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Failure to review weather reports factor in crash: TSB

FEDERAL (Canadian OH&S News)


FEDERAL (Canadian OH&S News)

Failure to adequately review weather conditions for an intended flight route and incomplete navigation charts contributed to the death of two helicopter pilots who crashed into a radio telecommunications tower in 2010, concludes a report from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB).

On July 23, 2010, a helicopter operated by Essential Helicopters departed North Bay, Ontario for a flight to Kapuskasing, Ontario, says the report, released on January 31. During the flight, poor weather conditions were encountered and the helicopter collided with the 24-metre high steel tower near Elk Lake, striking the ground and fatally injuring the pilot and his passenger, another pilot from Essential Helicopters.

The TSB report notes that while the pilot requested current and forecasted routine weather reports for North Bay, Timmins and Kapuskasing, he did not seek weather information from other airports located near the flight route, such as those for the communities of Sudbury and Earlton.

“Had the pilot received all of the available weather information, it might have affected his decision to depart,” the report says, noting there was light rain and an overcast ceiling forecast for Earlton, near the crash location, around the time of the crash. “Due to the deteriorating weather conditions, the pilot flew the helicopter at a low altitude. Reduced visibility likely obscured the tower and reduced the available reaction time the pilot had to avoid the tower.”

The TSB also reports that GPS data did not indicate any sudden manoeuvring. “The velocity and course appeared constant, implying the pilot did not see the tower with enough time to react prior to impact, likely because the tower was obscured by the weather, or blended into the overcast conditions.”

The grey-coloured tower was located on top of a hill, but “did not meet the height requirements to be lighted or marked, or meet the [91-metre] mark to be deemed a significant hazard.” (The Canadian Aviation Regulations recommend that any obstruction greater than 300 feet or one that is assessed as a likely hazard to aviation safety be marked and/or lighted).

Another point of note is that the tower in question – owned by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and leased to a logging company – has never been depicted on the visual navigation charts (VNC) used, going back as far as 1985.

Furthermore, the database from NAV CANADA, the country’s civil air navigation services provider, has no data to suggest that the forest fire detection tower or any other obstacle existed at that location.

Charts do not include smaller obstacles

The TSB report says that NAV CANADA maintains that the 1:500,000 scale of the VNC does not allow for the inclusion of smaller obstacles, such as these fire towers, as the number of obstacles would obscure the readability of the chart over large areas.

The safety board says that the pilot had deviated from the intended flight path and reduced the helicopter’s speed, likely due to higher terrain and weather conditions. He was likely navigating using VNCs or GPS, the TSB concludes.

But because the tower was not depicted on the VNC or GPS, the pilot was not likely aware that it existed. In addition, the GPS database was not updated, meaning there was a risk that even known obstructions would not have been displayed.