Just found out that two people died. The pilot, Mike Huttenlocker and one of the police inspectors. The helicopter was an R-44 doing a medevac, but it was a private helicopter and NOT the police helicopter.
Night VFR is not permitted in the eastern caribbean including the all the French territories, British Overseas Dependant territories, and the OECS islands. As for the police helicopters in Dutch St.Maarten I am not sure.
I flew the St. Maarten police helicopter for 2 years, and we were allowed to fly night VFR, indeed most of our flying was at night. I can not count the times I had to say no to a night flight to different islands, and it was usually an "emergency" of some sort.
Reading their website it seems he intended to do 2 flights that night, one to bring over a patient, and the other to bring over the family. Choosing to fly a medevac for a heart attack victim is one thing, but to also fly his family on a second flight....
And the crash site, 12-14nm from Saba is the halfway point between the islands, so should be the darkest spot...Saba is not a big island, with very flew lights on the side facing St. Maarten.
It can be very tempting. Perhaps it was a clear night, lots of stars. The moon would not rise until after midnight down there. Hey, it's just another night flight, right? We'll be able to see. Perhaps Mike hadn't done many long cross-countries over water, and underestimated the challenge. Even if everything had gone perfectly, he had his hands full.
For a while I flew a helicopter based on a small island off the coast of Honduras. We had no hospital, just a very basic clinic. One night six kids were involved in a deadly head-on boat collision (three died). Local authorities wanted me to fly two injured girls down to the mainland. It was "only" a 70-mile flight, and the night was clear. I said no. They pleaded. I said I was sorry. It wasn't even a hard decision. A tough decision, but not a hard one.
But this what helicopters do, right? Save lives? React in an emergency on a moment's notice? I can imagine the pressure Mike was under...wanting to help, optimistically thinking he could...
Maybe in an airplane...something with inherent stability, with a panel full of gyro gauges. Yeah, then...maybe.
As an American expat and retired CRM instructor now living on the tiny (5 sq mi) Caribbean island that Mike and the SXM police inspector were going to on a mercy flight to save one of our residents, please allow me to add, I hope, some perspective.
Folks, there is this big world outside the US that does the best it can. Mike and 'Paco' got a call that one of Saba's residents had suffered a heart attack that our local 12 bed hospital could not handle and were asked to medevac him to SXM. Here, you don't say no or this person will surely die. Forget IFR and all the luxeries we have in North America. They come or Ronnie Johnson dies, period.
Yes, it was a clear night with lots of stars and no 'weather' to speak of. They had made dozens of similar flight before this. Only God knows what happened. But Mike, a pilot with thousands of hours of fixed wing and heli flight time set out for our tiny island to save a life. He died while doing so.
Please, may he and his co-pilot rest in peace and prayers and good thoughts to their families and loved ones. In the mean time, my own heart and those of many here are broken.
Last edited by WestIndian; 24th Oct 2008 at 04:29.
WestIndian. I sincerely share your feelings about the crew and I understand the pressures they were exposed to.
What happened cannot be changed but if we do not critizice from the operational point of view such flights, they are bound to be repeaded.
I do not know the economic sittuation of your island and the medical facilities but once thing I am sure is that it should not be up to private citizens to overcome the local goverment lack of investment on a proper Emergency system. If you do not have the same Emergency programs than in Norway you cannot expect to have the same service, that is HEMS medical evacuation by night.
This is the same like operating a guy with an axe because you do not have a surgery room avalaible. Sometimes you simply cannot do what your heart ask you to do. Anyway I read something on the links above that disturbed me a bit. I may understand the "emergency" sittuation but what was that about making a second flight to bring the family along?
Sounded to me that the idea of making such flight at night over the sea with the Robin was considered more a "normal operation" rather than the "extreme emergency" sittuation we are talking about. You mention that such flight were a normal occurence and this is the wrong thing. Another thing that puzzles me is the fact that such medical critical evacuations were routinely done in a R-44. How do you carry the patient there? seated?. Do they carry a doctor along? It is sad some people had died to bring facts to the table. Such flights should NEVER be performed with such aircraft and operational conditions.
You do not need a multimillion brand new S-92 for this. Tell the local goverment to get a second hand A-109 earlier model IFR with autopilot to do such flight. You can find them on the market for a good price.
As I said I share with you my sincere condolences for the crew and my recognicement that they died while trying to help others. Nothing more noble and gallant can be expected from a pilot.
However as professional pilot I feel compelled to speak up against this type of operations and its consolidation as a "normal practice". Lets all helps this does not happen again and another Mike had to place his life on the line of duty just because the local goverments does not want to have a budget to have an appropiate MEDEVAC system and rely in some private citizen to do its job.
Thank you for asking. Ronnie Johnson, when the helicopter didn't show, was taken across the island to our sole harbor and transported by boat to SXM, a two hour ride. Fortunately, he was then flown to Puerto Rico and I'm told he is in stable condition.
Furia, you ask some excellent questions and I appreciate them. I'll come back later and try to address them.
I spoke with Mike on numerous occasions when he started to set up Leeward Island Helicopters. I found him a very approachable and kind person, and he definitely had the best of intentions. He gave me the same story about having 1000s of hours in both fixed wing and helicopters, and ATP in fixed wing. However looking at the FAA website, he is only listed as having a Helicopter PPL.
This indicates that all the flying he did for Leeward Island Helicopters was illegal. And as Night VFR is illegal in the Caribbean, and him flying like this was a regular occurrence...why was he never stopped? Surely Juliana tower couldn't have been completely without knowledge?
It doesn't matter how nice of a guy he was, or how good his intentions were...or "the pressure he was under"...he did something illegal, made a poor judgment..and paid the ultimate price. I flew the police helicopter out of St. Maarten for over 2 years, also a 44, and I know the pressure he was under. I was asked plenty of times to do night over water flights. Numerous medevacs with the "we have to go...he/she is going to die" clause attached. Also asked to go search for a man that fell off a boat. As hard as those decisions were, I said no. And I am sure that 1000s of other pilots make those same decisions every day.
As for the critically ill patient. After the helicopter didn't show up, he was put on a boat to St. Maarten. On arrival there he was flown by a different helicopter to Puerto Rico for treatment. That in itself raises some questions.
Thanks West Indian - I'm Saban living in the US and appreciate your comments. This is truly a shocking situation and my condolences go out to both families. I worry all the time about the 'what ifs' with my family on Saba, and 'what if' my Dad or Mom had an emergency in the middle of the night. The last time someone in my family had an emergency, they were 'fortunate' that it a) happened during the operating hours of the airport and b) the wx was well enough for the plane to land, and transport them to SXM. When my family have been referring to 'the helicopter' I was envisioning one similar to that which had been operating in the 90s (which I also believe went on to crash in the French West Indies), but it was a much larger heli (i.e. patient could remain on stretcher). Now I'm doubly concerned and just wonder if the best thing is to just go by boat (wx permitting) if heaven forbid anything were to happen. As for setting up better emergency planning... I won't begin to comment on the state of government, but clearly something is warranted, and anything would be an improvement on the current situation. Since the Antilles are undergoing constitutional change for Saba, Statia, & Bonaire to have closer ties to the Netherlands, I think this will help upgrade the standards of health care, among other things, and hopefully one of those additions is a safer mode of transport to the other islands for medical care. I don't think that the average Saba or St Maartenner realized that the R-44 was not a heli for night operations... and furthermore that it may have flying illegally in certain situations. I have to wonder where the regulatory agency (CAA) was and why nothing was done if it was indeed an illegal operation, since I believe it was operating for quite some time? I have another question - since the operator was an American, and I think the aircraft was as well, does the NTSB get involved?
A true modern day aviation pioneer, as he was the first helicopter pilot to obtain a commercial license to operate helicopter flights in St. Maarten under "Papa Juliet" registration. His helicopter was marked with the call-sign "PJ-LIH".
I guess that explains the license issue... not the night flying though.
I have a Netherlands Antilles Commercial Helicopter license (number 54 if I remember correctly) and they are only issued as a validation of your foreign license. To my knowledge there is no program in place to issue non-validation NA helicopter licenses at all.
I suspect that the license mentioned is the commercial license to operate a helicopter company in St. Maarten...which according to his own company's website "they were wrapping up" when this happened. So under what license did he fly the previous 3 years then?
Also, according to this website AIR ST. MAARTEN - Leeward Islands Helicopters he had "recently celebrated the signing of the last pertinent document allowing his company, Leeward Islands Helicopters, to execute helicopter tours from his helipad located at Port de Plaisance and from the cruise terminal in Philipsburg." again, something he has been doing for the last three years (starting with an N-reg machine), with the possible exception of the cruise terminal.
From reading the st. maarten island times online I got the impression that he had just returned from St. Kitts and was at the airport when he got the call to go to Saba...so did he return from St. Kitts at night then?
Is there no control at Juliana anymore? Should be interesting to read the report on this one.
My sincere condolences to the family and friends of the two missing occupants of the missing aircraft.
But some things need to be said about the operations of this accident helicopter that have occurred in the past.
When the helicopter was N registered it had been operating from St.Kitts. The operations were terminated by the OECS aviation authorities when it was shown that the pilot only held a PPL and not a commercial license. As well, some legitimate operators in the region were upset at some of the operations that had occurred in St.Kitts and surrounding islands, some of which were not in compliance with local regulations. Night VFR operations was just one of the examples.
It is sad that continuing these same type of operations in another jurisdiction possibly led to the occurrance of this accident.
How was this allowed to happen? Right now one can only speculate.
As the investigation into this accident was beginning, there was an arrest of a government official in St.Maarten concerning forgery of "Documents and Licenses". Could these two events be connected?
Other questions can be asked. Why was the police helicopter not utilised for this mercy flight? Why was this helicopter allowed to operate with no pop-out floats over water? And we know it was regularly operated over water by the story on the website describing a tour flight which descended to 300 feet over the water. Highly unlikely that a safe auto-rotative landing could be accomplished in the event of an engine failure.
Hopefully there will not be a knee-jerk reaction from the authorities(aviation or others), due to this accident, that affects the operations of future legally compliant helicopter operators in the Netherland Antilles.
I can only praise the pilot willingness to help others but such missions are for pros and using appropiate helicopters.
Does the local goverment there has no such Emergency program? Why let a private citizen to carry such suicide mission?
Both rest in peace.
Furia and All,
These are important questions and they deserve answers. As the guy who wrote most of the CRM and some of the safety standards for CAMTS, I had no idea aviation standards are so lax here. But living here now and interacting with our own island government, I'm not at all surprised. To say that most things here in the West Indies are unregulated is an eye-rolling understatement. Yet to be honest, when it doesn't involve safety and health, it's actually pretty refreshing.
Yes, there are Emergency plans when it comes to hurricanes, because after 400 years of hurricanes, governments here have HAD to produce them, and the hurricane emergency plan on my island, although relatively new, is excellent. But I'm not optimistic -although I will personally pursue it with our island governor and island secretary this week- that anyone in either the SXM or SAB governments will sense any urgency to address airevac safety issues even after this tragedy. As a point of reference, on Saba we still burn all refuse in the dump (garbage, plastic bottles, old washing machines, abandoned automobiles, etc) into the open air while the island elementary and high schools are downwind less than a quarter mile away! Lots of talk about correcting this shameful health issue - little if any action. So this is what we are dealing with.