A tour helicopter, a Hughes 369, crashed near Bowie, Texas on Saturday morning. Three people on board were severely injured. Not much information is available at this point but, according to news reports, those injured may have been wounded veterans. The flight reportedly involved a hunting trip. Although we don’t yet know if Saturday’s helicopter crash was caused by a maintenance issue or a piloting issue, it is a reminder of the potential dangers of private helicopter tours.
I flew helicopters for the Navy, and I can testify firsthand that they can be a lot of fun. Helicopters can give you access to areas that no other aircraft can. That said, I have also seen firsthand that helicopters are very unforgiving machines with lots of moving parts. Because of this, helicopters require more maintenance than airplanes to keep them safe, and they require diligent, well-trained pilots to operate them. In this case, for some reason the flight descended into trees.
The recent helicopter crash in the East River of New York and one in the Grand Canyon unfortunately demonstrate that not all commercial helicopter charter operations are safe. What can passengers do to protect themselves? Before choosing to take a helicopter tour, find out all you can about the company. The best place to begin is with the company itself.
Always inquire about the pilots’ credentials, the maintenance requirements, whether the company maintains adequate insurance and if the company has ever had any FAA violations. Find out who your specific pilot will be and check him or her out. If another company does the maintenance, make sure and check that company out as well.
In addition, the FAA website has a database of all pilots, which will tell you what credentials the pilot has and what the pilot’s current medical status is. Unfortunately, however, the site does not tell the public about any past flight violations. If a company is reluctant to answer your questions, gives vague answers or does not carry insurance, find another company. Finally, make sure you plan your trip far enough out to give yourself time to properly check out the company.
There is no denying that helicopter tours can be fun. But, when things go wrong, the results are tragic. And, even with the above due diligence, there is still no guarantee that nothing will go wrong. In the meantime, hopefully the NTSB will soon get to the bottom of the cause of Saturday’s helicopter crash.