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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 4:26 am | Fair 49º


NTSB Blames Pilot Error for Santa Barbara County Helicopter Incident

A federal investigation into an incident involving a Santa Barbara County helicopter that struck another aircraft upon landing at Van Nuys Airport has pinned the blame on the pilot for causing the mishap, while also calling a ground crew member's actions a contributing factor.

The Jan. 12 incident involved Copter 308, part of the county's Air Support Unit, and a parked helicopter sitting near a fixed-base operator. The collision caused “substantial damage,” the National Transportation Safety Board said. 

The incident occurred as pilot Matt Udkow landed the aircraft at Van Nuys Airport on the ramp near Rotorcraft Support Inc., the firm that serves as the county's vendor for maintenance and repairs.

Just days earlier, Udkow and his crew spent several hours in the helicopter rescuing several people trapped due to the Jan. 9 debris flows in Montecito.

After conducting several rescues, Udkow was forced to make an emergency landing at Birnam Wood Golf Course due an electrical burning smell later blamed on water intrusion.

"The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from a stationary helicopter during landing,” investigators said in their findings.

“Contributing to the accident was the ground crew's failure to ensure that the helicopter would clear the stationary helicopter,” the NTSB report added. 

The pilot reported that while hovering the helicopter prior to parking between three stationery helicopters, a ground crew member, whose name wasn’t released, gave the signal for a 180 degree “pedal turn,” the NTSB analysis said.

As the helicopter was about to touch down, the pilot felt a shudder in the airframe, prompting him to immediately roll the throttle closed and complete an emergency shutdown, the report said.

“Post accident examination revealed that the tail rotor blades struck the main blades of a stationary helicopter, which likely caused the shudder felt by the pilot,” the report noted. 

“The helicopter sustained substantial damage to the tail rotor and main rotor systems,” the report said.

“The pilot reported that there were no pre-accident mechanical failures or malfunctions with the helicopter that would have precluded normal operation.”

No one aboard the aircraft or on the ground was injured in the incident.

In March, county Fire Chief Eric Peterson submitted invoices showing the repairs to Copter 308 could exceed $100,000, and said his agency would cover the costs.

But the invoice submitted to the county did not include some costly items since the Fire Department provided key components from a stash of spare parts. 

This includes $28,682 in savings related to customer-supplied parts for removal and replacement of the tail rotor blades and related components.

On Thursday, Capt. Dave Zaniboni said repair costs totaled $62,000 for the tail rotor and another $30,000 for fixes to damage caused by water intrusion while rescuing people in the heavy rains Jan. 9.

Since the damage from the water intrusion occurred during natural disaster response, the Fire Department hopes to get reimbursed for those repairs from federal funding.

The cost of the regular maintenance work, conducted in conjunction with other repairs since the aircraft was in the shop, was not provided. 

The aircraft continues to undergo repairs in Van Nuys but should be back in service July 1, Zaniboni said Thursday.

Also not known is cost of repairs needed for the parked helicopter that was damaged in the incident.

Copter 308 is one of five helicopters in the Air Support Unit, created after county officials merged aviation assets in the Fire Department and Sheriff's Department.

In April Udkow was among County Fire Department members recognized with medals of valor for their actions during the Thomas Fire and the debris flows.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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