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First Flight
Posted: Thursday, April 13, 2017 5:29 PM
Joined: 19/08/2014
Posts: 67

M/Y High Flight’s crew were being put through their paces on the yacht’s newly constructed helicopter landing area, honing their skills and running through safety procedures. The yacht’s owner recently earned his pilot’s license and purchased a helicopter, which prompted the instructor to ask the captain about the owner’s actual experience, reminding him that it was unusual for newly qualified pilots to make landings on yachts.

Daniel Deutermann, a former military helicopter pilot and managing director of the aviation risk management firm, The Squadron, explains that the flying experience necessary to land on a yacht depends on many factors. “What I expect to see much depends on what a pilot is going to do with the helicopter and under what conditions,” he says. “Flying daytime only, [in] pretty weather with the yacht at anchor and little wind, the helicopter landing area (HLA) is really just an elevated platform and not very challenging, unless…it is very confined with no margin for error in positioning the helicopter, the crew is completely unprepared for a bad event both in terms of training and equipment, and there has been no formal risk assessment conducted so that all humans involved grasp the risk they are accepting.”

The course involved a refresher for those familiar with the procedures and an introduction for those who didn’t. As he had previous experience, the first officer would be in control of the landing area.

A helicopter similar to that purchased by the owner had been chartered for the initial landing so the crew could get some realistic experience with arrivals and departures. On course completion, High Flight weighed anchor and headed for a sheltered anchorage to meet the owner the next morning. On route, the boss called to say that the stand-in helicopter was in maintenance, and they would be using his friend’s helicopter instead. 

The weather deteriorated overnight and at dawn, the captain decided to reposition the yacht. As the anchor dropped, the yacht’s owner called to inform the crew he was en route and to prepare for his arrival. He sounded excited to be using the pad for the first time. The captain explained the weather conditions; the wind was now a steady 25 knots. The owner confirmed his friend had several years flying experience and knew what he was doing. 

The yacht’s HLA was on the foredeck and provided a clear space with more than enough room for the helicopter; however, with the yacht swinging into the wind, the main obstacle the pilot faced was the high bridge and its numerous antennas located aft. “The deck should be of an appropriate size, free of obstacles, strong enough to take the dynamic loads of the helicopter under a heavy landing condition, and equipped for any incident that is likely to occur in the event of an accident,” explains Nigel Watson of Luviair Strategic Aviation Management. “The helicopter should be fit for purpose, have ample power reserves, and be equipped for overwater operations.”

As the helicopter appeared on the horizon, the captain immediately noticed it was much larger than the yacht owner’s craft, and remembered what he had been told about the helideck’s limitations. As the aircraft hovered off the yacht’s starboard side, it began edging gradually over the landing area, but became unsettled by the gusty wind. It was clear to the crew that this machine was much larger than the one they expected. In addition, the yacht was slowly swinging at anchor in the strong wind, obviously increasing the level of difficulty for the pilot to make a smooth and uneventful landing. 

At best, the wheels had less than half a meter’s clearance from the pad’s edge…if perfectly positioned. The first officer recognized the owner’s friend at the controls from a previous yacht he worked on and recalled an ego at odds with his instincts. After witnessing the first attempt to touch down, he remembered what he had been taught during the training: “When it goes wrong, it tends to go very wrong.” After the third failed attempt, the first officer decided there was too much risk and waved off the aircraft. The captain radioed the same command, but with the pilot entirely fixated on positioning the aircraft and growing frustrated, the instructions were ignored — classic elements for an aviation accident.

The helicopter bounced on deck, then settled, one wheel resting off the pad’s surface. The pilot shut down and escaped onto the deck with the owner, as the crew realized the helicopter was in danger of going overboard.

Watson explains that while only approved decks can be used forcommercial operations, the reality is that all helicopter flight procedures on and off yachts must be carefully planned. “Changes in legislation recently introduced should be considered by private owner pilots flying larger helicopters to ensure that the way they have flown in the past will remain appropriate under the new rules,” he says. “The trend is towards rules and regulations that are more restrictive for the private pilot flying a complex helicopter.”
“There are three main recommendations when it comes to helicopter operations on yachts,” says Deutermann. “An operations manual that has been vetted for content and evaluated for use aboard that specific yacht, formal crew training, ideally with live-flying exercises involved, and a formal risk assessment undertaken by a specialist third party.”
The crew managed to winch the helicopter onto the deck and return to port, while the owner reconsidered his helicopter ventures, undergoing more training and postponing his first landing to the following season.


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