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Fly Safe… a weird week in Aviation.

This past week I have been on holiday in Dubai with a friend who lives out here, and have been weirdly reminded of just how close to home the dangers of my hobby are.   Although I’m obviously aware of accidents, and indeed know people who were friends with those who have perished in accidents – I am as guilty as the next guy of thinking “it’ll never happen to me.”

Well.. 3 unrelated things have happened this week to remind me just how close it can be…


R22 - My Trainer

So, I pick up a copy of one of the flying magazines at the airport, for something to read on the flight – in the section where they list new registrations I notice G-JERS is listed as “Cancelled – Destroyed.”

I spent quite a lot of time in G-JERS.  It was the 4th aircraft I ever flew, and the first aircraft I flew solo.  A quick look at my log book and it seems I spent around 16 hours in it.

It doesn’t exist anymore… it was rolled during a training sortee at Cumbernauld Airport.  The AAIB report for it is here; and thankfully both student and instructor got out ok.  But that could have been me.  I hope that it doesn’t put the student off.  But it is a shame to see something so instrumental in my flying come to such a sad end.


Which make it even spookier then that when I got the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this week they had a helicopter simulator made from the cabin and end of a tail of an R22.  I didn’t have a go in it, it looked pretty basic and designed to appease the crowds.

It did occur to me though to have a look at the indestructable metal plate which is attached to the passenger seat on R22’s to see where this hull had originally come from.

Once again, close to home strikes:  it was a local machine, which was sold originally by Sloane Helicopters.  The people I trained with.  It has now ended up in the desert after a less than glamorous end, also involving training.  AAIB report.


The really big thing… I got home from the Formula 1 qualifying on Saturday to see a tweet about two Britons being killed in a helicopter crash in Mallorca.  My heart quite literally sank.

I did some of my training in Mallorca, and have been back to fly there since.  The company I learnt with, Sloane Helicopters, have a base in Mallorca (which is very handy given the awful winter weather in the UK); so my fears were it was my friends, or a machine I knew, or both.

I was very relieved to find out a little while later it was not a Sloane’s machine.  There aren’t many helicopters on the island; but it turned out this one was a private machine which was hangared with Sloane Helicopters, and other than being friendly with owner the involvement stopped there.  It was an MD500.

There is more on the crash on the BBC, The Telegraph and The Guardian; but it really reminded me how close to home these things can be.  I hope the gentlemen concerned rest in peace…

… and for those of us still earth bound, but longing to be skyward bound:  fly safely friends.  Please.

30 Seconds to Impact

A book review & warning to chat room commentators.

30 seconds To Impact
Click to Buy @ Amazon

While I was stuck at Oslo (Rygge) airport earlier this week (another story to come in another post!), I managed to use the 7 hour delay productively by finally getting around to reading 30 Seconds To Impact, by Peter Burkill.    For those who don’t know, Peter Burkill was the Captain of the ill-fated British Airways Flight 038 from Beijing to London Heathrow in Jan 2008 which crash landed short of the runway following a double engine failure at 500′; with no loss of life and only 1 serious injury.

The book doesn’t really go in to any great detail about the cause of the crash, or the actions of the pilots (it was actually the Senior First Officer who was Pilot Flying at the time of the crash), but it doesn’t need to – the Air Accidents Investigation Branch does a good job of that, showing that it was a build up of ice in the fuel system that caused the crash.  Instead it concentrates on the human aspects of the crash, its aftermath, and the way it was dealt with by British Airways and the British media.

Maria too.

The book is written as a recollection of events after the crash by both Capt. Burkill and his wife, Maria.  They often alternate passages in the book, and in doing so they provide a brilliant insight into both sides of the story.  It is an absolutely enthralling tale, and I’ll try not to retell the book here – buy a copy, and support The Burkills.

BA038 after crash landing.

I think its probably fair to say that the Burkill’s felt let down by British Airways because of the way they handled the media circus which ensued after the accident; Peter was banned from speaking to the media, and no-one from within BA or his union were about to publicly support him.  In the absence of proper solid information the media (especially the tabloid press) reverted to type and went dredging!

Couple this with gossip and tittle tattle, and you have a proud man almost broken; and because of being off work, almost broke too.  I won’t say more; but it really captures you.  I read nearly the whole book in one sitting!


I think the reason the book was literally “un-put-down-able” was that it detailed the side of an accident that I, and other pilots, never think about – the people.  When an accident occurs we’re all keen to find the root cause as quickly, but as accurately, as possible so that if possible a re-occurrence can be prevented.  To that end the various investigative & safety agencies (AAIB, NTSB, CAA, EASA, etc) do an excellent job of producing technical reports… but none of them ever say what happened afterwards!   Normally, they don’t even mention the pilot’s name – in this case Capt. Burkill is just described as Male, aged 43, 12,700hrs experience.

Peter Burkill
Peter Burkill

This book tells that tale – the personal details.  The thing which has struck me most was that Captain Burkill cited a couple of times that he didn’t get support from his colleagues, and that comments in some forums really really affected him.  This disappoints me because as pilots we should look out for each other – especially in moments of need.  But the message I have taken away is this if you are an aviator and want to comment on an accident, please don’t do so in a public forum without facts. It has untold effects you won’t realise!

Any landing you can walk away from, is a successful landing.

Did I mention Wires?

Only two days ago I wrote a blog post about how we learn to land in confined and off airport areas in the UK.  I made a point of mentioning wires:

Remember your two enemies though:  WIRES & VORTEX RING.  Avoid these at all costs, and you’ll maintain the perfect ratio of successful landings to take-offs.

Well, in an uncanny piece of timing the the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has just published its August Bulletin which contains a report into the crash of a Hughes 369E,  G-VICE in May this year.  Guess what happened:  the pilot hit wires he didn’t see.

G-VICE Wreckage
G-VICE Wreckage

Thankfully, and as a tribute to the sturdiness of the Hughes 369E, the pilot was unhurt despite falling to the ground from 50 feet.  The aircraft was destroyed.

Although I don’t know the pilot, I had seen the aircraft a number of times as it was maintained at Sywell, and you just can’t miss a Hughes, they are lovely looking aircraft.

In my post I mentioned the importance of flying a reccee circuit of the site – the importance of this is borne out by the statement from the pilot in the AAIB Report:

The pilot stated that, although he had not attempted a previous landing in this area of the site, he did not fly a reconnaissance circuit and had not approached over the trees before; he was thus unaware of the presence of the cables and failed to see them during the approach. He commented that a contributory factor was that the supporting poles were hidden in the trees either side of the gap.

G-VICE Former Glory
G-VICE Former Glory (c) S. Palmer

When I did the Robinson Factory Safety Course in November 2008 wirestrikes were identified as the leading cause of accidents to helicopters.  At the time I thought this must be a by-product of the higher amount of low level flying that goes on the in the United States – most of my flying is over 1,500′ and you don’t get too many wires up there.  This just goes to prove you need be on your guard for wires every flight! 

So, please please please folks – fly the reccee (even if, and maybe even especially if the site is one you use refularly) and be on your guard for wires.

Birmingham Radar Visit

I have been meaning to blog about this for a couple of weeks now but just haven’t had the chance.  At the end of May I was fortunate enough to take part in an organised visit to my local Air Traffic Control unit at Birmingham International Airport.  These days are promoted by The Airspace & Safety Initiative, but obviously the brunt of the day is courtesy of NATS and The Ministry of Defence.

Airspace & Safety Initiative

The aim of the day is to promote mutual understanding and improve the knowledge of each others work load, expectations and pressures.  The end goal of course is to improve safety, and as such NATS had a high emphasis on reducing infringements of controlled airspace.

Controlled Airspace.

Controlled airspace is always a contentious issue with private pilots in the UK, and if I am honest I really don’t understand why.  While vast swathes of the airspace above the UK remains uncontrolled (generally class G), the CAA has designated certain parts (and at different levels) of it to be controlled and delegated responsibility for that airspace to local airports.  This is generally done around larger regional and major airports to allow them to operate their commercial air transport flights in a ‘known traffic’ controlled environment.

The contention comes about (allegedly) because you can’t enter controlled airspace without permission from the controlling authority, and a lot private pilots seem to have the belief that Air Traffic Controllers don’t want light aircraft in their airspace because we’re slow and too much trouble.  I have to say I have never found this to be the case, if you play the game and call up on the radio early, sound like you know what you are doing, state your intentions and ask nicely you nearly always get a clearance.

I regularly fly through the control zone of London Luton airport and have only once been offered a clearance which wasn’t very helpful, and never been refused.  It helps though if you have an understanding of the airspace you are trying to cross, little things like crossing at 90 degrees to the active runway make a controllers life easier and show you have an appreciation.

Birmingham’s Airspace

EGBB Controlled Airspace
EGBB Controlled Airspace

And that is where the most interesting nugget of information came out for me from this visit.  I didn’t realise that generally Birmingham vector nearly all of their inbound commercial traffic to the western side of their airspace, irrespective of which runway they are using and where the traffic is coming from.  They have found this to be the most efficient use of airspace – but it is also a popular piece of airspace for GA traffic; not least from my “semi” home field of Wellesbourne Mountford which sits below the south western corner of Birminghams CTA.   This is their most infringed peace of airspace, and because of the way it is used it is also the most dangerous part to infringe.  Next time I am routing north out of EGBW I shall certainly be changing to Birmingham Radar as soon as possible, or at the very least “wearing” their listening out squawk (0010) – and I encourage any other pilots in the area to do so, and here’s why.

Big Bad Controller

Part of the fear of controlled airspace for the average private pilot is that of having to use the radio and speak to “big bad controllers.”  I have no idea where this reputation comes from, although some can be a bit moody at times (we all have bad days though!)… the reality is though, and this was reinforced by my visit, they are all actually normal chaps who have a job to do and want to do it as efficiently as possible while trying to keep everyone happy.  Certainly the approach controller I sat with for about an hour couldn’t stop talking about his job, flying and aviation in general – just like most of the pilots I know.  But, if you’re not talking to them they can’t help you. They don’t bite, really.  If they sound busy then just listen in and squawk their listening out squawk, then at least they can find you if you get near their airspace.  Unless you go seriously, deliberately wrong they won’t “file” on you – they’ll help you out and get you where you’re going as safely as possible.

The Tower.

Elmdon Terminal at BHX
Elmdon Terminal & Tower

Anyway, enough about airspace – a little about EGBB ATC.  The tower is located atop the old Elmdon Terminal on the opposite side of the airport to the passenger terminals.  The actual tower is where ground, landing and takeoff clearances are given and inbound aircraft are handed over to here from approach with about 8 miles to run.  They control the lighting around the airport and update a lot of the slot management systems (CFMU) and the passenger information systems.  This is all done visually, although they do have a copy of the radar feed and a ground radar.  The view is excellent apart from the very end of the runway which is covered by CCTV.

Downstairs in a darker room is where “Birmingham Radar” sit.  A traditional bank of Radar monitors manned by varying numbers of people dependent on traffic levels, inbound aircraft are handed over to here from London for the ATC’er to sequence and control in the most efficient profile for landing.  Outbound aircraft are briefly handed over for verification of their radar return before being passed on to London Control.


One of the biggest targets (outside flight safety, which outranks everything, obviously) for the ATC’er on Radar is trying to arrange inbound flights to allow for a CDA, or Continuous Descent Approach.  A CDA is a form of approach to an airport which is designed to save on fuel (and thus be environmentally friendly) and be less noisy, by allowing an aircraft to descend at a constant angle continuously until meeting the ILS.  At EGBB they try and do this with between 10 and 8 miles to run; and achieve it a lot of the time.

I spent a lot of time with a radar ATC’er and listened in to him control various commercial aircraft inbound, a RAF C17 on a Medevac flight inbound, the same C17 back outbound to RAF Brize Norton, provide clearance to a couple of GA aircraft (bad weather day), and assist an Air Ambulance into Selly Oak.  They have a very busy screen and the amount of co-ordination they do (which we don’t hear on the radio) is quite high too… so spare a thought for them next time!

In summary, it was a great day and I learnt a lot about how they work; I whole heartedly recommend it to any GA pilot in the Midlands – they are a friendly bunch!  (Oh, and the tea was good too and I gained a free mug and lanyard out of it!).