Three Fish and Game employees from Fresno were killed last week when their helicopter clipped a power line and crashed in a mountainous area of eastern Madera County (CA). Killed were Clu Cotter, 48, an associate biologist; biologist supervisor Kevin O'Connor, 40; and Tom Stolberg, 31, a seasonal aide, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. The three were conducting an aerial deer survey. The crash also killed the pilot, Dennis Donovan of Palm Springs, the Madera County Sheriff's Department reported. Officials could not immediately say why the helicopter, a Bell 206 owned and operated by Landells Aviation of Desert Hot Springs, hit the power line near Redinger Lake at 12:25 p.m. Unfortunately, this crash has many parallels to airborne law enforcement accidents. Due to the nature of the helicopter mission, namely flying low, it raises some unique yet deadly hazards.
When a ground unit is given the assignment of responding to a location to assist an inbound helicopter, what exactly can the ground unit do? Even if they have absolutely no aviation experience, they can provide very useful information to a flight crew. Just like when responding to a crime-in-progress assignment the ground officer should conduct a general observation of the selected area to land the helicopter. Common sense standards should apply and include any possible hazards such as wires, obstructions including rocks, small tress and bushes.
If possible, conduct an assessment of the landing surface. Is it muddy? Is it very dry and likely to kick up a brown dirt cloud? Are there a lot of loose rocks or gravel that could become small missiles as the helicopter approaches? Other hazards that might be observed are large flocks of birds perched in nearby trees. When the helicopter approaches, they could be come spooked and fly away, perhaps presenting a deadly encounter with the aircraft. Is there a flock of geese in the grass? Just ask Captain Sully of US Air Flight 1549 what can happen when geese tangle with aircraft.
Try to establish radio communications with the inbound aircraft and convey any hazards that you see. Do not assume the flight crew can see the wires or obstructions. They may not see these things because of sun glare, the object blends into the ground etc. Be specific when pointing out a hazard. Don't just say "Do you see the wires near the landing zone?" because the flight crew may respond yes while looking at a different set of wires. A better way to describe the hazard is using points of the compass. "Do you see the telephone wire running along the south side of the landing zone?" It allows the aircrew to positively identify the hazard. If the aircrew acknowledges the hazard but still seem heading straight for it, query them again. "Air one, confirm you have the wires directly in front of you in sight?" A flight crew will never mind you looking out for their safety. If there is any doubt about the safety of the landing area, ask the flight crew to abort their approach, allow them to climb to a safe altitude and then work out any confusion or ambiguity.
In preparation for the arrival of the aircraft, refrain from using flares and/or any other pyrotechnic devices to help light up the landing zone, now known in the world of NIMS as a helispot. These devices will only get blown over or end up flying through the air. If the ground officer has the capability of utilizing a ground GPS device, the latitude and longitude coordinates of the proposed landing zone could be conveyed to the flight crew. It is not unusual for a flight crew to be told land in the baseball field right in the middle of town only to arrive and find numerous fields that fit that general description as seen from the air.
Ground units must also consider landing zone security especially regarding bystanders. For some unknown reason, after a helicopter lands, people like to rush up to get a better look and sometimes stop just feet away from the tail rotor. If ground personnel have protective goggles or even sunglasses, they should put them on as the approaching helicopter will definitely throw debris all around. If there are persons nearby playing sports, picnicking or just lounging around the local park, give them a chance to collect up and secure their belongings. The last thing you need are annoyed bystanders long after the aircraft departs!
Once the helicopter lands, keep in mind that the tail rotor is deadly. Every year there are tragic stories of persons walking into the tail rotor and being fatally injured. In 2009, a paramedic assigned to the Arizona Department of Public Safety was assisting two stranded hikers when he accidentally was struck by a rotor blade sustaining fatal injuries. A good rule of thumb is that if you cannot see the pilot, you are in a VERY dangerous area. Normally, a member of the crew will approach any ground personnel present. If you are asked to assist loading or unloading equipment keep everything low including arms and equipment. If a hat or any equipment is blown away, especially towards the tail, do not chase it. It will only fly a short distance and can be recovered after the helicopter departs.
As with most aspects of law enforcement, common sense is the key. Regardless of their aviation experience, the ground officer can play a critical role in the safe outcome of the airborne law enforcement, or for that matter any aviation mission. If circumstances allow, have a formal class with your law enforcement and/or EMS helicopter operators to gain a greater understanding of their equipment and concerns. Safety is always everyone's business.