NTSB issues report about crash of night-flying helicopter

You may remember that on August 4, 2015 a helicopter with a water bucket crashed into a lake while helping to suppress a fire in Montana. It happened at about 10:30 p.m. when one of the helicopters owned by Two Bear Air, flown by Jordan White the executive director and flight officer of the company, was dipping water out of Beaver Lake north of Whitefish. Mr. White was able to extricate himself from the helicopter and swim to shore just before the aircraft sank. He had minor injuries and it was discovered that there was substantial damage to the helicopter after it was recovered from the lake bottom by divers.

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a report about the accident, saying, basically, it was pilot error. The pilot reported that he was hovering over a lake at night while engaged in water bucket operations. He was using the MD Helicopters 369E landing light and newly installed movable searchlight positioned to shine underneath and toward the left side of the helicopter for illumination. He reported that he was able to see the shoreline, horizon, and the texture on the water during these operations.

During the third load, he reported that he was transitioning his sight “forward and inside to the instrument panel,” and that while he was scanning the instrument panel, he “noticed the rotor disk dipping toward the water.” He stated that he saw the main rotor blades strike the water and then the helicopter impacted the water. The cockpit filled with water as the helicopter rolled upside-down and began to sink. The pilot reported that while he was egressing from the cockpit underwater, he felt his “helmet tug backwards and I realized the communications cord was still attached to the helicopter.” The pilot removed his helmet, surfaced, and swam to the shore without further incident.

The recovery of the helicopter from the lake revealed substantial damage to the fuselage, the main rotor blade system, and the tail boom. The pilot reported there were no preimpact mechanical failures or malfunctions with the airframe or engine that would have precluded normal operation.

The pilot reported that he had prior formal external load training, but no formal over-water external load training. He reported that he had never had formal underwater egress training and was not wearing a flotation device at the time of the accident.

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