Sécurité Civile EC145 SAR Wirestrike (F-ZBQK, Martinique): BEA-Etat Safety Investigation Report

During a SAR mission to rescue a jet-skier in difficulty in the sea off Martinique in the Caribbean, the crew of Sécurité Civile base BH972′s Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK suffered a wire strike on 3 April 2019, spectacularly captured on video.

Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK Wire Strike in Martinique (Credit: via BEA-E)

Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK Wire Strike in Martinique (Credit: via BEA-E)

The Accident Flight

Investigators of the BEA-Etat (BEA-E) note in their safety investigation report (only available in French), issued on 29 April 2020, that the crew (pilot, winch operator and winchman) were airborne from Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport within 4 mins of being tasked by the Antilles Guyane Regional Operational Surveillance and Rescue Centre (CROSS AG).   BH972 has a single helicopter on call 0700-1900 each day.  They are a busy unit, conducting around 800 taskings per annum.

Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

The crew located the survivor 260 m from the beach at Fond Bellemare cove near Case-Pilote just 4 mins later.  They came into a hover above, at around 100 ft due to the mast of an adjacent anchored yacht.

Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK and Yacht (Credit: witness video)

Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK and Yacht (Credit: witness video)

The winchman was lowered and once they had placed the survivor in the strop, gave the signal to be hoisted up.  The pilot determined they would transit to the beach to disembark the survivor and so the winch operator stopped their ascent with 15 to 20 ft below the aircraft.  The winch operator did start to challenge that plan until interrupted by the pilot.  This choice may have been partially influenced by the limited space due to the fitment of a stretcher in the cabin (usual at that time of year when onshore tasks were most prevalent).

The pilot commenced a slow translation (<20 kt) towards the east part of the beach but due to members of the public in that area, changed direction to the left for the west part of the beach (note both the pilot and winch operator were seated to the right hand side of the aircraft).

This is when the helicopter hit three wires of a medium-voltage (20 kV) power line, which they had previously not spotted, which spanned around 400 m over the cove.  Although a Wire Strike Protection System (WSPS) is fitted this is designed to deflect and cut a cable encountered while moving forwards at speed.

Striking First Cable: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Striking First Cable: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Striking Second Cable - First Arc: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Striking Second Cable – First Arc on Nose: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Striking Second Cable - Arc on Hoist Strut: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Striking Second Cable – Arc on Hoist Strut: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Striking Second Cable - Arc on Cowling Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

Striking Second Cable – Arc on Cowling Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: via BEA-E)

The winch cable failed and both survivor and winchman fell into the sea from 45-60 ft.  They were able to swim to shore and the helicopter landed safely at the airport.

The Safety Investigation and Analysis

The employee of a beachfront restaurant who raised the alarm about the jet-skier being in difficulties claims to have mentioned the presence of the power line to CROSS AG. The BEA-E interviews at CROSS AG proved “to be contradictory”.  The recording of those particular phone calls had not been retained either.  It is undisputed however that the helicopter crew did not receive any warning about the presence of the power line.

Damage was evident on several parts of the airframe.

Main Rotor Blade Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Main Rotor Blade Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Nose Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Nose Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Canopy Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Canopy Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Hoist Strut Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Hoist Strut Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Cowling Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Cowling Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Laboratory examination showed that the hoist cable failed due to arc burn damage.

Hoist Cable Damage:  Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Hoist Cable Damage: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

From 3 videos and CVFDR data, the BEA-E created reconstruction below:

Flight Path: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Flight Path: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

The crew were not familiar with the small cove.  The power cables were unmarked and had a diameter of just 7.82 mm.  They were dark in colour, with little contrast with the landscape beyond.  They were the only power lines on the island to cross water.  These medium voltage cables were neither marked on local maps or aeronautical charts (though high and very high voltage cables elsewhere on the island where).

Fond Bellemare Cove:  Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Fond Bellemare Cove: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

BEA-E say:

Even at low speed, the characteristics of the cables and their environment make this power line a very difficult obstacle to detect along the axis and the height of arrival of the helicopter.

In contrast the six posts supporting the cables (three on each side of the cove) were detectable.

Fond Bellemare Cove Electricity Poles (After Accident):  Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Fond Bellemare Cove Electricity Poles (After Accident): Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Hence, BEA-E observe that:

An active search for posts…could have made it possible to detect its presence and to deduce a risk of the presence of cables.

The BEA-E comment that:

The entire crew was experienced, although the pilot was mainly experienced in mountain rescues. The three crew members had all made a significant number of hoist rescues.

The perception of the emergency level of the mission resulted in a great motivation of the crew to take off as quickly as possible.  …time pressure…can lead to a deterioration of judgment and a focusing of attention
on the victim, to the detriment of taking into account the risks.

The time pressure may have also explained why the crew ere not wearing life jackets (required for all over water taskings).  That and the rapid arrival may explain why the hoisting brief was missed and with the pilots mountain experience, why the Emergency Flotation System (EFS) floats were not armed when the aircraft was below 80 knots.

Sécurité Civile SAR procedures require a ‘recognition circuit’ before coming into the hover for hoisting.  The BEA-E note that the crew made a figure of 8 pass, initially flying past the survivor without spotting him before doubling back.

Flight Path:  Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

Flight Path: Sécurité Civile SAR Airbus Helicopters EC145 F-ZBQK (Credit: BEA-E)

They opine this did not meet the intent of a ‘recognition circuit’.

A misrepresentation of the situation led the crew to believe that they were safe from any obstacle above the water and contributed to the non-detection of the electric cables.

We’d also observe that when they did spot the survivor attention may have focused on the obvious obstacle of the yacht’s mast.  One the survivor was picked up BEA-E note that the pilot’s attention switched to choosing the drop off area.

BEA-E Conclusions

The cause of the wire strike was the non-detection by the crew.

This non-detection was due to:

  • the characteristics of the power line and its environment (dry vegetation in the background);
  • the absence of a map marking the presence of the power line;
  • the focusing of the pilot’s and winch operator’s attention down;
  • the lack of familiarity with the drop-off area;
  • likely overconfidence;
  • the absence of mention by the CROSS AG of the presence of the electric line.

BEA-E Safety Recommendations

These included

  • recording of communications to/from the rescue coordination centre (RCC)
  • conveying comprehensive information from the RCC
  • sharing intelligence on obstacle data between state air operator agencies (Gendarmerie, Customs, Navy and Sécurité Civile)
  • reinforcing procedural adherance including “studying in particular the possibility of analyzing anonymously and randomly the voice data of the CVFDR)
  • adopting a a pre-flight briefing called MEMO (Mission / personal protective Equipment / Mission equipment / Obstacles) used at some bases
  • studying cable detection technology
  • stressing the importance of “land as soon as possible” after an obstacle strike

Safety Resources

Our past articles include:

On error management:

…and our review of The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error by Sidney Dekker presented to the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS): The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error – A Review


SAR Consultancy: Procurement, Tenders, Contacts and In-Service Assurance and Aviation Advice

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Aerossurance has extensive air safety, operations, SAR, airworthiness, human factors, aviation regulation and safety analysis experience.  For practical aviation advice you can trust, contact us at: enquiries@aerossurance.com

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