Extensive training is required for helicopter pilots

Rainbow Air: "Don't be afraid"

Mike Baggerman
January 27, 2020 - 11:00 pm
Rainbow Air helicopters (Rainbow Air Photo/Pat Proctor)

Rainbow Air helicopters (Rainbow Air Photo/Pat Proctor)

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) - Experts in the world of helicopter piloting don't want people to be afraid of helicopters in the wake of the tragic deaths of basketball legend Kobe Bryant on Sunday and of Western New York businessmen Mark Croce and Michael Capriotto on January 9.

"Don't be afraid, honestly," Rainbow Air Vice President Pat Proctor told WBEN. "These are rare occurrences that you can't control. On my end of this business (of helicopter tours), doing tens of thousands - almost a hundreds of thousand - of flights over the last 25 years, we've been very fortunate and lucky."

It is far more complex to pilot a helicopter compared to a car. Proctor said pilots need to know the terrain they're flying in, such as the elevation of the hilltops and mountains. The FAA only allows Rainbow Air to fly their choppers depending on cloud height and if visibility is better than three miles. When visibility is low, Proctor described the skill level as trying to drive a car in the first lake effect snow of the season.

"It's up to the pilot, in the end, if he wants to take that flight or not if he has the capability of doing so," Proctor said.

Pilots who work for Rainbow Air have been trained in the military. He said their pilots need to have a minimum of 1,500 to 2,000 hours of turbine engine time before they are hired. For the average person looking to become a pilot, Proctor said you would have to learn the basics of piloting in school before you even take a seat behind the throttle.

"It could take three or four years just to build up that time to get to the next step," Proctor said.

Photo courtesy of Rainbow Air (Pat Proctor)
Photo courtesy of Rainbow Air (Pat Proctor)

Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others died in Sunday's crash. Croce and Capriotto died in Pennsylvania while traveling back to Western New York from Washington, D.C. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating both incidents, a process that will take roughly a year to complete.

"It's search and recover right now," Proctor said about the NTSB's investigation. "They're going to have to pick apart everything they're able to grab from the scene of the accident. Whether it's a blade, a body, a rubber band, a bolt, nut, or screw, all of that stuff takes a lot of time and effort to say why this part came apart...There's so many factors and so many pieces on this aircraft."

Proctor speculated that the accident in Los Angeles was caused by pilot error, who may have flown at a low altitude and did not know their surroundings. WBBZ Owner Phil Arno, who spent years working as a videographer inside a helicopter in Los Angeles, also suggested that the pilot flew into the side of a hill because of poor visibility.

"He was going pretty quick and he was in low visibility," Arno told WBEN's Sandy Beach on Monday. "He shouldn't have been there and been going that fast...They skimmed the side of the hill, you can tell by the wreckage. The tail boom broke off and the pattern of debris that was, if you remember the camera shot, to the right is a whole bunch of small debris. That was the direction they were going in."

Proctor described the engine of a helicopter as "unbelievable", with miles of wires that "could drive you nuts". He said those complexities, plus legal concerns of putting out wrong information, are why the investigations by the NTSB take so long to complete.  

Despite the recent tragedies involving helicopters, Proctor assures they are safe and that they are even safer than airplanes. He said 95 percent of most accidents are due to pilot error while the other 5 percent is due to mechanical error. According to CNBC, there were 21 fatal helicopter accidents between January and November of 2019. In 2018, there were 24 fatal helicopter accidents and 20 in 2017.

Proctor recalled the story a few years ago of Rainbow Air pilots tasked with bringing Santa to visit kids in Lewiston. Because the weather conditions resulted in ice on their helicopters, "Santa's Sleigh" did not arrive for the kids for their regularly scheduled time.

"Safety is number one, especially even with Santa Claus," he said.

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