76 kts! As a result, I base my weather decisions on speed - if I don't like what I see at 60 kts, which gives me a good margin, I am on the ground.

    I can also guarantee that, even if you are able to operate the radio, you won't have the appropriate frequencies on your kneepad. That's what flight planning is for, folks!

    I have flown in fog, with the damaged and dying in the back, and it is pure hard work and not to be taken lightly. But then again, I was properly trained for it, courtesy of Her Maj.

    The biggest killer is inadvertent entry into IMC by the unqualified. It shouldn't be happening.


    • #3
      It's always so sad to hear of yet another 'spatial awareness' IMC accident ... and I'm another fairly experienced pilot who supports the above couple of posts. As many will know, I've written too many times how SPIFR can be an absolute killer even for professional flyers and unhappily I'm losing count of the number of colleagues and a couple of pilot friends I've lost while attempting to fly in cloud.

      In the past I laid the blame for the private accidents firmly at the door of the rule regulators ... what on earth allowed any knowlegable person to dream up the 'five hour' instrument training as a required part of the private pilot syllabus, especially when considering the 55 hour requirement for a professional pilot to obtain the formal instrument rating. Cloud is cloud. Yes, I know, the idea was to give the private pilot sufficient skill to make a simple 180 degree turn ... 'out of trouble' BUT ... that was not how it was perceived by a few of the over confident brigade. "Five hours and a night rating" and I saw one lift off from Shoreham Airport at 4.30pm on an overcast at 600 feet December day and head up country and into the hills. His Enstrom Shark, G-TOYS, flew into the ground six miles south of Castle Donington Airport but fortunately he survived. Later the same pilot attempted a similar flight in his new MD 500, but wasn't so lucky and impacted the ground not ten miles from his first misadventure thus adding to the dreadful toll. Anyway, after me writing about the idiocy of such a requirement, I'm happy to see it dropped from the PPL (H) syllabus.

      I can report a CPL 'get-home-to-see-my-girlfriend .. itus' fatality on the south downs a few miles north of Goodwood. And even more sadly one of my own professional pilots was killed when he lost control in cloud having inadvertently found himself IMC on his way back to Biggin Hill. His 180 degree turn probably initiated the 'spatial dis-orientation.' There's too many more. The Gazelle that lifted off from his business at almost midnight and flew straight into cloud. The impact was less than 300 yards from the helipad he had just left. I could relate too many more.

      My party piece for those pilots (PPL & professional) who think it cannot happen to them was to set up a vivid demonstration. I made it fun and quite a few managed to cope with my instrument shenanigans, but several did not. The idea is to get my pilot to fly S&L on instruments at say 80 knots. I then get him to progressively reduce speed to say 50 knots. After a few minutes, I ask him to take his hands and feet off the controls and close his eyes. I take over and gently squeeze in right or left pedal while holding attitude and once speed drops below translation I ask him to open his eyes and recover. AH is showing wings level, ASI & VSI are probably zero, DG and slip ball is indicating a rapid turn. Too many guys failed even to recognise the attitude and too many lost control.

      So follow the advice above. Don't fly IMC in a single, especially at night, and don't necessarily think two engines will solve your problem, Take a look at the recent circumstances of the AW 139 a couple of weeks ago. Instrument flying by a qualified instrument pilot or two is fine and operating the helicopter as it was intended, but for lesser qualified pilots ... just don't do it! I'm NOT a fully qualified instrument rated man, but our Administrator Phil Croucher is. My advice is simply to take his!

      Apologies for having to write on a sombre subject, so next post will be a fun item. Safe flying to all Aviafora readers. Dennis Kenyon.