Helicopter pilot (72) distracted by mobile phone during landing incident

No injuries after helicopter rolled over during landing on Co Kerry beach

A 72-year-old helicopter pilot was momentarily distracted when his mobile phone rang during a landing in which the aircraft rolled over causing "significant" damage, an Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) report has found.

The pilot was the only person in the helicopter at the time, and was carrying out a practice exercise on Carrahane Strand beach, Co Kerry, in July this year.

During the landing the pilot’s mobile phone rang, and “he glanced at the telephone which was mounted on a bracket beside the instrument panel in order to identify the caller”, the report said.

At the same time a gust of wind hit the right hand side of the helicopter, causing it to roll onto its left hand side into the sand, “causing significant damage” to the aircraft, the report said. The pilot exited the helicopter from the right hand side door, and was not injured in the incident.

In an interview with air accident investigators the pilot said the gust of wind had hit the helicopter during the “momentary distraction” when he glanced at his phone. The safety investigation was launched following a report over the incident to the AAIU from the pilot. The “accident sequence was over in an instant,” the pilot told investigators.

“The pilot informed the investigation that his mobile telephone contained software for navigation and flight planning, but that he would never use it for communications during flight,” the report said.

“The landing surface was soft, wet, sand. The skids of the helicopter had touched down lightly prior to it rolling over on to its left-hand side,” it said.

The pilot had 749 hours flying experience, and the helicopter was manufactured in 1990.

Wet sand

The incident occurred on the wet sand of the beach, and the helicopters rotor blades had be cut off to facilitate its recovery. The pilot organised the recovery of the aircraft before notifying the AAIU of the incident, as there was a fear the incoming tide “could have led to the total loss of the helicopter”, the report said.

Two air accident inspectors visiting the site of the incident, and interviewed the pilot for the report, which was published on Friday.

The helicopter’s tail rotor and mast, rotor gearbox, and vertical and horizontal stabilisers were damaged in the incident, and the report said it was likely the engine also suffered damage.

The pilot had a private pilot licence to fly a helicopter, issued by the United States Federal Aviation Administration in 2004. The pilot had logged 27 hours flying in the three months prior to the incident.

The AAIU report said the left landing skid of the helicopter was in the wet sand when the gust of wind pushed from the right, and the left skid “would have acted as a pivot point, and a dynamic rollover likely occurred”.

“Landing a helicopter is a critical phase of flight when circumstances can change rapidly. For this reason, any distraction during landing can contribute to an upset unless a prompt intervention is initiated,” the report said.

The investigators said it was common now for pilots to carry mobile phones, tablets, or GPS devices with them in the cockpit.

“All of which may provide useful functions, but are also a potential source of distraction,” the report warned. The report did not make any set safety recommendations.

Air accident investigation reports are often automatically carried out following safety incidents involving aircraft.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times