One of the topics discussed in all police training courses is “command presence.” This is all about being able to communicate your wishes to another with both courtesy and authority in a manner to guarantee the desired compliance. Perhaps command presence training could serve business pilots as well. Sometimes to perform your duty to operate a flight safely, you must exercise command presence — telling the boss “No” or, perhaps, insisting on an alternative course of action.

I suspect most helicopter pilots are familiar with the accident investigation we will explore this month. But there are lessons here for fixed-wing pilots as well. The investigation took almost three years to complete, but the conclusions were surprising, to say the least.

About 1500 on Feb. 14, 2010, numerous people in and around Cave Creek, Ariz. — a Scottsdale exurb — heard a series of noises they later described as “bangs” or “pops.” All looked up and saw parts fly from a Eurocopter EC135 T1 twin-turbine helicopter and then watched as the machine nosed down, fell 2,000 ft. and crashed into open terrain. The wreckage ended up just north of a river wash on a residential gravel access road about 14 nm north of Scottsdale Airport at an elevation of 2,356 ft. MSL.

First responders arrived minutes later. Within moments of their arrival, however, fire erupted and intensified, consuming the wreckage. Ultimately emergency workers recovered the bodies of four adults, one child and two dogs from the wreckage. All were dead at the scene. The accident was not survivable.

The helicopter was registered to a Scottsdale company and was operated under FAR Part 91 as a personal cross-country machine. VMC prevailed at the time of the accident and no flight plan had been filed. The flight departed the Whispering Pines Ranch in Parks, Ariz., at about 1430 destined for Scottsdale Airport (SDL).

Employees of the owner told investigators that the helicopter made frequent trips between SDL and the Whispering Pines Ranch. It had arrived at the ranch on Feb. 12. On the morning of the accident, the pilot, the owner and three other passengers, along with the dogs, arrived at the helicopter hangar. The ranch foreman placed the passengers' personal items on the ground outside of the baggage compartment at the rear and the pilot placed the items in the aircraft as was his custom.

The foreman observed the pilot complete a preflight inspection, enter the cockpit and sit in the right front seat and start the engines. The foreman assisted an adult female into the rear cabin area where she occupied the left rear aft-facing seat. A male passenger boarded the helicopter and sat in the right rear forward-facing seat. The foreman then loaded a small dog in the left rear forward-facing seat directly across from the woman and a larger dog that was positioned on the floor between the left rear aft-facing and forward-facing seats. The foreman closed the right passenger door and ensured that it was locked.

Next, the foreman moved to the right front pilot's position. He saw the helicopter owner, a fixed-wing pilot, and his five-year-old, 42-lb. daughter walk around in front of the aircraft and board from the left forward cockpit door where they both occupied the left front cockpit seat, with the small girl positioned on her father's lap. The foreman told investigators that the owner “occasionally” allowed his daughter to ride in his lap in the right seat. For this flight he said he was unsure if either the owner or the child were secured, but on previous flights, the man had strapped his daughter on top of himself.

After everyone was on board, the foreman closed the right passenger door and ensured that it was locked and secured. He then went forward to the right front cockpit window area, looked at the pilot who had his shoulder harness and seatbelt on, and motioned to him that the right passenger door was secured and the helicopter was ready for departure. The foreman watched the helicopter lift off, ascend to about 100 to 150 ft., make a 180-deg. turn to the north and begin forward flight heading northwest.

Phoenix terminal radar approach control first picked up the helicopter about 11 mi. south of the Whispering Pines Ranch at 1443:30. The aircraft was flying south toward SDL at a Mode C reported altitude of 7,500 ft. MSL and remained at that altitude until 1451:16, when it initiated a gradual descent that lasted until 1457:41. The helicopter was then at 6,000 ft. MSL. From this point, the helicopter initially climbed and then began a gradual descent with slight altitude, heading and airspeed fluctuations until 1503:27, when it reached 4,400 ft. MSL.

Radar data then depicted the helicopter make a rapid (5 sec.) climb from 4,400 ft. to 4,700 ft. followed by a rapid descent to 3,800 ft. MSL within the next 5 sec. The last radar return was recorded at 1503:37.

At the same time, several ground witnesses looked skyward when they heard a series of “pops” or “bangs.” They saw parts flying from the helicopter and watched as it spiraled into the ground.