Risk Factors

With any flight of long duration, pilots face a number of potential challenges. According to some people in the industry, mechanical failure is probably the least of the pilots concerns at this point. Frank Jensen, president of Helicopter Association International, cites fluctuations in weather as a possible hazard. "The obvious thing that comes up on the radar screen is weather. Flying from West to East, they're looking for favorable winds. If the winds turnaround and become a head wind, it could be a problem. If one of the refueling stops should become obscured by fog or bad weather that could be a problem."

Ian Parker, editor of Helicopter World, agreed that weather is always going to be a factor when flying a helicopter. Regardless if the crew has some of the best weather detection equipment onboard, Parker said, "One of the key skills of a good pilot is knowing when to postpone a flight." As for dependiblity of the helicopter, Ian Parker doesn't foresee a problem, stating, "Reliability is very high with this helicopter."

Ron Bower, a well-known helicopter dare-devil, confessed to his own difficulties with weather during his helicopter flight around the world. In reference to the L'Esprit d'Intertechniqe pilots, Bower stated, "Ihave a feeling they are going to run into some difficulties. I did in thearctic areas. When I say difficulties, I mean low ceilings, low visibillity ... I couldn't predict the weather in my situation. I just had to take what I could get."

While weather remains a concern, another factor may come into play during a lengthy flight. While the pilots may or may not end up fighting against the elements, they will undoubtably be forced to fight against the limits of human endurance.

As noted by retired Navy captain Stephen Millikin, fatigue can wear heavily on crews during extended flights. Of his own experience, Captain Millikin noted, "even on a 9-hour flight, after it was over, I fell asleep for 18 hours straight. There is a lot of vibration, a lot of wear

and tear when you fly a helicopter. A normal mission usually lasts about 4 and a half hours." The pilots aboard the transatlantic flight can expect to be in the air at least 27 hours.

With 25 years of experience as an Army pilot, Scott Barnes is well aware of the human fatigue factor in long flights. He recalls, "As time starts droning on, the first 8-10 hours are okay, but the next 12-14 hours are tough." Barnes estimates, "They'll [the pilots] will have to find things to keep awake and keep their minds busy. Their knees and back will start aching after awhile. They'll be going over monotonous terrain, seeing the same thing over and over again."

Frank Jensen also discussed the potential for illness, saying "There could be a malady that could strike both of the flight crew. That's why on commercial aircraft flights the pilot and copilot eat different meals -- to avoid both being affected by say, food poisoning." Jensen further noted, "In today's world, it's really interesting, the majority of aircraft accidents have been caused by human failure, not mechanical failure. Generally the three factors are weather, human failure, or mechanical."

As for the refueling system, how concerned should the crew be with its capability?

Jensen said, "The US Army did a lot of hot-refueling in Vietnam and other areas. They'd drop fuel bladders on the ground, bring in tankers and refuel these. Helicopters would sit down and hot refuel. I don't see any danger in this. There is 50 ft. of refueling hose dropping out of the bottom of the helicopter, so there's no real danger with hose entanglement. And no other factors other than bad weather/visibility or the seas being rough."

In Parker's opinion, the reason a commercial non-stop transatlantic flight has never been attempted before has to do with the refueling system. "I'd imagine it's because of the refueling. With helicopters, you don't have the range, capability or equipment to fly that long. Normal endurance for this type of helicopter is four hours."

Jensen added, "The big point I would make, having been involved with helicopters since 1955 when I went through helicopter school is this - helicopter people are pretty ingenious. If you give them a capability they'll find a way to use it. If you build it they'll come. This refueling technology is a perfect example. It's advancing the state of the art, giving us a new capability, and I think the industry will find a very practical way to use it."


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