I wish you many decades of happy and safe flying.
My Near Death Experience
8th November 2013 with a grand total of 49 flying hours, at Approx 8.21am, YPMQ Runway 03, Wind 330, 5kt, CAVOK.
I started confidently, happily flying circuits at pprox 7.45am and was practising glide approaches with touch and goes, “on top of the world and loving it”. I had done about ten circuits and was feeling very chuffed with my newfound skills when the first of two fire-fighting helicopters took off. I was on base when the first called and took off directly west from the helipad, across the runway near taxiway Charlie at about 75ft, on approximately 270 heading.
Soon after, I was on short final for another touch and go on 03 when I heard a noise on the radio, so I made an extra call to say I was on short final for 03. I touched down then started my next climb, but when I was about 50ft airborne I noticed a second helicopter heading towards the runway at about 50ft which at first appeared to be taxiing along the grass runway. I then noticed he was accelerating toward the runway at 90 degrees to the runway and the adrenal gland started pumping.
Once I had no doubt at all that he was climbing and accelerating, the reality and seriousness of the situation slapped me in the face! I slightly panicked and made a call “Helicopter, Helicopter Avoid”. I got no reply and the helicopter was heading for an exact collision path over runway 03 at about 150 – 200 feet. By this stage I had eaten up a lot of runway and time and decided I could not turn right in case he stopped, or go under or over him due to his downdraft, so I turned as sharp to the left as I could , thinking this would give me more time to avoid him. We closed and closed and closed as he began to disappear beneath me. In the end it felt like I had the Foxbat at 90 degree to the ground and was pulling hard to stop any further trajectory into his massive rotors. George assures me that’s not possible or legal, so let’s go with “approximately 60 degrees”. I looked down to my left and the sight of the ground at about 350 feet staring back up at me was frightening. For a moment I had no idea whether we were going to collide or not as he was underneath me and I was waiting for the rotor blades to come through the floor of the Foxbat. I rolled quickly out of the turn to wings level as I was now worried about stalling. As I rolled out the passenger in the helicopter was staring back at me, so close I could see his freckly face and almost read the logo on his hat. We narrowly avoided collision by about 50 to 100ft from fuselage to fuselage and when you consider the size of his rotors and the wingspan of the Foxbat, it doesn’t leave much room between us.
The chopper took no evasive action at all. He didn’t see me, he hadn’t looked and in my opinion had not made a call or monitored the radio prior to take off. About a minute later, he made a radio call “sorry about that”. I promptly informed him of how close we came and that looking and making radio calls might have helped. I landed and asked for his call sign, which he reported back. I documented the situation and filed a report to CASA.
Doug Page, the Airport Manager, was on the ground mowing and had seen the entire thing, describing it as “the closest near miss he has ever seen”. Doug came over and checked my welfare and pulled the tapes for CASA.
Upon CASA’s investigation it was revealed that the chopper pilot had not heard any of my radio calls and that he had said he had made a departing call. Whether this is fact or fiction is anyone’s guess, but clearly these guys don’t monitor the radio for five minutes before departure. This might be due to workload or other factors, but please be aware of it. My initial reactions were of course full of emotion and disbelief, followed by blame, anger, etc, etc. But like an eager 20-something newlywed, my initial reaction may have been premature. After having now had months to reflect on it and with another hundred hours or so of piloting, I look at the situation very differently and have learned a lot from it.
My workload as a pilot at that stage of my flying was largely focused on procedure and physically flying the plane, whereas now that I have more experience and a lot of procedures and activities are more routine I have much more situational awareness.
For me now, situational awareness is not just about monitoring the radio and looking in front of you and having a mental picture. It’s about monitoring the entire environment I’m in, in terms of airport movement, approaching weather and many other factors. I won’t bore you with all of them as most readers have thousands more hours than I. But for the benefit of new or less experienced pilots I will share a couple of tips. I now make part of my downwind checks every circuit about monitoring the ground movement as well as what is in the air. If any RPTs are on the apron, I’m checking whether their doors are shut, props are spinning or if the baggage loading ramp is still on location. It’s easier on rwy21 than on rwy03 as you can see the doors, but there are still things you can see on 03 that indicate an imminent departure. When choppers are on the ground I always do a quick check to see if there are any signs of people loading them or they have stationary rotors visible.
There were clues I now know that could have alerted me to this situation on the day, had I had some better situational awareness or experience at the time. When I taxied out that day there were crew members near one chopper and as such I wrongfully “assumed” that only one chopper was departing. In reality I should have realised they were all together, all fire-fighting choppers (different colours) and the likelihood of them departing together was possible.
I should also have scanned them regularly on downwind to see if they had activity or rotors turning. I also now realise that often choppers on the grass runway cannot hear the base or final call when we are on 03 due to the trees adjacent the grass runway. I have also learned that their departing calls, if they are on the ground, are not necessarily audible if we are on final or base and below 1000ft.
But in all of this the two biggest lessons for me is to avoid this situation ever occurring by being more aware, and to take evasive action immediately as the closing rate late in the collision path is phenomenal and does not allow time for a reaction to occur. The third lesson is to always assume they have not seen or heard you, because if you’re correct in assuming this, you’re alive. If you assume they heard you and you’re wrong, you may never read my next exciting Propwash contribution.
If I could have the day over again, it would never have happened, but I can’t. Hopefully, spilling the beans on my thoughts and emotions can help someone make a better decision if or when a similar situation arises.