System Malfunctions (Part 1) - Helicopter Emergencies and Hazards

The reliability and dependability record of modern helicopters is very impressive. By following the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding operating limits and procedures and periodic maintenance and inspections, most systems and equipment failures can be eliminated. Most malfunctions or failures can be traced to some error on the part of the pilot; therefore, most emergencies can be averted before they happen. An actual emergency is a rare occurrence.

Antitorque System Failure

Antitorque failure usually falls into one of two categories. One is failure of the power drive portion of the tail rotor system resulting in a complete loss of antitorque. The other category covers mechanical control failures prohibiting the pilot from changing or controlling tail rotor thrust even though the tail rotor may still be providing antitorque thrust.

Tail rotor drive system failures include driveshaft failures, tail rotor gearbox failures, or a complete loss of the tail rotor itself. In any of these cases, the loss of antitorque normally results in an immediate spinning of the helicopter’s nose. The helicopter spins to the right in a counterclockwise rotor system and to the left in a clockwise system. This discussion is for a helicopter with a counterclockwise rotor system. The severity of the spin is proportionate to the amount of power being used and the airspeed. An antitorque failure with a high power setting at a low airspeed results in a severe spinning to the right. At low power settings and high airspeeds, the spin is less severe. High airspeeds tend to streamline the helicopter and keep it from spinning.

If a tail rotor failure occurs, power must be reduced in order to reduce main rotor torque. The techniques differ depending on whether the helicopter is in flight or in a hover, but ultimately require an autorotation. If a complete tail rotor failure occurs while hovering, enter a hovering autorotation by rolling off the throttle. If the failure occurs in forward flight, enter a normal autorotation by lowering the collective and rolling off the throttle. If the helicopter has enough forward airspeed (close to cruising speed) when the failure occurs, and depending on the helicopter design, the vertical stabilizer may provide enough directional control to allow the pilot to maneuver the helicopter to a more desirable landing sight. Applying slight cyclic control opposite the direction of yaw compensates for some of the yaw. This helps in directional control, but also increases drag. Care must be taken not to lose too much forward airspeed because the streamlining effect diminishes as airspeed is reduced. Also, more altitude is required to accelerate to the correct airspeed if an autorotation is entered at a low airspeed.

The throttle or power lever on some helicopters is not located on the collective and readily available. Faced with the loss of antitorque, the pilot of these models may need to achieve forward flight and let the vertical fin stop the yawing rotation. With speed and altitude the pilot will have the time to set up for an autorotative approach and set the power control to idle or off as the situation dictates. At low altitudes, the pilot may not be able to reduce the power setting and enter the autorotation before impact.

A mechanical control failure limits or prevents control of tail rotor thrust and is usually caused by a stuck or broken control rod or cable. While the tail rotor is still producing antitorque thrust, it cannot be controlled by the pilot. The amount of antitorque depends on the position at which the controls jam or fail. Once again, the techniques differ depending on the amount of tail rotor thrust, but an autorotation is generally not required.

The specific manufacturer’s procedures should always be followed. The following is a generalized description of procedures when more specific procedures are not provided.

Landing—Stuck Left Pedal

A stuck left pedal (high power setting), which might be experienced during takeoff or climb conditions, results in the left yaw of the helicopter nose when power is reduced. Rolling off the throttle and entering an autorotation only makes matters worse. The landing profile for a stuck left pedal is best described as a normal to steep approach angle to arrive approximately 2–3 feet landing gear height above the intended landing area as translational lift is lost. The steeper angle allows for a lower power setting during the approach and ensures that the nose remains to the left. Upon reaching the intended touchdown area and at the appropriate landing gear height, increase the collective smoothly to align the nose with the landing direction and cushion the landing. A small amount of forward cyclic is helpful to stop the nose from continuing to the right and directs the aircraft forward and down to the surface. In certain wind conditions, the nose of the helicopter may remain to the left with zero to near zero groundspeed above the intended touchdown point. If the helicopter is not turning, simply lower the helicopter to the surface. If the nose of the helicopter is turning to the right and continues beyond the landing heading, roll the throttle toward flight idle the amount necessary to stop the turn while landing. If the helicopter is beginning to turn left, the pilot should be able to make the landing prior to the turn rate becoming excessive. However, if the turn rate begins to increase prior to the landing, simply add power to make a go-around and return for another landing.

Landing—Stuck Neutral or Right Pedal

The landing profile for a stuck neutral or a stuck right pedal is a low-power approach terminating with a running or rollon landing. The approach profile can best be described as a shallow to normal approach angle to arrive approximately 2–3 feet landing gear height above the intended landing area with a minimum airspeed for directional control. The minimum airspeed is one that keeps the nose from continuing to yaw to the right.

Upon reaching the intended touchdown area and at the appropriate landing gear height, reduce the throttle as necessary to overcome the yaw effect if the nose of the helicopter remains to the right of the landing heading. The amount of throttle reduction will vary based on power applied and winds. The higher the power setting used to cushion the landing, the more the throttle reduction will be. A coordinated throttle reduction and increased collective will result in a very smooth touchdown with some forward ground speed. If the nose of the helicopter is to the left of the landing heading, a slight increase in collective or aft cyclic may be used to align the nose for touchdown. The decision to land or go around has to be made prior to any throttle reduction. Using airspeeds slightly above translational lift may be helpful to ensure that the nose does not continue yawing to the right. If a go-around is required, increasing the collective too much or too rapidly with airspeeds below translational lift may cause a rapid spinning to the right.

Once the helicopter has landed and is sliding/rolling to a stop, the heading can be controlled with a combination of collective, cyclic and throttle. To turn the nose to the right, raise the collective or apply aft cyclic. The throttle may be increased as well if it is not in the full open position. To turn the nose to the left, lower the collective or apply forward cyclic. The throttle may be decreased as well if it is not already at flight idle.

Loss of Tail Rotor Effectiveness (LTE)

Loss of tail rotor effectiveness (LTE) or an unanticipated yaw is defined as an uncommanded, rapid yaw towards the advancing blade which does not subside of its own accord. It can result in the loss of the aircraft if left unchecked. It is very important for pilots to understand that LTE is caused by an aerodynamic interaction between the main rotor and tail rotor and not caused from a mechanical failure. Some helicopter types are more likely to encounter LTE due to the normal certification thrust produced by having a tail rotor that, although meeting certification standards, is not always able to produce the additional thrust demanded by the pilot.

A helicopter is a collection of compromises. Compare the size of an airplane propeller to that of a tail rotor. Then, consider the horsepower required to run the propeller. For example, a Cessna 172P is equipped with a 160-horsepower (HP) engine. A Robinson R-44 with a comparably sized tail rotor is rated for a maximum of 245 HP. If you assume the tail rotor consumes 50 HP, only 195 HP remains to drive the main rotor. If the pilot were to apply enough collective to require 215 HP from the engine, and enough left pedal to require 50 HP for the tail rotor, the resulting engine overload would lead to one of two outcomes: slow down (reduction in rpm) or premature failure. In either outcome, antitorque would be insufficient and total lift might be less than needed to remain airborne.

Every helicopter design requires some type of antitorque system to counteract main rotor torque and prevent spinning once the helicopter lifts off the ground. A helicopter is heavy, and the powerplant places a high demand on fuel. Weight penalizes performance, but all helicopters must have an antitorque system, which adds weight. Therefore, the tail rotor is certified for normal flight conditions. Environmental forces can overwhelm any aircraft, rendering the inherently unstable helicopter especially vulnerable.

As with any aerodynamic condition, it is very important for pilots to not only understand the definition of terms but more importantly how and why they happen, how to avoid the situation and lastly, how to correct the condition once it is encountered. We must first understand the capabilities of the aircraft or even better what it is not capable of doing. For example, if you were flying a helicopter with a maximum gross weight of 5,200 lbs, would a pilot knowingly try to take on fuel, baggage and passengers causing the weight to be 5,500 lbs? A wise professional pilot should not ever exceed the certificated maximum gross weight or performance flight weight for any aircraft. The manuals are written for safety and reliability. The limitations and emergency procedures are stressed because lapses in procedures or exceeding limitations can result in aircraft damage or human fatalities. At the very least, exceeding limitations will increase the costs of maintenance and ownership of any aircraft and especially helicopters.

Overloaded parts will fail before their designed lifetime. There are no extra parts in helicopters. The respect and discipline pilots exercise for following flight manuals should also be applied to understanding aerodynamic conditions. If flight envelopes are exceeded, the end results can be catastrophic.

LTE is an aerodynamic condition and is the result of a control margin deficiency in the tail rotor. It can affect all single rotor helicopters that utilize a tail rotor of some design. The design of main and tail rotor blades and the tail boom assembly can affect the characteristics and susceptibility of LTE but will not nullify the phenomenon entirely. Translational lift is obtained by any amount of clean air through the main rotor system. Chapter 3 discusses translational lift with respect to the main rotor blade, explaining that the more clean air there is going through the rotor system, the more efficient it becomes. The same holds true for the tail rotor. As the tail rotor works in less turbulent air, it reaches a point of translational thrust. At this point, the tail rotor becomes aerodynamically efficient and the improved efficiency produces more antitorque thrust. The pilot can determine when the tail rotor has reached translational thrust. As more antitorque thrust is produced, the nose of the helicopter yaws to the left (opposite direction of the tail rotor thrust), forcing the pilot to correct with right pedal application (actually decreasing the left pedal). This, in turn, decreases the AOA in the tail rotor blades. Pilots should be aware of the characteristics of the helicopter they fly and be particularly aware of the amount of tail rotor pedal typically required for different flight conditions.

LTE is a condition that occurs when the flow of air through a tail rotor is altered in some way, either by altering the angle or speed at which the air passes through the rotating blades of the tail rotor system. An effective tail rotor relies on a stable and relatively undisturbed airflow in order to provide a steady and constant antitorque reaction as discussed in the previous paragraph. The pitch and angle of attack of the individual blades will determine the thrust output of the tail rotor. A change to any of these alters the amount of thrust generated. A pilot’s yaw pedal input affects a thrust reaction from the tail rotor. Altering the amount of thrust delivered for the same yaw input creates an imbalance. Taking this imbalance to the extreme will result in the loss of effective control in the yawing plane, and LTE will occur.

This alteration of tail rotor thrust can be affected by numerous external factors. The main factors contributing to LTE are:

1. Airflow and downdraft generated by the main rotor blades interfering with the airflow entering the tail rotor assembly.

2. Main blade vortices developed at the main blade tips entering the tail rotor.

3. Turbulence and other natural phenomena affecting the airflow surrounding the tail rotor.

4. A high power setting, hence large main rotor pitch angle, induces considerable main rotor blade downwash and hence more turbulence than when the helicopter is in a low power condition.

5. A slow forward airspeed, typically at speeds where translational lift and translational thrust are in the process of change and airflow around the tail rotor will vary in direction and speed.

6. The airflow relative to the helicopter;

a. Worst case—relative wind within ±15° of the 10 o’clock position, generating vortices that can blow directly into the tail rotor. This is dictated by the characteristics of the helicopters aerodynamics of tailboom position, tailrotor size and position relative to the main rotor and vertical stabilizer, size and shape. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Main rotor disk vortex interference

b. Weathercock stability—tailwinds from 120° to 240° [Figure 2], such as left crosswinds, causing high pilot workload.

Figure 2. Weathercock stability

c. Tail rotor vortex rings state (210° to 330°). [Figure 3] Winds within this region will result in the development of the vortex ring state of the tail rotor.

Figure 3. Tail rotor vortex ring state

7. Combinations (a, b, c) of these factors in a particular situation can easily require more anti-torque than the helicopter can generate and in a particular environment LTE can be the result.

Certain flight activities lend themselves to being more at high risk to LTE than others. For example, power line and pipeline patrol sectors, low speed aerial filming/photography as well as in the Police and Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (EMS) environments can find themselves in low and slow situations over geographical areas where the exact wind speed and direction are hard to determine.

Unfortunately, the aerodynamic conditions that a helicopter is susceptible to are not explainable in black and white terms. LTE is no exception. There are a number of contributing factors but what is more important to understanding LTE are taking the contributing factors and couple them with situations that should be avoided. Whenever possible, pilots should learn to avoid the following combinations:

1. Low and slow flight outside of ground effect.

2. Winds from ±15ยบ of the 10 o’clock position and probably on around to 5 o’clock position [Figure 1]

3. Tailwinds that may alter the onset of translational lift and translational thrust hence induce high power demands and demand more anti-torque (left pedal) than the tail rotor can produce.

4. Low speed downwind turns.

5. Large changes of power at low airspeeds.

6. Low speed flight in the proximity of physical obstructions that may alter a smooth airflow to both the main rotor and tail rotor.

Pilots who put themselves in situations where the combinations above occur should know that they are likely to encounter LTE. The key is to not put the helicopter in a compromising condition but if it does happen being educated enough to recognize the onset of LTE and be prepared to quickly react to it before the helicopter cannot be controlled.

Early detection of LTE followed by the immediate flight control application of corrective action; applying forward cyclic to regain airspeed, applying right pedal not left as necessary to maintain rotor RPM and reducing the collective thus reducing the high power demand on the tail rotor is the key to a safe recovery. Pilots should always set themselves up when conducting any maneuver to have enough height and space available to recover in the event they encounter an aerodynamic situation such as LTE.

Understanding the aerodynamic phenomenon of LTE is by far the most important factor, and the ability and option to either go around if making an approach or pull out of a maneuver safely and re-plan, is always the safe option. Having the ability to fly away from a situation and re-think the possible options should always be part of a pilot's planning process in all phases of flight. Unfortunately, there have been many pilots who have idled a good engine and fully functioning tail rotor system and autorotated a perfectly airworthy helicopter to the crash site because they misunderstood or misperceived both the limitations of the helicopter and the aerodynamic situation.