ZK-III CFIT

In January of 2003, a BK-117 rescue helicopter was dispatched at night from Wellington to Masterton to collect a patient.

Quite clearly, this pilot made some mistakes, but when that resulted in a very close call, she never stopped flying the aircraft.

More detail of the story

The pilot had over 6000 hours of flying experience, but much of that had been in South Africa and the USA, with little experience in New Zealand.

She was new to the company and unfamiliar with the micro-climates around the Wellington region.

The minima for such a night flight required a ceiling of 2000 feet above ground level. A base of 3500 feet would not provide that clearance over the Rimutaka ranges.

She had attempted to add a margin to the day VFR minima for the route, by adding 1000 feet, but it was to prove not enough. She said in later interviews that her new policy when flying at night was to never go below the IFR minima for the route.

As is inherent in these types of flight, there was a lot of pressure to get to the hospital quickly because someone’s life was in danger.

The organisation did not provide clear enough guidance for night flights, particularly by not setting minimum heights for night flights on regular routes.

While it is clear that the helicopter was placed in that position due to the mistakes that were made,  and that a large amount of luck became the difference between a survivable and non-survivable outcome, we would like you to focus on what happened after the impact and how the pilot continued to fly that helicopter until it could be safely landed nearly two hours later.

With a heavily damaged helicopter (in fact, she could not know how damaged it was), she recovered from an impact with trees, an unusual attitude in cloud, and damage to herself to get the helicopter back to level climbing flight and took it on to Masterton.