A Sikorsky S-76 that was operated by Island Express Helicopters (the operators took down their website shortly after the crash) crashed this morning in Calabasas, California killing 9 people.

While there will be an FAA investigation, the abundance of evidence suggests that this was a CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) accident. A CFIT accident is most commonly results when an aircraft loses visual with the ground and horizon by entering a cloud. If the pilot does this near terrain, he will have little time to react as he nears a mountain. This type of accident can best be avoided by never operating in such marginal conditions.

Audio and Radar of the Accident Helicopter

The audio and flight path data provide evidence that this was a CFIT accident and conditions in which a commercial helicopter operator should not have been flying.

  • The helicopter held outside of VNY airspace for 15 minutes due to poor weather conditions. We hear examples of aircraft having to attempt multiple landings (go-around) due to the conditions.
  • The neighboring airports were reporting instrument conditions and helicopter requested a Special VFR transition through the VNY airspace. A Special VFR transition must be requested by the pilot and is indicative of very low weather conditions.
  • It is unlikely that the weather conditions changed to VFR as the pilot reported while leaving VNY airspace.
  • The So. Cal controller stated that the helicopter was too low for flight following shortly before the crash.
  • Finally, the last few seconds show the helicopter dramatically trying to gain altitude as it nears the crash site which indicates the pilot saw the terrain too late to recover.

This pilot did not have the benefit of a co-pilot (as required by European Regulators for the operation of this helicopter) to spread the workload. He had VIP passengers who needed to get to their afternoon game. Canceling or diverting for weather would have been a hard decision.

Too often helicopter pilots are pressured to complete their flights in dangerous and low-level conditions. Airline Operations manuals have weather minimums defined in black and white to help prevent such pressure (which is why you’ll see some airlines operating and others canceling flights from the same poor weather airport). However, it is unlikely that in the under-regulated world (Part 91 Commercial Ops) that this helicopter operated such corporate guidelines existed. Indeed, 11 years ago, the Catalina operator was involved in another accident that killed 3 people due to faulty maintenance.

The result is a crash that should never have happened. We join the world in expressing our sadness for this tragedy and for the families of the nine victims.