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ATSB highlights importance of underwater escape training after EC135 crash

written by Gerard Frawley | May 4, 2018

The wreckage of helicopter VH-ZGA being lifted onto the dock. (ATSB)
The wreckage of helicopter VH-ZGA being lifted onto the dock. (ATSB)

A pilot who died in an accident off the West Australian coast in March had not completed a helicopter underwater escape training (HUET) course in more than nine years, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has found.
The accident took place on March 14 2018, when Eurocopter EC135 P2+ VH-ZGA crashed off the coast of Port Hedland in Western Australia, killing one of the two pilots on board. (Eurocopter was renamed Airbus Helicopters in 2014.)
The EC135, operated by Heli-Aust Whitsundays, was en route from the Port Hedland helipad to a bulk carrier ship to collect a marine pilot back to Port Hedland.
“What we have found so far is that the helicopter was on approach to collect a marine pilot from a vessel at night and collided with the water. The helicopter then rolled inverted before floating for a short time before sinking. The first pilot was able to escape the wreckage, however the second pilot was unable to free himself from the wreckage prior to the helicopter sinking,” Nat Nagy, the ATSB’s executive director, transport safety said.
“Our examination of the operator’s records indicate that the deceased pilot, who was new to the company, had not undertaken any helicopter underwater escape training for the past nine years. It is vital for all pilots who undertake over water operations to regularly conduct under escape training to greatly increase their chances of survival in an accident such as this.”
The ground track of the helicopter in vicinity of the departing bulk carrier. (ATSB)
The ground track of the helicopter in vicinity of the departing bulk carrier. (ATSB)

The ATSB preliminary report, published on Thursday, said the pilot under check who died in the incident last completed his HUET in February 2009, which was “outside the operator’s three-year recurrent training period”.
“The operator’s operations manual required all pilots engaged in overwater (offshore) operations to have completed a HUET course with an approved provider during the previous three-year period,” the ATSB report said.
While the operations manual indicated the the chief pilot could extend that period, it would normally not exceed six months, with the training to be rescheduled as soon as practicable.
“In light of our initial investigation, the ATSB has contacted all helicopter operators that are involved in overwater operations to deliver a safety advisory notice. The ATSB strongly recommends that aircrew and regular passengers on these sorts of operations receive training in under water escape to increase survivability in the event of a ditching such as this one,” Nagy said.
The pilot under check, who had only recently joined Heli-Aust Whitsundays, had completed his company induction in Mackay the week prior to the accident and travelled to Port Hedland on March 9, where records indicated he continued his training until March 18 and was due to commence line operations on March 20.
“On 6 March 2018, the operator’s chief pilot had booked a HUET course for the pilot under check,” the ATSB report said.
“The training was scheduled for 24 April 2018, a full-day course with a Brisbane-based training provider.”
The ATSB report said divers from the Western Australia Police Force found the missing pilot in the cockpit of the helicopter. He was not wearing his helmet, his harness was unfastened and his personal flotation device (PFD) had not been deployed.
“Video taken by the police divers during their initial dives on the wreckage indicated that the emergency jettison for the left copilot’s door had been activated, but with the door still remaining with the fuselage,” the ATSB report said.
“The front left cockpit Perspex windshield was broken.”
The training and check pilot managed to escape the helicopter after it crashed.

VIDEO – ATSB’s Nat Nagy discusses the importance of HUET training.

HUET “best practice”

The ATSB report noted a HUET course, designed to improve survivability after a helicopter had ditched or impacted into water, was considered “best practice in the overwater helicopter operating industry”.
“Research of accidents into water has shown that occupants who survive the initial impact will likely have to make an in-water or underwater escape, as helicopters usually rapidly roll inverted post-impact,” the ATSB said.
“The research has also shown that drowning is the primary cause of death following a helicopter accident into water.”
“HUET is considered to provide individuals with familiarity with the crash environment and confidence in their ability to cope with the emergency situation. Interviews with survivors from helicopter accidents requiring underwater escape frequently mention they considered that HUET had been very important in their survival. Training provided reflex conditioning, a behaviour pattern to follow, reduced confusion, and reduced panic.”

Investigation continuing

The helicopter was recovered substantially intact from the seabed on March 19. However the main rotor and main transmission had separated from the aircraft during the recovery process.
Further examination by the ATSB found several of the main rotor blades had sustained significant damage near their blade roots during water impact and one of the blades of the main rotor had struck the helicopter tail boom.
“The flexible coupling of the main gearbox drive output shaft had sheared. The tail rotor blades of the Fenestron antitorque system exhibited evidence of rotational damage,” the ATSB said.
Further, the ATSB said the right cockpit door, next to the pilot under check, was still attached to the airframe and the lock wire for the emergency door jettison was still intact.
“The emergency jettison for that door was functionally tested and was found to operate normally,” the ATSB said.
The ATSB said its ongoing investigation would focus on the following:

  • Factors associated with the survivability of the accident.
  • Various factors associated with the operation of the helicopter during dark night conditions under VFR.
  • Pilot qualifications, training, experience, recency and medical information.
  • Operator policies and procedures for training and checking, including normal and emergency
  • Helicopter underwater escape training requirements.
  • Analysis of contents of the non-volatile memory from the recovered electronic components.
  • Testing of components from the helicopter’s emergency flotation system.
  • Helicopter maintenance history.
  • Operator policies and procedures for management of fatigue and duty time.
  • The final report is expected in the first quarter of 2019.

“The Australian Transport Safety Bureau advises helicopter operators involved in overwater operations of the importance of undertaking regular HUET (helicopter underwater escape training) for all crew and regular passengers to increase their survivability in the event of an in-water accident or ditching,” the ATSB said.

The main rotor blades and main transmission, showing damage in vicinity of the blade roots. (ATSB)
The main rotor blades and main transmission, showing damage in vicinity of the blade roots. (ATSB)

Comment (1)

  • Mia


    Also looks like neither of the rear float bags inflated. Wouldn’t have helped in the escape

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