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Power failures continue to plague Dolphin choppers coast to coast

Despite the problems, including 18 in Savannah, pilots say they'll continue to fly on missions.

March 4, 2005

 

A Dolphin intercepts a Cessna auxiliary plane during a training session last summer. Dolphins account for more than half of all Coast Guard aircraft accidents. Auxiliary aircraft account for the highest number of fatal accidents, a Savannah Morning News analysis found.

A Dolphin intercepts a Cessna auxiliary plane during a training session last summer. Dolphins account for more than half of all Coast Guard aircraft accidents. Auxiliary aircraft account for the highest number of fatal accidents, a Savannah Morning News analysis found. Michael Fabey Savannah Morning News

Bill Pendergrass, an auxiliary plane pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard, acknowledges flying can be dangerous. Managing the risk, he says, is key.

Bill Pendergrass, an auxiliary plane pilot for the U.S. Coast Guard, acknowledges flying can be dangerous. Managing the risk, he says, is key. Michael Fabey Savannah Morning News

Pendergrass, left, and Bob Coman scan the skies above Savannah during a training flight with a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter.

Pendergrass, left, and Bob Coman scan the skies above Savannah during a training flight with a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter. Michael Fabey Savannah Morning News



Story & photos by Michael Fabey

From the frosty frontier of coastal Alaska to the scorched skies of southern Florida, Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter engines continue to lose power, threatening the lives of pilots and crew members.

There were 423 incidents of power failure in the helicopters in the fleet between Aug. 4, 1985, and Sept. 30, 2004 identified by a Savannah Morning News computer analysis of Coast Guard data.

Nearly every major Coast Guard air station that supports the Dolphins has suffered at least one such mishap.

There have been 18 engine "power failures" reported for helicopters out of Coast Guard Air Station Savannah, the newspaper's analysis found, ranking it in the middle of the pack for air stations reporting such mishaps.

"I'm not surprised by that," said Cmdr. Peter Troedsson, the commanding officer for Air Station Savannah. "A lot of these are minor."

While most of the roughly 11,000 reported total Coast Guard aviation accidents nationally were minor, 18 were fatal and 359 caused injuries, the analysis found.

Helicopter crews from Air Station Savannah reported 229 accidents, more than two-thirds of which were considered minor.

More than 90 percent involved the HH-65 helicopters.

Troedsson still has few qualms about the Dolphin.

"I have no problem flying the aircraft," he said. "I'm also fairly well trained and fairly competent in my risk-management routine."

Pilots often talk like that.

They admit flying is dangerous - inherently so.

So every aircraft, every flight, has a potential for a break down.

Troedsson puts it simply.

"Every helicopter has a dead man's curve."

It's what you do as a pilot at that moment, said the commander and other pilots, that makes the difference.

And sometimes, it's what you do before you take off.

For example, Coast Guard Dolphin crews have started to shed weight. A few extra pounds could mean the difference between staying aloft or plunging from the sky.

The crews have been cutting out extra equipment - search lights during day operations and even fuel.

Indeed, pilots have a new mind set when it comes to fuel reserves.

"We used to say add an extra 100 pounds for the mom and kids," Troedsson said

"Now we say knock off a 100 pounds for the mom and kids."


229

Number of reported accidents involving Savannah based Coast Guard aircraft from 1978-2004

224

Number of HH56 Dolphin helicopters out of 229 that had accidents

30

Number of aircraft out of 229 that experienced engine problems as the cause of the accident

117

Number of aircraft out of 229 that were on training exercises when accident occurred

59

Number of aircraft out of 229 that were on search and rescue missions when accident occurred

Fatal auxiliary

The Coast Guard's auxiliary fleet made up of privately owned planes have accounted for more than half of the 13 fatal accidents , the analysis of 11,000 records shows.

Date CGAS Unit Acft Misn Injury Fatals

7/30/1982 KODIAK HC130H LOG 9 2

8/7/1981 KODIAK HH3F SAR 0 4

7/8/1984 CHICAGO AUX SAR 0 2

N/A KODIAK HH3F SAR 0 6

9/18/1989 L.A. AUX TRNG 0 2

1/21/1989 CHICAGO AUX PAO 1 2

5/12/1990 BROOKLYN AUX TRNG 0 4

8/31/1993 BROOKLYN HH65A ATON 3 2

7/12/1994 HUMBOLDT BAY HH65A SAR 0 4

1/13/1992 MIAMI AUX M-OPS 1 1

6/8/1997 HUMBOLDT BAY HH65A SAR 0 4

6/2/1997 CLEARWATER AUX PAX 0 2

2/1/2001 MIAMI AUX TRNG 0 2


Auxiliary fleet faces greater risk

Planes account for more than half of fatal accidents.

By Michael Fabey

912-651-0381

mike.fabey@savannahnow.com

Four times or so each month, Bill Pendergrass and Bob Coman suit up to fly their Cessna 182 Sky Lane for one of the Coast Guard's most dangerous missions - a routine flight involving a privately owned plane.

They fly for what the Coast Guard calls its auxiliary fleet.

There have been more fatal accidents involving auxiliary fleet planes than any other aircraft associated with Coast Guard operations, according to a Savannah Morning News computer analysis of service data from Sept. 29, 1978, to Sept. 30, 2004.

The planes accounted for more than half of the 13 fatal accidents which resulted in 37 deaths, the analysis of 11,000 records shows.

The next closest aircraft tally belongs to the HH-65 Dolphin, the Coast Guard's workhorse helicopter, with three fatal incidents.

Seven auxiliary flights resulted in deaths.

There's no apparent pattern for the fatal accidents. Some occurred on foggy nights, others on clear days. Some happened during landings, others while the planes were searching and patrolling.

Pendergrass says the number of fatal auxiliary accidents and even the number of fatal aircraft accidents is rather low for a span of nearly two decades.

The Coast Guard, he added, has stringent qualifications and training for auxiliary pilots. In addition, the service will only allow the private-plane flights during favorable weather conditions.

Any flight other than one during good, daylight conditions, he said, requires two pilots.

Like other auxiliary pilots, Pendergrass and Coman help the Coast Guard perform such missions as searching for errant boaters or simply monitoring the coastline.

"You get to know your neighborhood," Pendergrass said. "You have to know what 'normal' is - and what's outside of normal. An oil slick. Boats in the marshes."

On one August day, the pilots' Sky Lane took off for a special mission from Hunter Army Airfield - to put a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter through its paces as an interceptor aircraft for homeland security.

After a careful check of all instruments, followed by some tower checks, the two civilian pilots started, taxied and flew their plane toward the clouds. Southeast Georgia lay below to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

"I can't tell you how many times I've flown up and down this coast," Pendergrass said.

The four-seat Cessna offers a snug fit, much like riding in an old Renault car. The engine whirs and the wind rushes by, the noise muffled only by the thin doors and cockpit windows.

Pendergrass and Coman seem to be at ease, headsets on, handling the controls, watching the gauges.

An average flight takes three hours, Pendergrass said.

The two paired off for a kind of simulated dogfight with the Dolphin, traveling at 95 knots, 1,000 feet above the ground.

An easy afternoon's work for pilots like Pendergrass, who used to solo pilot freight planes through just about any kind of weather, and Coman - a retired Gulfstream executive.

Looking back on his time in the air, Pendergrass said "I didn't have a jet, so I didn't have the power to fly above the weather. I flew through thunderstorms. I dealt with ice. It could make my back sweat."

Those dangers aside, he remains philosophical.

"Every pilot has been humbled," he said.

When reading about accidents many pilots say, "'I'd never do that,' he said. "But then a second later, you think, there but for the grace of God ...."

Anxious experiences and auxiliary Coast Guard deaths notwithstanding, Pendergrass has no qualms about flying missions for the service - or for any other reason.

"You get the rush of doing something inherently dangerous," Pendergrass said. "You ever get the urge to have chocolate?

"Pilots get an urge. A real need."

Dolphin mishaps

HH-65 Dolphin helicopters account for about half of aircraft accidents involving Coast Guard planes, and 429 of the Dolphin mishaps are due to power loss in one of the helicopter's two engines, a Savannah Morning News analysis of service aircraft mishap data found.

The power losses have risen dramatically over the past three years. Service pilots liken it to playing Russian roulette every time they fly a Dolphin. Every other day, according to the latest reports at the end of last year, pilots reported such a loss.

The Coast Guard has curtailed its missions and kept the chopper in the hangar longer for maintenance to make them safer. The service has a plan to put new engines in the helicopters, but the deal has been held up by negotiations and other delays, according to a recent report by the Inspector General's Office of the Homeland Security Department.

Savannah has a handful of the helicopters. None have the new engines.