State Police Helicopter Crashes in Virginia

On May 11, 2010, about 1335 eastern daylight time, a Bell 407 helicopter, N31VA, operated by the Virginia State Police, was substantially damaged during an emergency landing following an engine failure and autorotation near Virginia Highlands Airport (VJI), Abingdon, Virginia. The certificated flight instructor (CFI) and the commercial pilot were not injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the public use flight.

According to the crew, who were both Virginia State Police (VSP) officers, they and the helicopter were based at the VSP Aviation facility at VJI. The purpose of the flight was to provide aircraft orientation training for the pilot. The pilot conducted one takeoff and landing at VJI, and then proceeded to the northwest to practice confined area operations at a field about 3 miles from VJI. When the flight was enroute to the practice field, the crew heard a noise that they described as a “very low growl” coming from the engine compartment. As they approached the field at an altitude of about 250 feet above ground level (agl) and a speed of 80 knots, they heard a “very loud growl,” and the engine “surged” twice. The “FADEC DEGRADE” caution light illuminated, and an aural “ENGINE OUT” alert sounded. The CFI informed the pilot that he was taking control of the helicopter, and then initiated a 180 degree right turn, and an autorotation to the field. At about 50 feet agl, the CFI flared the helicopter, and then landed it. The helicopter bounced one time and came to rest on a “slight slope” in the field, with the right skid on the uphill side. The crew shut down the helicopter and exited normally. The pilot reported that the flight duration was 7 minutes.

Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Rolls Royce arrived on scene about noon the day after the accident. They reported that both landing skids were splayed outboard, and the right skid exhibited more deformation than the left skid. The upper 3 inches of the left vertical stabilizer was missing, and one main rotor blade had paint transfer marks consistent with stabilizer contact. The tail skid (“stinger”) and tail rotor blades were intact. The forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turret that was mounted on the underside of the fuselage below the left rear seat was pushed up, and penetrated the cabin floor. The “Night Sun” lamp that was mounted on the underside of the fuselage, below the left front seat, was damaged, but did not penetrate the cabin.

The helicopter had approximately 790 pounds of fuel on board. Flight control continuity was verified, and all pneumatic, lubrication and fuel lines appeared to be intact. Although no attempt to start the engine was made, when the starter button was held for about 5 seconds, the engine motored normally.

According to the Rolls Royce representative, the engine was equipped with an electronic control unit (ECU), and a hydromechanical fuel control unit. The ECU had two separate non-volatile memory (NVM) units, known as the “maintenance terminal” (MT), and the “incident recorder” (IR). The MT recorded discrete events relevant for maintenance purposes, and the IR recorded time history data of engine parameters. The IR recording was designed to start whenever a “trigger” (parameter exceedance) was detected; the recording would capture data from 12 seconds prior to the trigger, and continue after the trigger. The ECU NVM data were downloaded at the accident site. Preliminary examination of the data revealed two engine “surge events,” but the specific trigger was not determined.

The helicopter was recovered to a Bell Helicopter completion and maintenance facility 2 days after the accident. The engine, including the ECU and fuel control, were removed and shipped to Rolls Royce for detailed examination and testing.

According to FAA records, the helicopter was manufactured in 2000, and was first registered to the Commonwealth of Virginia in January 2001. The helicopter was equipped with a Rolls Royce-Allison 250-C47B engine. According to VSP records, the helicopter had accumulated a total time in service (TT) of approximately 3,887 hours. The engine had the same TT as the airframe, and had accumulated approximately 6,631 cycles since new. VSP records indicated that the helicopter had been used for 1,766 autorotations. The most recent 50 hour/3 month airframe inspection was completed on April 20, 2010, and the most recent 150 hour engine inspection was completed on April 21, 2010.

FAA records indicated that the CFI held an airline transport pilot certificate, with several ratings, including rotorcraft-helicopter, and a flight instructor certificate with rotorcraft-helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. He reported that he had 3,278 total hours of flight experience, including 1,100 hours in the accident helicopter make and model. The CFI’s most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued in July 2009, and his most recent flight review was completed in August 2008.

FAA records the indicated that the pilot held a commercial certificate, with several ratings, including rotorcraft-helicopter, and instrument helicopter. The pilot’s most recent FAA second-class medical certificate was issued in April 2010, and at that time he reported that he had accumulated approximately 2,000 total hours of flight experience.

The VJI 1343 recorded weather observation included winds from 200 degrees at 10 knots, with gusts to 18 knots, visibility 10 miles, scattered clouds at 3,700 feet agl, broken cloud layers at 4,200 and 5,000 feet agl, temperature 21 degrees C, dew point 12 degrees C, and an altimeter setting of 30.20 inches of mercury.