On 4 October 2011 a Bell 206B Jet Ranger carrying an American pilot, 3 Britons and 1 New Zealander crashed into East River, New York, USA killing 1 Briton who lived in Australia and had been visiting New York to celebrate her 40th birthday.  The pilot escaped uninjured but the 3 other passengers, 2 of whom live in Portugal and 1 who lived in Australia were taken to hospital with serious injuries. Tragically, the second passenger who lived in Australia died in hospital a few days after the crash. 

Irwin Mitchell Aviation Law is investigating the causes of this tragic accident including possible technical problems with the helicopter. 

According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), released on 12 October 2011, the pilot reported initiating takeoff to the northeast and climbing to an estimated altitude of 30 – 50 feet. He then experienced a problem which included a small left yaw (turn) so he began to turn right, attempting to return to the helipad. 

The pilot then reported that the helicopter had become uncontrollable, and it hit the water.  The helicopter was manufactured in 1976 and its most recent annual inspection was performed on 2 October 2011, 2 days before the accident.

Unfortunately this preliminary NTSB report does not give much detail, so it is vital that the authorities investigate the engine and all flight critical systems to confirm or rule out a mechanical problem. As the helicopter did not have a flight data recorder, analysis of the wreckage and further interviews with the pilot are critical. 

From what the pilot is saying, it is possible that a mechanical problem caused him to lose control of the aircraft.  If a mechanical problem did contribute to this crash then it is vital that it is identified by the NTSB so that the same problem doesn’t re-occur on other Bell Jet Ranger helicopters.

Another issue to consider is whether a high takeoff weight combined with unfavourable wind conditions may have played a part in the incident. A number of crashes on the East River in previous years – including two in 2005 – have cited these as contributing factors.

If the helicopter was close to maximum take-off weight with a tail wind component, the take-off process would have been more difficult, requiring more planning and skill from the pilot.  The preliminary report states that the wind was light and variable which indicates that the wind should not have caused a problem.  However, the east river can be susceptible to gusts and eddies so the possibility of a stronger gust during takeoff needs to be considered by the NTSB.

When a helicopter needs to gain height after take-off, it uses engine power, ground effect and transitional lift.  When the take-off weight is high, the engine is at the limit of its ability to climb using power alone, so the pilot is heavily reliant on ground effect and transitional lift. 

Ground effect improves the lift of the rotor blades when the helicopter is flying a few feet over a hard flat surface.  Transitional lift is an increase in lift resulting from a headwind flowing over the rotor blades or air flowing over the rotor blades due to forward speed. 

If the Bell Jet ranger did take off with a tail wind component, it would not have had the transitional lift benefit of a headwind, and as it moved from the hard surface of the landing pad over water it may have lost the benefit of ground effect suddenly. 

With a low forward speed, the engine may not have had enough power to climb when at maximum power.  Additionally, in this situation the tail rotor is less effective, meaning that a gust of wind could cause the aircraft to rotate. 

If this situation occurred on the day in question, the pilot could simply have run out of options as the helicopter spun and descended into the water.

If you would like to speak in confidence to an expert regarding this accident, or any other aviation incident you were involved in, please contact a member of the aviation team on 0800 056 4110. The team will be able to advise you on the accident, the relevant law and the parties who may be liable.

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