California Firefighting Helicopter Crashes

Fire Fighting Helicopter Crash Kills One

The accident occurred while the helicopter was supporting firefighting efforts with long-line operations. Two days prior to the accident, the division group supervisor (DIVS) anchored a colored reflective panel used for indicating landing and drop zones at the accident location. The DIVS stated that no site assessment was performed at the time of the panel placement because the placement was not intended to be the indicator of the drop zone for blivet deliveries. The terrain in the area consisted of steep slopes and trees varying in height from 75 to 200 feet.

One day prior to the accident, the location of the panel was not changed from the previous day and remained as placed by the DIVS. The accident helicopter, equipped with a 150-foot-long line, then made the blivet drop within 3 feet of the panel. The marshaller stated he warned the pilot about the proximity of one tree that was located to the right and upslope. Two ground crew members distanced themselves from the blivet drop because they were concerned with their own safety due to the tree hazards.

The division safety officer visited the site immediately after the blivet operation and there was no discussion regarding the aircraft use, the drop zone, or any discernment on the part of any crew member regarding the safety of the operation. In addition, there was no discussion about the operation during the “After-Action Review” (AAR) at the overnight camp that evening. On the day of the accident prior to the day’s missions, there was no safety assessment or organized AAR conducted.

The accident pilot was told that he would be delivering two more blivets to the same drop zone and back hauling the empty blivets that had been delivered the day before. At the intended drop zone, two crew members, who were not the same from the previous day, were so concerned about the potential for an accident that they briefed each other three times on what action would be taken in the event of an accident; however, this was not discussed with the pilot. The panel was not moved and the drop zone site remained in the same location as the previous day.

 The marshaller communicated with the DIVS that a longer long-line was recommended so the helicopter could remain above the trees; however, the helicopter had already departed. Witnesses observed that as the blivets were set down on the ground, the helicopter drifted to the right and the main rotor blades contacted a 165-foot-tall tree about 15 feet from the top. The long-line, along with the blivets, remained attached to the helicopter as it made a turn to the left, stopped momentarily, and then flew downhill to ground impact.

The helicopter impacted several trees and was destroyed by post impact fire. No anomalies were noted with the airframe and engine that would have precluded normal operation prior to the accident. The helicopter was approved for the pilot to operate the aircraft from the left seat. Visibility to the right side of the helicopter was partially obstructed by aircraft structure, passenger seats, and the seat headrests.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause(s) of this accident due to the pilot’s failure to maintain clearance with the trees during a long-line operation. Other contributing factors was the Forest Service’s inadequate communication between crews, failure to properly assess the safety of the intended drop zone, reduced visibility to the right side of the helicopter, and the trees.

Firefighting Helicopter Crash – July 23, 2007 in Happy Camp, CA

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