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Helicopter Safety - Human Factors

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Rotor dangers

The area at the end of the tail boom of a helicopter is very dangerous. It is here where the tail rotor can be found, and a tail rotor running at full speed is lethal. However, this is not obvious to the untrained (ground) crew, let alone to a passenger. Therefore, everyone who will be getting close to a helicopter should be briefed about the dangers of the tail rotor. Tail rotors are so dangerous because they are typically at chest and/or head height, and a turning tail rotor is also very difficult to spot.

The main rotors are, of course, also dangerous when someone gets close to them. Again, all of the people involved with a flight should be briefed about the do's and don'ts. Examples of things going wrong are, people waving while under the rotor disc, and people running beneath the rotor disc because the downwash blows something away.

Special care should be taken when the rotors are starting to turn or stop. In these circumstances the pilot’s controls are not particularly effective, and more importantly, the rotors are not straight horizontally because of the lack of sufficient centrifugal forces (the forces that level the rotors when rotating at high speed). The problem is that rotor blades can flap and are flexible, and at low speeds, they can do so with significant displacement. It is very easy for a wind gust to flap down a rotor during the engine start or power down. In these circumstances someone can be easily struck. Of course, passengers do not know this in advance of a flight.

Another rotor disc related danger is the result of loose objects getting caught up in the downwash of a hovering helicopter, and thus being lifted on the re-circulating air, eventually hitting the rotor disc on the up side.

Pilot capability

Your capability as a pilot is an important factor in the safety of you and your passengers. Always assess your own capability and act accordingly. Is the weather not as good as you would like, and you are not that experienced? Change your plans accordingly (or don't fly). If you are not completely rested, then do not commence an exhausting flight. Know what can and cannot be done in the particular helicopter type. And should things go wrong, always try to keep flying. Too many accidents happen because the pilot is busy analysing and solving a problem, and simply forgets to fly the aircraft.

Loading issues

Many helicopter crashes are caused by either a too big, or an unbalanced, helicopter load. Always pay attention to the maximum allowed load, and take humidity, temperature and elevation into account. Know the capabilities of the helicopter you are flying. The Centre of Gravity (C of G) of helicopters cannot be significantly changed without causing problems. If the C of G is outbound, the helicopter will bank and / or dip, making landing dangerous. Also pay attention to objects that are not fixed, or are loose in the cockpit. They can obstruct vital mechanisms (an example is an unattended mobile phone obstructing a jaw pedal).

Pilot and passenger clothing

Finally, attention should be paid to clothing and protective wear. As a pilot, you should wear clothing that can protect you, at least to some degree, against the cold, and fire. A pilot’s helmet has prevented many severe head injuries. Do not underestimate the forces that a crashing or wildly spinning helicopter can bring to bear on your head.
Passengers should also pay, at least some, attention to the kind of clothing they are wearing. Airliners will not tell you about this because they do not like to draw attention to the role of the passenger when it comes to safety issues, because they want to present (helicopter) flying as being completely safe. However, the chances of suffering less severe injuries are greater when protective clothing is worn. Obviously, jeans protect more than silk or synthetics, which are highly flammable.

Don't Get Caught in a Fatal Trap!

A vital resource for pilots, technicians, and helicopter enthusiasts, this book analyses every possible helicopter accident in detail. It looks at accidents that have been caused by a broad range of factors, such as technical problems, weather influences, mechanical failures, human factors, and many more. The treatment and analysis of each cause is dealt with in depth. What makes this text invaluable is that throughout this work an attempt is made to analyze accidents with a view to finding common causes, solutions, and enabling preventive measures to be defined. This makes 'Fatal Traps for Helicopter Pilots' a potential life saver.

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HeliStart is authored by Peter Goossens.


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