Friends have been asking me about the recent AS350B2 helicopter crash into the East River (nytimes). The pilot, who survived, mentioned the possibility of the fuel shutoff having been snagged by something in the cabin. At that point there was nothing to do but autorotate to the water. I asked a friend who is an experienced AStar pilot for an explanation. Here was his response:
The fuel shutoff on the B2 models and previous versions is on the floor just in front of the collective. They’ve had issues with passenger bag straps catching on the lever and pulling it back. Eurocopter now has a plastic guard to help protect this from happening but obviously still happens.
(It’s the partially hidden RED lever- yellow is the throttle and skinny red one is the rotor brake)
They could also catch and yank the throttle to the cutoff position as well.
He is currently flying a newer model of the same machine:
on the B3s and EC130s it’s now on the ceiling above your left shoulder. You wouldn’t think it be easy but passengers are always dropping their handbags and camera cases between the seats.
[Note that it was also an EC130, a related design, that crashed recently in the Grand Canyon (see NTSB report available on the Grand Canyon helicopter crash). Unfortunately, the pilot and a surviving passenger of that crash remain hospitalized due to their burns (update).]
Unlike airplanes, helicopters do not naturally float. Therefore if they are operated over water it is conventional to have pop-out floats that a pilot can activate via a button on the collective pitch control. This is supposed to be done right at the bottom of the autorotation as the helicopter rushes toward the water. The pilot, Richard Vance, should not be faulted for the helicopter flipping upside down. In theory it might be possible for a pilot to do a perfect autorotation and land with zero forward velocity and then float like a boat, but in practice getting the pop-outs popped and landing gently enough for the helicopter to remain intact is an achievement.
[The floats aren’t primarily designed to stop the helicopter from flipping over; they are to keep the helicopter from immediately sinking to the bottom of the river/lake/ocean. Flipping is usually a consequence of landing with at least some horizontal speed and catching the front of the skids in the water (the center of gravity of a helicopter is pretty high). If one were to land into a headwind and do a truly beautiful autorotation, like some of us occasionally do at the airport during practice, it is possible to land without any “ground run” (search YouTube for examples). But remember that even the heroic Captain Sully landed downwind on the Hudson instead of turning right and landing upwind, which would have resulted in about 20 knots less forward speed on impact. The cell phone video of this crash made the landing look almost perfect and the helicopter was upright for a brief time, so it is kind of mystery as to why it flipped.]
After that it is generally recognized that escaping from the flooded helicopter is not something that a typical person can do without training. People who fly regularly in helicopters (or even light airplanes) over water, e.g., offshore oil rig workers, may be required to take a water egress survival course (example). Escape was made more challenging in the case of this New York City crash because the passengers were in harnesses for doors-off photography rather than in conventional seat belts with a single-button release.
2018 has been off to a sad start for American helicopter enthusiasts (see also this Newport Beach R44 crash). However, at least one crash resulted in minimal injuries and a cautionary lesson for the rest of us. I have resisted adding an iPad or similar to our helicopter panel and workflow. It is painful to fly with certified in-panel avionics that were already obsolete when designed in the 1990s, but I fly VFR-only in the helicopter and want to be looking out the window. I’ve also avoided doing any kind of agricultural work due to a feeling that it is an accident waiting to happen. Maria Langer, a thoughtful and experienced pilot, combined iPad and ag flying and lived to write about the resulting crash.
- pilot’s Mayday call (interesting partly because the LGA Tower controller, after learning that 350LH had an engine failure over the East River asks “Do you require any assistance?”)
- FAA registration for N350LH, which confusingly shows that it was an AS350B2 helicopter, but made in 2013 (by which time the B2 model had been superseded by the B3; AINonline suggests that the B2 model was still in production as of early 2018 so perhaps it was possible to buy either a B2, with the vulnerable fuel shutoff, or a B3, with the relocated lever, in any given model year)
- “Teen survivor’s family blames chopper company for fatal crash” (Anchorage Daily News, May 3, 2010) describes a bunch of crashes related to this fuel lever on the B2