Helicopter safety, again

I’ve written before about helicopter safety (1, 2). I always assumed they were more dangerous than fixed-wing aircraft, but when I made this claim on a blog someone pointed me to a link which said this wasn’t so (I thought it was on here, but I’ve scoured my comments section to no avail). Regardless, I try to avoid going up in helicopters and I think I’d only feel comfortable in operated by a military from a country with no green in its flag and where you can drink the tap water.

Yesterday, this happened:

The Leicester City owner’s helicopter has crashed in a car park outside the club’s ground as it left the stadium following a Premier League match.

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was in the helicopter when it came down at about 20:30 BST on Saturday, a source close to the family has told the BBC.

One witness said he saw Leicester player Kasper Schmeichel run out of the stadium towards the scene of the crash.

It is not known how many other people were on board the helicopter.

Leicester had drawn 1-1 against West Ham United at the King Power Stadium, with the match finishing about one hour before the helicopter took off from the pitch.

Witnesses said they saw it just clear the stadium before it spiralled out of control, with some describing seeing a fireball as it crashed.

Between pilot error and mechanical failure there just seems to be an awful lot to go wrong when flying helicopters; I understand insurance companies aren’t too keen on people flying about in them, compared with fixed-wing aircraft. Sadly, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha won’t be the first executive of a British football club to die in a helicopter crash: Chelsea’s Matthew Harding met with a similar fate in 1996.

Liked it? Take a second to support Tim Newman on Patreon!
Share

30 thoughts on “Helicopter safety, again

  1. No Welsh people near my Helicopter then, and what have you got against the Irish?…

  2. I had a helicopter crash investigator on my HUET course recently. He said that the chances of a helicopter crashing if you fly a million miles is roughly 13.8% while a fixed wing aircraft drops to just over 6%.

    He also said that over 90% of helicopter emergencies are directly attributable to pilot error.

  3. Never got as far as getting a PPL. Ran out of money. But learned enough to take off in a fixed wing, fly it around a bit & land (In the desired place & be able to walk away from it afterwards, for extra points). I know the theory of flying a rotary wing. Sort of. As for doing so… There’s an awful lot of ways to fuck it up.

  4. There’s an awful lot of ways to fuck it up.

    While I share the original article’s wariness of helicopters — I’ve never been in one and, assuming I have the option, never will be — surely it can’t be that hard if a royal can do it?

    I mean I’m as loyal as they come, and I completely respect Her Majesty, but the younger ones are hardly notable for their smarts, are they?

  5. All vertical takeoff and landing air craft, including helicopters, Ospreys, Harriers, F35B’s, have high rates of crashing during landing and takeoff. It’s inherent in the process, in part because the rotors often induce downdraft vortices that reduce lift. The F35B is supposed to have software that automates the landing process and reduces the chance of pilot error.

    So, don’t worry about flying in a helicopter. Just avoid the landings and takeoffs.

  6. Helicopters are only as unsafe as you want to make them.
    I’ve driven helicopters most of my life, much of it low flying at high density altitudes, with robust manoeuvres near trees & in dusty conditions the order of the day.
    Helicopters are dynamically unstable – i.e. you have to physically overpower it every second you’re in the driver’s seat.
    I learned to fly in the city of Brisbane – Traffic on the way to the airport used to worry me more than flying (the sky isn’t quite so crowded)

    Fixed wing scares the living daylights out of me, mainly because of the speed you hit the ground at if something goes wrong.

    It is true there is more chance of a helicopter having an incident than a fixed wing, on the other side of the coin there’s much more chance of walking away from a helicopter prang.

    Remove acts of dickheadsmanship from the stats, & small aircraft flights is quite safe. (i.e. showing off, or running components severely overtime).

    If you don’t fly in bad weather, keep the maintenance up, and don’t go over-time with any components, there’s very little chance of a small general aviation prang – either rotor wing or by the fixed wing jocks.

  7. Everyone I know who has flown with the Duke of Cambridge says he’s a damn good pilot. Which you pretty much have to be to shower a SAR can, as dodgy conditions are pretty much guaranteed much of the time.

  8. A friend of mine did her PhD in fluid dynamics.

    Apparently ‘it’s just turbulence’ is not reassuring, because we still don’t know what turbulence is, why it happens, when it happens, or how to model what is going on when it’s happening.

    A vehicle which basically runs on turbulence therefore seems… risky.

  9. On one HUET course I did there were two guys who’d survived a Sea King crash in the N.Sea. One old pal was bumped off the Chinook that crashed at Sumburgh – sometimes the stats are polluted by emotion …

    Steve at the Pub – I’ve always enjoyed low flying (as a passenger)

    A bit OT but thought it worth dropping in.
    It seems hit and run autonomous vehicles might be a thing.

  10. I suspect there are a couple of aspects which make comparisons difficult. Helicopters average much shorter flight times on average than a fixed wing aircraft so have many more take offs and landings per mile.
    Also helicopters frequently take off and land from places which aren’t designed specifically for that purpose (and without all the handy traffic control, emergency equipment etc) and fly around all sorts of obstructions while fixed wing aircraft are going to make (very nearly) all their take offs and landings from purpose-built airfields and fly most of their miles along well-regulated routes.

  11. Good point js. We’re not comparing like with like. Cycling is regarded as overly dangerous for a similar reason – it makes sense to start cycle commuting if you’re in places where it’s faster to do so than going by car and public transport. Those places are going to be more dangerous because of the congestion and because of other idiot cyclists shouting at you for novice behaviours like holding them up by making shoulder checks or stopping at a red light. Those cyclists get a smack in the face from the road when they touch your back wheel, and the accident rate goes up further.

  12. Harry Reasoner summed it up nicely:

    “The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by it’s nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.
    This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to.”

    I guess reliability has come quite a way since the 70s, but the general point still stands.

  13. Cycling is dangerous because there are significant numbers of road users who don’t care whether you live or die and drive accordingly. Helicopters don’t have this problem, but mechanical issues tend to have fatal consequences.

  14. Helicopter (noun). A collection of loosely-assembled spare parts, vibrating themselves to pieces, while rotating at high speed around an oil leak, that’s waiting to fall apart from metal fatigue…

  15. To a large extent a fixed wing aircraft will survive any mechanical failure. Unless a wing falls off you can always glide.

    If anything goes wrong on a helicopter you are going to fall out of the sky. Technically helicopters can glide via autorotation (kind of like those spinning seed pods) but it requires extreme amounts of skill to turn that into a soft landing.

  16. @Bloke in Germany on October 28, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    An airplane by it’s nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other

    What has changed since late 70s is military fast-jets are now like helicopters and will fall out of sky “if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance”.

  17. I used to have a very good book called something like The History of British Military Helicopters. You couldn’t help noticing that a lot of the photos had captions alnong the lines of “Commander Smith with the mark III. Sadly killed when the machine threw a blade at the Farnham airshow”.

  18. From the BBC:

    Mr Swaffer [the pilot]had over 20 years’ flying experience as a private jet and helicopter pilot.

    His career included flying helicopters for live media broadcasting including Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast and the Virgin Radio traffic helicopter.

    Freelance photographer Ryan Brown, who was covering the game, saw the helicopter clear the King Power Stadium before it crashed.

    He told BBC Radio Leicester: “The engine stopped and I turned round and it made a bit of a whirring noise, like a grinding noise.

    “The helicopter just went silent, I turned round and it was just spinning, out of control. And then there was a big bang and then [a] big fireball.”

    My money’s on mechanical failure.

    Incidentally, flying fixed wing can be perilous too, especially in Indonesia:

    Established in 1999, Lion Air operates flights domestically as well as a number of international routes in South East Asia, Australia and the Middle East.

    It has had issues of safety and poor management in the past and was banned from flying into European airspace until 2016.

    In 2013, Lion Air flight 904 crashed into the sea on landing at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport. All 108 people on board survived. In 2004, flight 538 from Jakarta crashed and broke up on landing at Solo City, killing 25 people.

    In 2011 and 2012 there was a spate of incidents where pilots were found in possession of methamphetamines, in one incident hours before a flight.

    Gulp.

  19. @Bloke in Germany: I’m sorry, I didn’t know it’s used by you, I assumed it was a generic title around here.

  20. Jason,

    That’s a newer definition then. The old one was “ten thousand spare parts flying in (more or less) close formation.”

  21. I tried my hand at rotary lessons long ago.

    A pilot can generally fly a fixed-wing craft with one hand. Take-offs and landings require two hands.

    A helicopter pilot, so far as I can tell, needs at least five hands and two feet for the craft at all times. Only having two hands, I gave it up very quickly.

  22. I assumed it was a generic title around here.

    Oof! That’s like wandering into Diana Ross’s changing room and saying “Can anyone use this toilet?” BiG’s been known to charge royalties for that moniker.

  23. A helicopter pilot, so far as I can tell, needs at least five hands and two feet for the craft at all times. Only having two hands, I gave it up very quickly.

    There’s a great passage in Robert Mason’s book Chickenhawk, which I mentioned here recently, where he tries flying a helicopter for the first time.

  24. “I had a helicopter crash investigator on my HUET course recently. He said that the chances of a helicopter crashing if you fly a million miles is roughly 13.8% while a fixed wing aircraft drops to just over 6%.”

    I would guess that helicopters both on individual flights and on lifetime usage fly far less distance – no one flies helicopter from London to New York.

    If so then the stat is not particularly helpful as a comparison. Let’s guess the average flight is 10% of the average fixed wing flight. Then the ratio changes from 13.8:6 to 1.38:6 making the helicopter 4 times safer rather than twice as dangerous.

  25. Helicopters might spend less time airborne than planes, but they clock up much more take offs and landings, which happen to be the riskiest part of any flight by far.

  26. Helicopters might spend less time airborne than planes, but they clock up much more take offs and landings, which happen to be the riskiest part of any flight by far.

    I remember when a passenger plane piled in at Heathrow a few years back, a pilot mate mocked on FB: “Yeah, typical long-haul pilots, they don’t get enough landing practice.”

  27. I dunno, Tim – I’ve made an full, in-depth study of helicopters on the interweb and have concluded that if they’re good enough for Jon-Michael Vincent, they’re good enough for me.

  28. “There’s a great passage in Robert Mason’s book Chickenhawk, which I mentioned here recently, where he tries flying a helicopter for the first time.”

    Too funny. I read that (about eight times) back in ’87, and had that exact passage in mind the one time I tried to hover. My results weren’t as good as his were. (“No, sir, we’re dropping. Go back right. We’re climbing, sir. Try not to spin us so fast. We’re dropping too fast again, sir. Sir, pull the collective up. Not so hard. Sir, try to keep the skids below us. Sir, would you like me to take over? No worries sir, lots of people vomit at this point.”)

Comments are closed.