Crash report questions pilot training

Posted: Tuesday, May 23, 2000

A helicopter pilot who crashed into a Juneau glacier last summer in disorienting conditions, killing all seven people on board, never showed he could use the aircraft's instruments in an emergency.

And federal regulators, ignoring their own rules and policies, didn't require the company to train or test the pilot in their use, a federal report says.

Those basic instruments tell pilots their speed, whether they are climbing or descending and at what speed, and whether the craft is level. But they wouldn't have told the pilot where he was or how to get back to the airport.

A Coastal Helicopters craft carrying pilot Nigel Cook and six cruise ship passengers crashed into Herbert Glacier at 3,400 feet on June 9, 1999. It had taken off from the glacier at about 1,000 feet and was headed toward the Upper Herbert Glacier Pass to fly over the Mendenhall Glacier.

A recently released National Transportation Safety Board report ruled out mechanical problems, and said the pilot had not used alcohol or drugs.

A final report, which has no scheduled release date, will give the crash's probable cause. The crash's chief investigator, Matt Thomas of the safety board's Anchorage office, said he's not allowed to talk about the cause until then.

The recently released factual report focuses on the pilot's training, experience and the weather and lighting.

It portrays an inexperienced and possibly fearful pilot, eager for a job, who flew up a mountain pass in disorienting light conditions toward ever-lowering clouds.

Other pilots on the glacier at the time told investigators the snow-covered river of ice was featureless, the overcast clouds were hard to distinguish from the snow, and lighting was ``flat.''

Pilots can become disoriented in those conditions, which one pilot on scene called a ``milky blur.''

Juneau's flightseeing helicopters operate under what's called visual flight rules, meaning the pilot navigates by seeing the horizon and landmarks. The pilots don't have to be rated for flying by instruments.

But the helicopters are required to have, and do have, certain instruments to help in night flights, when landmarks may not be visible. And Federal Aviation Administration regulations require pilots to know how to use them, Thomas said.

It's also FAA policy, though not a rule, to require companies to check that pilots can fly the craft solely by instruments even if pilots are rated only for visual flying, Thomas said.

But the FAA had approved company training programs for Coastal -- and the other Juneau helicopter flightseeing operations -- that did not require the pilots to show they knew how to fly by instrument, Thomas said.

The report also notes the FAA doesn't require the helicopters to have an instrument that shows pilots how high they are above the surface they're flying over.

The FAA didn't immediately respond to the Empire's request for comments.

Coastal President Jim Wilson told investigators it's company policy not to conduct basic instrument or emergency instrument training, the report said. The company's policy is not to fly into instrument conditions, the report said.

``We teach our people how to recognize when they're approaching flat light, zero-visibility conditions around them,'' Wilson said in a Monday interview.

Wilson said it was only since December 1999 that the FAA has required his company's pilots to demonstrate they can control the aircraft with instruments.

Local tour operators said the best way to deal with whiteout or flat light conditions is to avoid them.

``As a practical matter, in almost every situation, you should be able to see what you're flying into and turn around before you get to such a critical point that you're likely to fly into the clouds,'' said Bob Engelbrecht, president of the helicopter tour company NorthStar Trekking.

``Even if you can fly with instruments,'' he said, ``in tall mountains the reality of being able to transition to instruments, climb up and turn around and make an approach (to land) would be difficult to do.''

Still, tour companies that belong to an industry safety group do train pilots to use instruments to recover from flying into clouds, he said.

NorthStar Trekking -- a member of Tour Operators Program of Safety, along with Era and TEMSCO -- uses the hood test. Pilots, flying with an instructor pilot, do some training while wearing a hood that lets them see the craft's instruments but not the horizon or the ground.

Cook had undergone all the training required by the FAA to fly at Coastal, the report said. But Coastal officials couldn't remember how many hours of training Cook received in how to fly in adverse weather, or whether flat light and whiteout were covered, Thomas said.

No records from Cook's career showed he had been trained to fly with instruments, the report said.

The safety board's report seems to show a man determined to become a pilot and eager for a job, but not very experienced.

One flight instructor in Arizona ended Cook's training because he couldn't read or write English well. Other instructors and employers said they didn't notice Cook had a problem with English, but they couldn't recall him doing detailed paperwork in front of them.

Cook told Coastal, in a letter seeking a job, that he had 600 hours of fixed-wing flight experience and 800 hours in a helicopter.

But Cook really had 500 hours in New Zealand in an ultralight craft, which doesn't count as aircraft experience, the report said. And investigators could verify only 612 hours of helicopter experience prior to Juneau, and that included estimates of flight time at one Arizona company whose records for Cook were missing.

Coastal's training program, approved by the FAA, requires pilots to have at least 500 hours of flight time.

The report notes that the FAA doesn't require companies to disclose pilots' flight hours to prospective employers, so Coastal wouldn't have been able to check Cook's claims.

Cook had eight hours of flight time in the type of craft -- an American Eurocopter AS-350BA helicopter -- he was piloting that day, the report said. He had been up to Herbert Glacier 31 times since he began working for Coastal in May, including 11 trips over the Upper Herbert Glacier Pass.

The report also said Cook had expressed concerns, to two acquaintances earlier in the week of the crash, about being pressured by Coastal to fly in marginal weather. A New Zealand acquaintance said Cook's exact words were that ``he was living on borrowed time.''

One of Cook's previous employers in Arizona said Cook also expressed dissatisfaction with his training.

Wilson said Cook never mentioned those concerns to the company.

``He never said anything to any of us or to anyone in our company. All we ever heard is he was enjoying it and doing exactly what he wanted to do,'' Wilson said.

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