The pilot of this accident contacted us in December of 2010 and wrote:
From the air it looked flat, I never saw the wash because once the aircraft descended it created a dust bowl and I saw nothing at all. Not too bad of a landing considering I was missing a flight control and we walked away.
We agree --- A VERY GOOD LANDING!
Keep up the great piloting, Paul Alukonis!
More from Paul Alukonis:
The flight that resulted in the crash was the aircraft's first flight with forward motion. The morning was spent conducting track and balance ground runs. We went to lunch, and then hovered the helicopter twice in two separate runs, again this was track and balance of the rotor system.
After lunch, we took the helicopter on the first forward flight with no issues. We left SDL north bound along Scottsdale road. By the time we reached the power plant, the mechanic that was with me had collected the track and balance data. The second check we needed to perform was an engine condition check. I climbed to 3000 feet MSL (1500 AGL) and documented the Engine parameters. With the test complete, it was time to return to the airport.
I turned the helicopter 180 degrees southbound along Scottsdale road and began a normal decent to 2000 feet MSL (500 AGL), this was the required altitude for entry into SDL's airspace. During the decent the collective control became inoperative.
Determined to solve the problem, a calm, focused and methodical discussion took place to eliminate any factors that may have caused the problem. We were looking for ends of seatbelts, pens, clipboards, or any other item that may have been stuck in the collective control.
As the helicopter descended and time becoming limited, it was decided to look for a place to land. While the mechanic was jerking up and pushing down on the control in an attempt to unjam it, I was concerned with landing. The first choice was the road next to the power plant on Scottsdale Rd. This road was coated with power lines. The second choice was an open area in the desert; I turned the helicopter west bound to the open area. I looked down to watch the mechanic push and pull on the control to see the floor flex, but not the control. At this time it was discovered that the collective was latched, but the latch was inoperable and disengaging it would be impossible. When I looked up we were about 100 feet above the ground, and I told the mechanic to stop working on the collective and brace for impact.
Prior to the partial flare, the airspeed was 80 kts, and a decent rate of 2000 ft/min. or more. The initial touchdown was smooth and gentle. The helicopter was left in a flared position to further reduce the forward speed. Once the touchdown occurred, the dust picked up and we could not see anything outside the aircraft, including the wash that we hit. At this point I have no Idea what the helicopter did or didn't do; we were just along for the ride.
We both exited the aircraft with serious injuries, broken vertebra, and watched it burn.
The cause of the accident was the installation of an after market panel that allows for additional radios and replaces standard fuses with circuit breakers. This panel altered the relationship of the collective to the locking latch. It also reduces the clearance between the collective and the panel itself.
In Van Nuys November 2004, a related accident occurred piloted by a Eurocopter Instructor. The collective latch engaged during a practice autorotation. The aircraft was destroyed with no injuries. The same panel was installed in the aircraft.
Eurocopter redesigned the collective latch to include a larger hole and coil springs at the base. This is so that it positively rests against the panel and remains clear of the collective flight control during flight.
Years later, I still see installations of the panel where a normal clearance of 1/2 inch between the panel and the collective was reduced to less than 1/4 to 1/32 of an inch. In once instance, the collective was rubbing up against the panel to where the pilot removed the latch in order to fly it home.