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N211EL accident description

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Tail numberN211EL
Accident dateDecember 29, 2007
Aircraft typeBell 206L1
LocationVenice, LA
Near 28.958056 N, -89.258889 W
Additional details: None

NTSB description

HISTORY OF FLIGHT

On December 29, 2007, at 1535 central standard time, a Bell 206L1, N211EL, operated by Air Logistics LLC., impacted water during an approach to the offshore platform South Pass 38 in the Gulf of Mexico. One passenger was fatally injured, the commercial pilot sustained serious injuries, and two other passengers received minor injuries. The flight originated from offshore platform Chandeleur 63 at 1502 and was destined for South Pass 38, both in the Gulf of Mexico. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and a company flight plan was filed for the Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 on-demand air taxi.

Interviews conducted with the pilot revealed that while en route to South Pass 38, weather was estimated to be approximately 500 feet and 5 miles visibility. When the pilot approached the platform, weather degraded to approximately 300 feet and 1 statute mile visibility. The pilot descended and elected to continue an approach to South Pass 38 despite violating company designated weather minimums of 500 feet and 3 miles visibility. At approximately 1 mile from the platform, the pilot maneuvered the helicopter "to the right and left" during the approach in an attempt to slow the helicopter. The pilot planned to circle to right of the platform and land into the wind. With a prevailing tail wind, the pilot slowed the helicopter through 20 to 25 knots and began descending. The pilot stated that he could not sense how fast the helicopter was descending and began feeling vibrations through the controls. Forward cyclic was applied and the pilot pulled the collective to add power and started a slight left turn to straighten the helicopter. The vibrations became stronger and the pilot was attempting to recover the helicopter when it impacted the water. No attempt was made to deploy the external skid-mounted floats.

All personnel survived the impact and were able to egress the helicopter. The external-mounted life rafts were not deployed prior to the helicopter sinking. The survivors attempted to individually swim to the landing platform but were not successful. Fishing boats and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) rescued all the survivors. Two passengers were recovered after approximately two and one-half hours in the water. One passenger sustained fatal injuries from drowning and hypothermia. The pilot was recovered last having been in the water over four hours.

PERSONNEL INFORMATION

The pilot, age 49, held a commercial pilot license with helicopter land, helicopter instrument, airplane single-engine land, and airplane instrument ratings. In addition, the pilot held a flight instructor license with helicopter, helicopter instrument, airplane single-engine land, and airplane instrument ratings. A second-class airman medical certificate was issued on February 13, 2007 with no restrictions. The pilot began New Hire training on June 13, 2007. Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET) and water survival training were both accomplished on June 21, 2007. On July 16, 2007, the pilot completed all of the operator's initial operating experience requirements and was permitted to conduct operations in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the accident the pilot reported having accumulated 2,877 total hours, 2,480 hours of rotorcraft time with 303 hours in the same make and model as the mishap helicopter.

The pilot was scheduled on a seven days on then seven days off schedule. The accident flight occurred on day three of his rotation. According the company flight records, the day prior, December 28, was the first time that the pilot landed at and departed from South Pass 38. On this day the pilot also chose not to continue to another destination due to weather below company minimums.

The pilot was involved in a previous accident on May 28, 2006, which involved a Robinson R-22 which was substantially damaged when the helicopter settled with power during a taxi demonstration. This accident was investigated by the NTSB under accident number NYC06CA125. The pilot informed Air Logistics of his previous accident during the hiring process.

HELICOPTER INFORMATION

The 7-seat, single-engine helicopter, serial number 45251, was manufactured in 1979. The helicopter was equipped with skid-mounted Apical floats with two externally mounted life rafts. At the time of the accident, the airframe had accumulated approximately 23,767 hours. The helicopter was powered with a 500 horsepower Allison 250-C-28 turbo shaft engine, serial number CAE 860088. The engine had accumulated approximately 15,504 hours with 1,002 hours since major overhaul. The last inspection performed was an Approved Airworthiness Inspection Program (AAIP) conducted on December 19, 2007 at an airframe total time of 23,732.4 hours. The helicopter had flown 35 hours since this inspection.

The Apical emergency floats with life raft system complied with Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) Number SR 01535 LA. The installed Apical system allowed for activation of the floatation systems through one pressure activated lever for the emergency floatation system located on the cyclic, one internal switch on the center console for the external life raft system, and two red handles located on both forward struts of the skids to activate the external life raft system. Placards are not required to assist in informing personnel how to deploy the life raft system when near the external handles. A graphical depiction of external float activation was provided on the company's passenger safety card.

METEOROLOGICAL INFORMATION

At 1500, an Air Logistics weather alert was issued informing pilots that showers continued to diminish but that ceiling and visibility remain "a concern." Ceilings of 600 feet were reported south of Fourchon and visibility as low as 4 statute miles in heavier downbursts. There is no record of the pilot obtaining this weather alert.

The water temperature in the area of the accident was approximately 49 degrees Fahrenheit.

COMMUNICATIONS

The accident flight was conducting operations under flight following by Air Logistics. The system consists of tracking and monitoring using several programs with radio transmissions and telephone calls to communicate flight information. Flight following is located at Air Logistic headquarters and is staffed with six radio operators who are scheduled to work 0600-1800.

Sky Connect utilizes 66 Iridium low-orbit satellites and on-board "Tracker-SOP" helicopter components to provide both communications and position reports. The system was configured to provide a position report every three minutes. At 1533:36 an automated report sent a position report along with the flight parameters of 65 knots groundspeed, altitude of 308 feet, heading 202 degrees. No report was made at 1536.

Helicopter status is tracked by Air Logistics by utilizing Dataflyt's Flytwatch software. This software roughly works with a three step-process to place a helicopter in either "land" or "check" status. The first step requires the radio operator to select a helicopter to bring up position data. The second requires information to be entered in the appropriate block. The third step is to place the helicopter in either "land" or "check" status. Prior to the accident, placing the helicopter in "check" status would trigger an update request in two hours. In response to the accident, Air Logistics contacted the software vendor and changed the two-hour reminder to 30 minutes and incorporated an additional query screen to prevent controllers from "landing" the wrong helicopter.

A written statement prepared by the radio operator was provided to the NTSB by Air Logistics. A radio operator was tracking N211EL as it flew to South Pass 38. When the pilot lifted off from Chandeleur 63, he estimated his landing time at South Pass 38 as 1550. At 1533 the pilot reported that he was within three nautical miles of South Pass 38. At 1551, the radio operator twice queried the pilot of N211EL whether or not the helicopter landed. Several seconds prior another helicopter reported landing. The radio operator recalled having 1EL's data on the screen but must have not completely pressed "ESC" on the keyboard to change helicopters and mistakenly "landed" the wrong helicopter. A review of the flight following database shows a land time of 1551 for helicopter N211EL. When the radio operator twice queried N211EL of landing status, no answer was given. Since the helicopter was placed into a "land" status, no overdue notifications were triggered by the computer Dataflyt program. Despite numerous requests, the radio operator refused to provide any further information.

WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION

An underwater recovery was accomplished on January 4, 2008. The wreckage consisted of the main fuselage to include the forward and aft sections. The main rotor hub assembly was recovered still attached to the helicopter's transmission. Both main rotor blades exhibited overload fractures outboard of the doublers. The tail boom and tail rotor assembly were separated and were not located.

SURVIVAL ASPECTS

The helicopter impacted the water in a nose-down attitude with a left bank. All personnel successfully inflated their life vests. The helicopter was resting in the water at an angle that precluded the pilot from deploying the external life rafts. The pilot stated that he directed a passenger to deploy the life raft, but the passenger did not understand the pilot's directions. The helicopter remained afloat for approximately one minute before it sank beneath the waves. Since the survivors were approximately 100 yards from the landing platform, one passenger suggested that they should swim to the platform. The pilot agreed and all four attempted to swim to the platform. The high sea state separated the survivors and the current from the Mississippi Delta swept the survivors away from platform. The survivors estimated the wave heights to be 6 to 8 feet high.

At 1551, the radio operator who was providing flight following for N211EL mistakenly recorded the helicopter as landed. At 1625, the Base Manager (BM) at Venice, Louisiana, called the landing platform attempting to locate the pilot and then called for information from flight following. At 1650, the BM and Director of Operations (DO) decided to move a field boat to locate the helicopter and pilot with a 90 minute en route time and a 1730 launch time of the night helicopter. At 1703 the night helicopter was alerted. Data available to the DO categorized the platform as being manned, so at 1725 the DO decided not to involve any external agencies and gave the night helicopter the authority to launch. However, due to poor weather, the night helicopter could not launch. At 1747, the operator attempted to reach the pilot by the pilot's personal cell phone and the telephones at South Pass 38. There is no record of whether contact was attempted via the helicopter's Iridium phone.

At approximately 1750, one of the survivors spotted a shrimp trawler and yelled for assistance. The United States Coast Guard (USCG) received a MAYDAY call from a shrimp trawler informing the USCG of people found in the water. At 1820, the trawler transmitted the accident information. Air Logistics' Venice Base Manager was notified by a person at a local boat rental of the radio conversation between the trawler and the USCG. Air Logistics contacted the USCG and exchanged information. Both Air Logistics and the USCG launched helicopters but neither could arrive on scene due to bad en route weather. At 1900 a USCG boat arrived and began searching for the pilot. At 1948, the USCG reported finding the pilot. The pilot had been in the water over four hours.

TESTS AND RESEARCH

In his interview and written statement, the pilot did not report any loss of power or control malfunction. No warning lights or aural warnings were detected by the pilot or left seat passenger during the accident sequence. A surviving passenger who sat in the passenger compartment also reported no aural warnings prior to impact.

An examination of the helicopter wreckage and engine was conducted by the NTSB and FAA with the assistance of technical representatives from the airframe and engine manufacturers.

During the examination of the helicopter wreckage, flight control continuity was established excluding the tail boom assembly, which was not recovered. Damage sustained to the main rotor blades was consistent with the rotor system being driven with power at the time of impact. No pre-impact anomalies were discovered which would have precluded normal operation of the helicopter.

The engine sustained corrosion damage due to salt water exposure. The main rotor drive shaft could not be rotated. All pneumatic, oil, and fuel lines were found secured. The fuel control pointer was noted in the "100%" position. No damage was noted to the impeller of the compressor section. The turbine section was examined and no visual damage was noted. No anomalies were discovered which would have precluded the normal operation of the engine.

(c) 2009-2011 Lee C. Baker. For informational purposes only.