Heli crash: trying to understand

There has been a lot of talk about safety in reality television lately, for the saddest of reasons: five people have died within the past two weeks while filming Discovery Channel projects.  Yesterday the NTSB released its preliminary findings regarding the fatal helicopter crash on February 10, 2013 which killed the pilot, camera operator and talent.

The report is eye-opening but still leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

It sounds like there were efforts made to minimize the risk of an exceptionally dangerous shoot.  The pilot scouted the area and conferred with the director prior to filming, which is good.  He held a safety briefing.  Also good.

But two big pieces of information jumped out at me:

1) The pilot requested lights put in at the landing zone.  He was aware that he would be flying into a pitch-black area and would have no sense of where the ground is.  He also knew that there was a dangerous plateau that he would have to navigate.

2) There was an LED panel light mounted on the windshield behind a GoPro camera.

As anyone who has ever driven at night on a dark country road can attest, the minute a light is turned on inside the car your night vision disappears.  A panel light would have thrown light in all directions in the cockpit and would have diminished what little ability he had to see the ground.

Somebody made a very bad decision, but who?

Ultimately, it is up to the pilot to let the director know that it is not safe to fly under those circumstances.  And it’s certainly up to the pilot to refuse to fly with a light in his face.  But we should also be asking whose decision it was to set up this ridiculous shot in the first place.  Why would such chances have been taken for a scene which would have essentially amounted to 15 seconds of mediocre footage for a cable television program?  And I would love to know how long that pilot had been on the controls by the time the final scene was to be filmed.

The pilot picked up the aircraft at 4:45pm, which means he would have been on site about 4pm to hold the briefing and prepare to fly.  The crash occurred at 3:30am — almost 12 hours in to his shift and very close to the end of his duty day.  Sketchy, but still legal within FAA standards.  He got a catnap in and so hopefully he was rested.

My conclusion, based on my own experience and from discussing the circumstances with PCA (as a helicopter pilot who has been asked in the past to participate in dangerous filming) is that the pilot crashed shortly after ascent because he was not able to gauge where the ground was.  He was navigating a dark area between two lit sources and lost perspective.  Whether the light panel played a part in the crash is yet to be determined.

The NTSB has retained the video equipment and so there is the sickening possibility that the GoPro was rolling when the accident happened.  I never want to see that footage.  But, like so many other crew members, I want to understand how this happened so that I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Just two weeks after the helicopter crash, another director / camera operator and his pilot were killed while filming a Discovery Channel Canada project.  The circumstances surrounding the crash are still vague, but one thing is certain.  It’s time to start holding networks and production companies accountable to overall safety and standards practices.

We — those who are on the front lines climbing into helicopters, boats, cars to get the footage — need to know that we are being considered and protected on these shoots.

One thought on “Heli crash: trying to understand

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