I never told this to the CASB . The Canadian Air Safety Board. If I had of told the investigators the whole story it would have explained a lot. It would have, if not exonerated me, at least, placed blame for the accident on someone other than me. I didn’t and the reason I mention anything now is because it happened more than twenty years ago and the “responsible” parties are no longer responsible for anything in this world.
The S-55T could have been a good helicopter. The manufacturer just needed to put any engine in it other than the Garrett TSE 331. In the spring of 1988 it was my fate to be flying the S-55T on a fire contract in Northern Saskatchewan as mentioned in a previous blog. Here is, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story”
We were starting to get a handle on a new fire. I had been flying mostly equipment into the fire that morning. My helipad was a meadow about 300 feet around that was surrounded by 80 to 100 foot trees. The fire was currently down wind about one quarter mile and I had a creek between my helipad and any silliness that the fire could create by switching directions. My mechanic had flown back with me from the airport this morning where a two man team of mechanics had completed maintenance the previous night.
The night maintenance team had completed a 100 hour scheduled inspection and made a component change. The component changed was an engine driven fuel pump. My old pump, was deemed no good. The manufacturer had found that certain pumps with certain bearings had a nasty habit of seizing particularly if the pump had sat over winter without fuel in their little bodies. I didn’t want to know how my pump had spent the winter, I was just happy to see that it was gone and a new,(used) one had been installed in its place. When I asked the mechanics that morning about the used looking “new” pump, they shrugged and said that a good pump had been taken off one of the unflyable S-55T’s sitting in the hangar. This new, used pump was identified by serial number as being an Ok pump, unlike the one they had removed.
It was now my third trip into the fire and this time rather than equipment I had 6 Native, First Nations, all right, Cree Indian firefighters. One woman, one old man and four men ages young to thirty something.
After a recon of my helispot I judged the area to be suitable for landing and was on a long shallow final to get into my spot. The S-55T is what we call a floater; it comes down, but only in its own sweet time. This meant that any flat passenger friendly approach was a long shallow affair that took some time. The bulbous nose was covered in an engine cowling that came up to chest height so any descent into a hole in the trees was best done with a crab that allowed the pilot to slide his window open and fly slightly sideways down into the opening. Sliding the window open was just the thing not to be doing when an engine decelerates to idle but that’s what happened. I checked the throttle the Rotor RPM and bottomed the collective all in one gasp.
There was no way I was in a position to make the helipad. My rotor R.P.M., or lack of it had put me too low for the autorotational glide slope that I needed. In layman’s terms, I was too low, slow and short of anything that wasn’t going to end with a tree landing. I pushed the nose over pulled just enough rotor RPM to get the nose to make the clearing and dived the tail clear of the tree line as I dropped into the meadow helipad. The collective was back on the bottom but my flare about 80 feet later confirmed what I knew without looking. I had not got enough rotor rpm back and coupled with my rate of descent ,meant I was going to be lucky not too break something other than the helicopter. I pulled full pitch low using what I had for rotor R.P.M. This prayerful action provided just enough cushion to make what would have been spectacular crash footage had anyone been around to film it. The S-55T bounced back into the air and in that nano second of clarity you get from adrenaline over supply I knew that there was no tail and probably not much left of the landing gear. I decided to push the cyclic full right on the second ugly landing. That provided rapid helmet meets the meadow grass contact but was better than helmet meets rotor blade.
I saw one of the main rotors blades heading north through the treetops in slow motion about the same instant the first drop of Jet fuel hit my cheek. I slapped electrical off as I popped the upper side window and climbed out on the left side of the fuselage.
My six passengers all seated,(I thought) on the left side of the fuselage were groaning as they sat uncomfortably suspended in the air by their seat belts. One by one I heard the click and crash of people releasing themselves from their restraints. Opening the emergency window on the left side I reached in and pulled the first firefighter out and up onto the left side of the fuselage. I told the firefighter where to walk along the fuselage and once on the ground to keep going towards the creek. I was worried about a fire with all the fuel spilling from the ruptured fuel tanks and I still had five firefighters to get clear. All of them were standing below the window opening and everyone said they were OK.
There was a snap and crash as the first firefighter not quite getting my instructions fell through a window on the fuselage landing hard on one of the waiting firefighters. Picking themselves up we heard one remark to the other, “Hey, I thought you left already”
The joke provided the comic relief we needed and in short order we were up and clear.
The only injury was the old man who had decided to get out of his seat and walk over to the big window in the door for a better look. He had a small cut on his forehead but was more concerned about his hard hat that he had left behind in the helicopter. He wanted to go back and get it so he could work. That was never going to happen.
Eventually another helicopter flew in to see where we were. I mentioned to the fire boss later that it had taken a long time to get another helicopter to our site? He looked a little chagrined and said that my “MAYDAY” call had been heard on the fire but since there was only the one transmission on the frequency and since nobody answered when they called my registration; well, they ignored the call for a while.
A day later I flew with the CASB folks to the accident site and later that day gave my recorded recollections of the events.
It turns out that two of our four S-55Ts had decels on that same day. The other ship went into the trees, but since they were small trees merely destroyed the main rotor blades on a hard landing.
The CASB sent me their preliminary findings a couple of months later and I was more than a little perturbed to see that they had suggested that I may have done something to cause the engine to roll back to idle. One suggestion was that during my pulling of the window I inadvertently pulled the engine back. That, I wrote them, was akin to rolling your car window down and while so distracted turning the wheel causing you to drive in the ditch. I was not a high time pilot then but I had been flying for 14 years and the chance of that event happening was N.F.L.
The fact was that I knew what had most likely caused the accident and this was it:
The same pump that was taken off had been accidently put back on a few hours later.
Two used pumps sitting on the bench and the wrong one was put back on. Knowing that a check of the engine was to be done by the CASB. the company removed and put the right pump on after the wreckage had been brought back to the hangar. I knew it and so did others in the company. Had I said anything I could have relied on at least one witness, the Chief Pilot to verify what had happened. I knew that a lot of heads would roll if I said anything, even though it would have put me in better standing.
Sometimes you have to consider the greater good. Ironically I flew another S-55T a week later to complete the contract and had another decel about a week after that. The engine deceleration and autorotation ended in a safe landing on a river gravel bar. The engine spooled back up after landing and I finished the longest fire contract of my career, two long months later.