Helicopters crash for a variety of reasons, but if we were to classify the reasons into just three categories, they would be human error, mechanical problems, and environmental factors.
Human error can be caused by the person operating the helicopter – i.e. pilot error – or through negligence by some other party, such as air traffic control.
Mechanical problems may involve areas including testing, manufacturing, quality control, installation, maintenance, and operational monitoring.
Environmental factors are simply those that include the natural world like bad weather.
Often there is an interplay between the three, whereby when one occurs it can be made worse by the other. An example is inclement weather that increases the likelihood of making a mistake and crashing.
Let’s take a look at the most common reasons why helicopters crash.
10 Most Common Reasons Helicopters Crash
- Loss of Main Rotor Control
If there is any damage to the main rotor blade or a pilot loses their ability to control a helicopter’s rotation or pitch, this can result in a loss of control.
- Loss of Tail Rotor Function
The tail rotor is designed to prevent a helicopter from spinning in the opposite direction of the main rotor blade. When a pilot loses control of the tail rotor, this can result in a loss of control.
- Main Rotor Damage
Due to the unique ability of a helicopter being able to hover and fly at much lower altitudes than fixed-wing aircraft, it can find itself near surroundings that can act as obstacles.
If one of these obstacles hits the main rotor, it can damage it and cause a loss of control for the pilot. Obstacles may include trees, radio and cell phone towers, wire strikes, and even mountains or buildings.
- Component or System Failure
When a helicopter experiences component or system failure, especially without any prior warning, the results can be catastrophic, particularly if the engine or rotor blade is involved. Any part that is replaced, installed, or fitted on the helicopter has the potential to fail.
- Pilot Error
Many helicopters crash due to some form of pilot error.
This can be caused by a multitude of reasons, including loss of control, improper training, distraction, fatigue, flying while intoxicated, unintended ground impact, loss of situational awareness, choosing to fly in hazardous or low visibility weather conditions, and more.
- Poor Maintenance
Helicopters are very complex machines that require highly specialized repair and maintenance. It’s not uncommon, in an attempt to cut costs, for owners to outsource maintenance to mechanics who do not have the extensive required knowledge and experience to properly maintain and repair a helicopter.
Recommended or scheduled intervals for inspections and maintenance should be adhered to, and parts should be replaced when necessary, even when high costs are involved.
- Midair Collisions
It’s possible for helicopters, like any other mode of transportation, to collide. This almost always results in catastrophic consequences.
- Fuel Starvation or Exhaustion
Fuel starvation occurs when fuel is not reaching the engine, while fuel exhaustion means the helicopter is running out of its usable fuel supply. In either case, whether it be due to improper planning, a stuck fuel gauge needle, or a technical failure, running out of fuel can quickly spell disaster if a helicopter is unable to make an emergency landing.
- Weather & Environmental Factors
Flying in the snow, rain, sleet, fog, or any other scenario where visibility is impaired is a common reason as to why helicopters crash. Other environmental factors like striking a flock of birds – which is much more likely to happen with a helicopter than an airplane due to flying at lower altitudes – or experiencing wake turbulence can cause a helicopter to crash.
- Air Traffic Control Negligence
ATC operators must always be alert and provide necessary and reliable information to pilots. If outdated or incorrect information is conveyed to a pilot, it can be of great consequence. An example might be directing two aircraft along the flight path that would result in a direct collision.
Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.
Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.
Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.