Helicopter hard landing #2

Helicopter shifts were 24 hours. They started at 7 AM and ended the next day at 7 AM. After years of doing them, the excitement of being up all night faded. I really liked to sleep all night.

Our Bell 430 helicopter was powered by two 600 Horsepower turbine engines. We flew this helicopter with a crew of a pilot, a nurse/paramedic, and an Emergency Physician.

The call to transport a patient from a small hospital in southeast Michigan to The Toledo Hospital came about midnight. We were based at Toledo Express Airport. The flight there was about twenty minutes. The patient assessment went smoothly, she was stable, and the patient was loaded onto the helicopter for transport. That is when the trouble started.

When the pilot attempted to start the helicopter, a chip light came on. A chip light is a warning light that signals one of the sensors in the helicopter detected an abnormality. Most of the time it is nothing, but the helicopter does not fly until the chip light is checked out by the mechanic. The patient was stable and thus we called another one of our helicopters to come transport the patient while we waited for the mechanic to drive up from Toledo. Since we expected to get back into service after the helicopter was checked, I was asked to stay with the 430. I climbed onto the patient gurney for a nap while we waited for the mechanic.

The mechanic opened the cowling that covered the engine, played around a little and reported that everything was fine. We were given clearance to go back into service and took off to fly back to Toledo Express. About half way back, out of the blue, BAMM. Obviously, something catastrophic had happened. After a moment, the pilot said we lost one of our engines, but our other was operating fine. The two engines have redundant systems that allow one to work even if the other goes out. The Bell 430 can fly with one engine. It doesn’t have enough power to take off or to hover.

Pilots train for situation like this in simulators. Physicians, not so much. The pilot called ahead to the airport and emergency preparations were instituted. Air traffic was cleared. We were directed to land in the grass between the runways. The pilot warned us that the landing would be quick and hard. He told us that as soon as we came to a stop that we should immediately unbuckle and run from the aircraft. He had no idea of the cause or the damage.

The response at the airport was impressive. The fire trucks were there. The guys in white full-body suits were there ready to spray fire suppressant foam. We hit the ground and slid a short distance in the grass. We were fortunate, no fire, no explosions.

We later found out that the mechanic had left his shop rag in the engine compartment when he closed to cowling. The turbine sucked it in, and the engine blew up. We were lucky that it happened in level flight instead of take-off. We were lucky that the one engine blowing up did not damage the other engine.

I didn’t get any sleep that night.