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Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport, San Juan, PR (TIJG)
Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport, San Juan, PR (TIJG)
Information verified through data from accident investigation authorities
Narrative: On January 10, 2015, at 10:32 AST (Atlantic Standard Time), a Robinson R-22 Beta, N348VH, operated by Vertical Solutions Helicopter Company, LLC, was destroyed when it impacted waters of San Juan Bay, off shore Cataño, Puerto Rico. The student pilot was fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed for the local flight that originated at Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport (TJIG), Isla Grande, San Juan, Puerto Rico. The solo instructional flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.
According to the student pilot's flight instructor, the student pilot arrived at the hangar about 08:00 AST and began his pre-flight inspection of the helicopter. Upon completion of the inspection, they spoke for about 20 minutes about the weather conditions at the airport, whether he had all of his documents on him, how long he would fly and what he would be practising on the flight. They then wheeled the helicopter outside and the student pilot made final preparations for the flight.
About 08:45 AST, the student pilot started the helicopter and about 10 minutes later shut it down and walked to the hanger. He explained that the tower controller had said that his request to make right closed traffic patterns could not be accommodated at that time and to try again later. About 09:20 AST, the flight instructor phoned the tower to see if the flight could go and got an affirmative response, so he sent the student pilot back out to continue the flight.
The helicopter departed the ramp about 09:30 AST and remained in the traffic pattern for approximately 1 hour. As the flight instructor was sitting in the hangar, he noticed that it was taking longer than normal since he had heard the helicopter go by. He stepped outside and visually located the helicopter in a left holding pattern south of the airport, which was standard procedure when the tower needed sequencing for other aircraft, then he went back inside. A few minutes later, the flight instructor still had not heard the helicopter, so he went outside again, but was unable to locate the helicopter. He then noticed a ports authority vehicle driving towards the police hangar, and about 1 minute later, he observed one of the police helicopters starting. At that moment, the flight instructor suspected a problem. He then called the control tower controller, who told him that he had seen the helicopter spinning and that it impacted the water by Cataño Point.
According to a pilot of a low-wing airplane that was approaching the airport, about 3 to 4 miles on a straight-in approach to runway 9, with the helicopter number two to land. The tower controller asked the pilot if he had the helicopter in sight, after which, the pilot saw an aircraft about ½ mile ahead, about the 2:30 position (off the right side) of his airplane. The pilot originally thought he saw a radio-controlled (RC) helicopter, because it was emitting white smoke from the back, as did the RC helicopters he was used to flying. He then saw it make a series of right 360-degree turns "around the rotor head," with the fuselage vertical, and realised it was a helicopter. While turning to the right, the helicopter climbed 100 to 200 feet, reaching an estimated 800 feet. As it did, the ends of both rotor blades coned upwards to where the blades tips were vertical, with the major bending occurring about ¼ blade span from the ends of the blades.
The witness then saw the helicopter's nose drop; it then entered a descent, and spiralled downward to the right three or four times until it impacted the water. It hit the water heading east, nose and right side down. Upon impact, the tail boom separated from the airframe toward the west.
The witness also recalled that the white smoke he originally saw during the climb emanated from the back of the helicopter to a distance of about 1 ½ tailboom-lengths aft of the boom, and that it dissipated once the helicopter began its descent.
According to a police detective, a witness on the ground in Cataño also saw white smoke emanating from the back of the helicopter. However, instead of the helicopter turning, he saw it swinging from side to side like a pendulum as it descended.
A witness who was interviewed by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspector reported that he heard the engine shut down twice, and after the second time it shut down, the helicopter descended into the water.
Radar data was received from the FAA; however, it was insufficient to construct an accurate plot of the helicopter's positions and altitudes prior to the accident. Radio transmissions, as noted in the FAA air traffic control Aircraft Accident Package, included:
At 09:48 AST, the pilot advised ready for takeoff. The local (tower) controller issued the wind and a takeoff clearance, which the pilot acknowledged.
At 09:51 AST, the pilot reported south of the tower and the controller issued the wind and a clearance for the option. The helicopter subsequently completed a series of eight approaches via right downwind to runway 9 through 1023.
At 10:24 AST, the pilot reported south of the tower. The controller issued the wind, an option clearance, and instructions to be number three following a Cessna Caravan on final approach. The pilot advised that he was looking for traffic.
At 10:25 AST, the pilot requested a left three-sixty [turn] on the right downwind. The controller instructed the pilot to hold south at his current location and expect to be number four in sequence, which the pilot acknowledged.
At 10:31 AST, the controller made three attempts to have the pilot report traffic to follow on final approach in sight. The pilot advised it was hard to hear due to wind. The controller then instructed the pilot to follow a Cessna on short final, and issued the wind and a clearance for the option. The pilot reported traffic to follow in sight.
At 10:32 AST, the controller advised another pilot to expect to follow a helicopter on a right base. That pilot reported the helicopter in sight and later that he saw the helicopter go down in the Cataño area. There were no further transmissions from the helicopter.
Probable Cause: The student pilot’s failure to maintain rotor rpm while maneuvering in the airport traffic pattern, which resulted in the helicopter’s uncontrolled descent to the water. Contributing to the accident was the student’s distraction with other aircraft operating in the traffic pattern.