The first of three helicopters to crash on Herbert Glacier last September went down because the pilot flew into poor weather for which he was not prepared.
The final National Transportation Safety Board report on the three Sept. 10, 1999, crashes puts the responsibility clearly on the pilots of the three TEMSCO helicopters. But it also recognizes the difficult conditions found over the glacier, where snow and flat lighting tricked the pilots into thinking they were flying higher than they were.
Probably the best avoidance in an accident like this is not being in a position like this in the first place, said NTSB air safety investigator Clint Johnson.
The conditions were reminiscent of those that brought down another helicopter three months before. The striking difference was in the June 1999 crash, when seven people died. Whether through luck or skill, nobody was killed in the September accidents.
As in the June crash, the NTSB said the accident was influenced by the Federal Aviation Administrations failure to include instrument training or checks as requirements in the helicopter operators training manuals.
There were some similarities there, theres no doubt about that, Johnson said.
Since the crashes the FAA made some changes, including adding required instrument checks to the standard training manuals for Juneau helicopter companies, said Joette Storm, spokeswoman for the FAA in Anchorage.
The cause of the second and third crashes Sept. 10 was simple: The pilots failure to maintain altitude/clearance, according to the NTSB report.
In other words, they went too low and hit the ice.
That might have been avoided if the helicopters instrument panels had included a device that tells the pilot just how far the helicopter was above the ground. None of the helicopters had radar altimeters, the NTSB noted in all three reports.
We looked at the accident in a whole, all of the accidents and thought that might have been another tool in the bag that the pilot might have been able to use, Johnson said.
At the suggestion of the NTSB, TEMSCO is already installing radar altimeters in all its helicopters that fly over snow-covered terrain. TEMSCO also began testing the ability of all company pilots to fly using only the instruments and added a segment on how to recognize and react to flat light conditions into the annual training, the agencys report said.
TEMSCO officials could not be reached for comment by the Empires midday deadline today.
Realistically, they realized there were some changes that needed to be made and they did that after the accident, Johnson said.
The NTSB is considering whether radar altimeters should be recommended or required equipment for helicopters in Juneau, and beyond.
Obviously Juneau is working with wide open, white, flat light conditions much more than in other areas. It becomes much more important to have a radar altimeter in conditions like that, Johnson said.