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What Caused the Papillon Airways Grand Canyon Helicopter Crash?

Posted by bvalaw on February 16, 2018

An EC-130 helicopter operated by Papillon Airways, a tour company, crashed and exploded in flames in the Grand Canyon on Saturday. Three people were killed and another four were critically injured.

The passengers boarded the helicopter in Boulder City, Nevada, near Las Vegas, to fly to the western end of the Grand Canyon. It is unclear at this point what caused the crash. The helicopter involved had made several trips out to the canyon earlier that day. The company seems to have flown the same oblong route on each flight. The helo would take off from the airport and then fly northeast for a bit, turn east to the canyon, and then head south and then back to the west for the return trip to the Papillon Airways home base.

One oddity that occurred on the trip immediately before the fatal flight was that the helicopter abruptly turned around on the eastern (outbound) leg of the trip and returned home without touring the canyon. Right now, there is no indication of why this occurred. It could have been as simple as an airsick passenger, or it could have been the result of some other issue.

What we seem to know at this point is that on the final flight, the helicopter departed the airport and headed east out to the canyon, and then its last known position in flight was a southeasterly heading, possibly as it was completing its turn back to the west and toward home.

We do not yet know what caused the crash, but all aviation accidents are the result of some anomaly in man, machine or environment – or some combination of the three.

Not much has been reported about the Papillon Airways pilot in this case. According to FAA records, he held a Commercial pilot’s license in helicopters since 2008 and listed Long Beach, California as his residence. We do not know his experience level, or if he was prior military or civilian-trained. We don’t know if he flew earlier that day or the day before, and if so, for how long. We don’t know if he had a reputation for being a hot-dog or a strict rule follower. But, the answers to these questions will help find or at least evaluate the possible causes of the crash.

One Arizona news source stated that the helicopter received a new engine in 2011. Engine failures in helicopters are extraordinarily serious and dangerous events. Every helicopter pilot practices autorotations to prepare for a possible engine failure emergency, but the truth is that without an engine, a helicopter is about as aerodynamically robust as a refrigerator. And autorotations in actual emergency situations are no picnic, especially when the landing site is a rugged canyon floor.

Some have speculated that high winds may have played a role. That could certainly be true. High wind speed makes helicopters more difficult to maneuver or, if the helicopter was flying fast, as it appears to have been doing just prior to the crash, the winds can overstress critical controls like the main or tail rotor blade systems. The EC 130 has a fenestron instead of a traditional tail rotor, but that system is also vulnerable to overstressing forces.

Additional information is needed before the actual cause of the crash can be determined. We will know more soon, as the NTSB removes and evaluates the wreckage of the downed helicopter.  Papillon Airways is also assisting with the investigation.