Thin & Deadly

Wire strikes are a leading cause of helicopter accidents
David Carr
July 18, 2007
By David Carr
126-wiresThe wire environment can extract a heavy toll on helicopters and pilots. It is estimated that the helicopter is destroyed in two-thirds of all wirestrike accidents – many of these fatal. The real tragedy is that the majority of wire strikes are preventable. Most utilities do their best to alert pilots to hazardous wire environments using a system of marker balls and other indicators. New warning technology is coming on line to reduce the threat of a strike. But at the end of the day, there is no substitute for pilot training.

“In aviation we use hours as a measure of a pilot’s experience in all environments. But that measure doesn’t hold true with wire. The root cause of most wire strikes is the lack of understanding of the dynamics of a wire environment. It is an acquired skill,” said Robert Feerst, president of Utilities/Aviation Specialists Inc., a Crown Point, Indiana-based consultancy that specializes in wire-strike avoidance.

Feerst was at the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC) convention in Vancouver last April to deliver a compressed version of the full-day wire avoidance course he has already taught to over 7,000 pilots and crew members around the world. “It is not a rookie mistake,” he cautioned HELICOPTERS. “Experienced pilots are the ones who are causing the most wire strikes.”

In the US at least, 32% of wire strikes are caused by pilots with between 5,000 and 10,000 hours on the clock. The next group most likely to hit wire are pilots with over 10,000 hours.More than four out of five wire strikes occur in clear weather or during scattered cloud conditions, and in an urban versus rural environment; the majority of wire strikes still happen in the country despite the increased use of inner-city helicopters for law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS) and electronic news gathering (ENG) purposes.

One reason for this is that parapublic and ENG machines are likely to be equipped with wire strike protection systems (WSPS). “EMS night operations and incident scene work (approach and takeoff) often put us in a higher wire risk environment. If you aren’t five to 10 feet above the ground then you are above 250. Flying between 15 and 250 feet is extremely hazardous in a congested wire environment,” said Fraser Gamble, a 6,000-hour pilot with the Calgary-based Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS).

STARS is a non-profit charitable organization that provides EMS transport services in Alberta and parts of British Columbia. STARS, which has WSPS installed in its fleet of Eurocopter BK-117s, has never experienced a wire strike. If such a strike is unavoidable, pilots are trained to level the aircraft and fly straight through the wires for maximum cutting effectiveness…

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