Air Methods AS350B3 Night CFIT in Snow (N530H)
On 26 October 2020 Air Methods Corp (AMC) helicopter air ambulance Airbus Helicopters AS350B3 N530H was destroyed when it suffered a Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) 200 m from Whiskey Creek Airport, near Silver City, New Mexico. The aircraft came to rest just 8 m from a house. The pilot, the sole occupant, miraculously suffered only minor injuries. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued their safety investigation report, issued 20 August 2021.
The Accident Flight
A storm was approaching, and the intent was to relocate the aircraft from the AMC base at Gila Regional Medical Center (6097 ft AMSL) to the near-by Whiskey Creek Airport (6126 ft AMSL) where AMC had a rented hangar.
The accident flight departed at 23:34 local time. The pilot, who had flown 4200 hours, 1956 on type, stated that night Marginal Visual Flight Rules (MVFR) conditions prevailed (which implies a ceiling between 1,000-3,000 feet and/or 3 to 5 miles visibility). The pilot described how precipitation turned from rain to snow when approaching the airport. The flight followed Highway 180 and turned south towards the airport. On the turn to finals, there was an increase in precipitation, and a reduction in visibility.
The aircraft impacted terrain in a level, or slightly nose-low attitude approximately 200 m NW of the airport, just 3 minutes after take-off. The Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) did not activate, a common failure.
The nearest weather data was from Grant County Airport (5446 ft AMSL), 8 nm south of Whiskey Creek. Visibility was 7 miles and ceiling 1300 ft AGL (i.e. c 6750 ft AMSL) at the time of the accident.
The NTSB Probable Cause
The NTSB determined the probable cause to be:
The pilot’s failure to maintain sufficient altitude above terrain while operating in reduced visibility due to snow showers.
Strictly, this is simply a statement of the circumstances of the accident.
Operator’s Recommendation to Repeat an Occurrence
In the accident report form, AMC recommend:
Avoid VFR flight in conditions below VFR weather minimums. Avoid VFR night flight in areas of no illumination or surface reference in poor visibility. Maintain an instrument cross-check when operating in areas of low illumination or low visibility. When encountering areas of deteriorating weather pilots should divert, abort, land or execute the IIMC recovery procedure in accordance with company guidance.
But What About Flight Data Monitoring?
There is no mention of any examination of flight data. The FAA changed Part 135 in 2017 so that helicopter air ambulance operators had to comply with a new Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) System requirement, FAR 135.607:
After April 23, 2018, no person may operate a helicopter in air ambulance operations unless it is equipped with an approved flight data monitoring system capable of recording flight performance data.
FAA AC 135-14B Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) Operations explains that:
The FDMS should record digital or analog raw data, images, cockpit voice or ambient audio recordings or any combinations thereof which ideally yield at least the following flight information: • Location; • Altitude; • Heading; • Speeds (airspeed and groundspeed); • Pitch, yaw, and roll attitudes and rate of change; • Engine parameters; • Main rotor RPM; • Ambient acoustic data; • Radio ambient audio; and • Any other parameter the operator deems necessary (e.g., high definition video recording looking forward including instrument panel and forward cockpit windshield view, intercommunications system (intercom) between pilot and medical crew, communications with air traffic control (ATC), OCS, base operations, first responders at scene, hospital, etc.)
So while this sector was classified as a Part 91 positioning flight, it was required as air ambulance to have a suitable FDM System installed, and it would be very unusual to turn the system off for a positioning flight.
The European Safety Promotion Network Rotorcraft (ESPN-R) has a helicopter safety discussion group on LinkedIn. Read the ESPN-R (formerly EHEST) HE4 leaflet of Decision Making or watch their DVE video:
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