News sources in the northwest, last week, reported the crash of an Airlift Northwest helicopter on take off from St. Peter Hospital in Olympia at 11:30 PM Friday, October 28. On board was the pilot, two nurses and a patient, being transported to Harborview Hospital in Seattle. What was not mentioned in most of those news reports was the name of the pilot, Ken Huston. Ken is my youngest brother, and husband of NC Alum, Carol Cook (class of '69). To the right is a picture of Ken & Carol taken at their home in Bonney Lake, WA in the summer of 2003.
Ken has been flying helicopters for Airlift Northwest for 16 years. He went to work for them after his retirement from a 20 year career in the US Army, which began with a one year tour of duty airlifting troops in and out of combat in Viet Nam in 1970-71.
(Ken sent out an email today, to family and friends telling this amazing, and miraculous story of supernatural intervention and protection.)
Dear friends and family,
Last Friday night I was just arriving for duty for the night shift when a call came for a flight to the small town of South Bend on the coast south of Hoquiam. We were to pick up a critical patient at Willap Harbor Hospital and transport to Harborview Hospital in Seattle. I did my preflight and weather check and headed for South Bend with my crew of two flight nurses. This was my second week in our brand new Agusta 109E Helicopter. This aircraft is state of the art with all of the latest avionics to help improve safety. We have two of these aircraft now as we modernize our fleet of six helicopters.
The weather was worse than forecast and we were unable to get to South bend. After attempting two different routes I aborted the flight for weather and headed for home. On the way back, the dispatcher wanted to know if there was some place that I could rendezvous with an ambulance to bring the patient to us. I told them the only place I could get to reliably was Olympia. As we touched down back at base, dispatch advised me that they wanted to make the rendezvous at St. Peter Hospital in Olympia in about an hour and a half.
At 10:30 PM they paged us out to meet the ambulance and after checking weather again, we departed for Olympia, arriving right at 11:00 PM. St. Peter Hospital has a rooftop helipad that is on a three story part of the hospital. I approached the hospital from the northeast but because the winds were calm, I turned the helicopter around to face the northeast so the loading door would be facing the ramp from the hospital and that would put me in a position to depart the same way I came in, to the northeast.
I shut down and the nurses went inside to wait for the patient. I did my flight log and filled out my weight and balance form. Then I chocked the aircraft wheel, did my walk around inspection and went inside to wait with the nurses. The patient arrived about 10 minutes later with a group of four medics and EMTs as well as security from the hospital. The nurses transferred the patient who was conscious and awake to our equipment and we loaded him into the helicopter. As soon as I had secured all doors and the six people who had come onto the helipad with us had returned behind the glass security doors, I strapped in and started my runup. All was normal. When I had both engines running and avionics on, I brought both engines to flight RPM, Set takeoff Rotor RPM to 102% and turned on and extended the landing light. I asked if my crew was ready and they indicated that they were.
With the takeoff checklist complete, I pulled in collective to bring the helicopter to a hover over the helipad at about 5 feet. I verified 102% Rotor RPM and no caution lights and began my takeoff. This is the point when a pilot's eyes are outside as power comes in to start the vertical climb and forward cyclic is applied to start the forward acceleration to clear obstacles and reach Vy (Best rate of climb speed).
At the very instant that I lowered the nose and the aircraft started to move forward, I heard the audible warning, ROTOR LOW, in my headset and the aircraft immediately began to descend. The ROTOR LOW warning is the most immediate warning a helicopter pilot can get. It means that rotor rpm is below that required for powered flight. This aircraft is state of the art. It has FADEC controls which stands for full authority digital engine controls. These computers not only control engine power but control rotor rpm as well. When these systems malfunction, the pilot has a limit override switch on the collective that he can push to remove the computer from the system and revert the fuel control to a manual mode that will give whatever power the pilot demands with collective control. This button is in an awkward position and recessed in a flat surface to prevent it from being pushed inadvertently and causing an engine over-torque. Just the day before, I had been reviewing emergency procedures and went to the Helicopter to make sure that my thumb knew where that button was. Despite that, in the dark when things went to pot, I missed the button when I reached for it. I only had about a second to find that button and then it was too late.
On the departure side of the hospital about 40 feet away is a second building about two stories high that houses the hospital emergency generators. It is a concrete wall structure. Between is a small garden area. The aircraft was settling fast. I knew there was only that small space between the two buildings, but with rapidly decreasing rotor rpm, it was doubtful that I could maneuver into that space. It was barely wide enough for the rotor system. Unfortunately, I was not parallel to the space but heading directly across it toward the concrete wall of the power building. At the point when it seemed we were about 15 feet from that concrete wall, and closing fast, my mind quit recording. The experts tell me this is the mind's way of protecting itself from something to horrible to see. I did not feel the impact with the wall or with the ground in the garden below.
I believe that at that moment when all was lost, the Lord said "I have the controls, take a break Ken, quit recording and let me fix this." Witnesses (the six people at the helipad door) say that at that moment, the tail rotor of the helicopter struck the top of the wall of the building we were departing from. The purpose of the tail rotor is to counteract the torque from the main rotor system. When it fails, the Helicopter spins rapidly to the right. That is what happened. The aircraft swapped ends instantly and impacted the wall of the power building tail first. About 5 feet of the tail broke off and the remainder drove straight into the wall, absorbing the impact of the 6400 pound helicopter. The helicopter then fell the remaining 10 or so feet to the garden area below. I guess that is where the Lord said "You have the control back" and that is where my memory picks up again. The helicopter was partly on it's right side and the rotor blades, or what was left of them, were digging into the ground and I could hear the engines powering up again with a corresponding increase in rotor rpm. The aircraft was thrashing wildly and the cyclic control that I usually hold in my right hand was violently beating my right leg. I was trying to catch it with my right hand. After the cyclic whacked my hand a couple of times, I realized I should be trying to shut down the engines. The controls are on the center console to the left of the Collective control and each time I reached for them, the collective was violently bouncing up and down and it kept knocking my hand away. Finally, the thrashing became less violent and I was able to get the engines shut down.
As soon as the engine noise stopped, the next thing I heard was the voice of one of my nurses saying "Are you all right?" I said that I was and asked if they were and heard a loud cheer from the back. The patient was ok too. I couldn't get out of my door because it was in the dirt, so I scrambled over the console to exit the copilot door.
Within a minute, there were people everywhere from the hospital, helping get the patient out of the helicopter and into the emergency room. This is a miracle of miracles. No one was seriously injured. One of the nurses had a compression fracture of the third thoracic vertebra. She spent two nights in the hospital but is home now and doing fine. The rest of us just had bruises.
At first, I didn't think that I would return to flying but as each day passes, I am feeling a little better about it and now think that I will be able to return to flying within the month. Time will tell.
Well, that is the story and I hope I will never have to tell one like it again.