As National Transportation Safety Board investigators continue to examine last year's crash of the Alaska State Troopers' helicopter Helo-1, a new piece of onboard technology is providing significant insight into the flight's final moments.
The Appareo Vision 1000 cockpit imaging and flight data monitoring device was installed in the Eurocopter AS350 B3 by the State of Alaska several years ago. The Vision 1000, which weighs only 9 ounces, is far less obtrusive than the more standard flight data recording equipment found in larger aircraft, making it an attractive choice for helicopters. It is now installed as a standard component in all AS350 helicopters produced in the U.S.
According to recently released NTSB documents, in Helo-1 the Vision 1000 was mounted on the aircraft's overhead panel providing a view "out the front of the windscreen down to about the bottom of the front instrument panel in the vertical direction and in the horizontal direction it shows the full width of the instrument panel...to the pilot's Garmin 296 GPS mounted on the far right window bracket." The crash of Helo-1 is the first accident that will see the NTSB utilizing data from this type of device to help determine probable cause.
The NTSB has long pursued installation of crash-resistant monitoring systems like Vision 1000 in a variety of aircraft to "give more information to investigators to solve complex accidents." In the wake of a multiple-fatality crash of a New Mexico State Police helicopter in 2009, the agency reiterated its recommendation to rotorcraft as well. In response to these recommendations, Alaska State Troopers pursued installation of the Vision 1000 in Helo-1.
After a highly publicized plane crash in 2002 that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others, the agency held two days of intensive hearings on cockpit imaging devices. In a subsequent press release, the Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union, did not support use of the devices, insisting they were a breach of cockpit privacy and further that "...benefits of video imaging are vastly overrated, and because far more effective and efficient tools exist that will not only obtain the safety data necessary to accurately investigate an accident, but also help to prevent future accidents."
This sentiment is countered, however, by the experience of investigator Clint Johnson, chief of the NTSB's Alaska Region. In a recent telephone call, Johnson explained why the agency supports the use of devices like the Vision 1000 so much.
"There are a number of accidents where we flat do not know what happened," Johnson said. "Image recording devices take a lot of the guess work out of it [the investigation] and would be very helpful in learning what happened."
Over the years there have been several aircraft accidents in Alaska where the probable cause of the crash could not be determined. One recent example occurred in 2010 when an Alaska Central Express Beech 1900C crashed into the water shortly after takeoff from Sand Point, killing the two crew members aboard. Although there was speculation in the aviation community that there might have been a sudden load shift resulting in an aircraft stall, investigators could not assess cause beyond an "in-flight loss of control for an undetermined reason..."
According to the accident report, after the Sand Point accident, the board of directors with Alaska Central Express "opted to install cockpit image recording systems in all company owned and operated aircraft."
However, that equipment was not present in the company's Beech 1900C that crashed last March while on approach to Dillingham resulting in the death of its two-member flight crew. Neither was any other flight data recording device. That accident is still under investigation.