Unlicensed Helicopter Pilot Died After In-Flight Breakup


The pilot of an amateur-built helicopter involved in a fatal crash didn’t have a helicopter license but that’s not what killed him according to Canada’s Transportation Safety Board. In a final report issued this week, the agency said a rotor blade delaminated when the RotorWay Exec helicopter was less than 150 feet above the ground and that led to an in-flight breakup. The board also noted the 64-year-old pilot, who was also an ATP with instrument, multi and instructor ratings, didn’t have his helicopter ticket and there was no evidence that he’d had any training.

The accident happened in November of 2022 after the pilot pulled the little helicopter out of his garage and launched from an adjacent field so a relative could shoot video. After hovering for the camera, he flew a few hundred yards at low altitude and had turned back toward the videographer when the malfunction occurred. Thanks to the video, investigators were able to watch as the rotor skin came apart at the leading edge, which weakened the structure and allowed torsion in the blade before other parts of the helicopter separated. There have been two similar accidents in the last 30 years, and blade inspections and maintenance are covered in the manuals that came with the helicopter.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. Begs the questions:-
    Was it second-hand or did the pilot build it himself? The latter question is important as it could throw up more problems with the rotor blades, as in why did a brand-new rotor blade disintegrate.
    Any answers?

    • From the report:

      “The aircraft had been registered for the first time in March 1996”

      “the occurrence pilot reportedly acquired the occurrence helicopter in July 2018.”

      So no, the pilot did not build the aircraft.

  2. Peter, check the link in the article mentioned https://www.tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/aviation/2022/a22q0142/a22q0142.pdf
    Second hand thus. Flew it for 55 hours since 2018, not licensed for helis with no recorded training.
    Being myself an ex airline pilot, I must say all of the guys (except for one) that ik knew who lost their life in an aviation related accident, all were in GA aircraft.
    This one is especially disturbing, being an airline pilot who should have the “right” mentality for flying should extend this to his/her “hobby” flying. Flying unlicensed is NOT part of that mentality, as is drunk driving. (My old company would throw you out if you were convicted for drunk driving).
    Buying second hand, and therefore someone else’s hobby work, and that for a helo, hmmm not my kind of thing.

  3. “64-year-old pilot, who was also an ATP with instrument, multi and instructor ratings” Not youthful or inexperienced. Lack of judgment continues to be the killer.

    • So…if only the pilot had his helicopter ticket, he would have been able to safely land when the rotor blade delaminated?

      Seems a bit unlikely.

      From the TSB report, his first flight included rising to one meter and hovering there…apparently steadily….for 30 seconds. That’s better than I could do without training. The report they “found no indication of training.” Doesn’t mean he didn’t HAVE training.

      In the US, he would NOT have been required to hold a rating for the aircraft during solo flight (61.31). Canadian rules are undoubtedly different.

      In any case, this is moot…since the accident was caused by a mechanical failure that Igor Sikorsky himself couldn’t have recovered from.

      • I believe the point being raised is not that the lack of license was a proximate cause. Rather it’s the mind-set that led to the pilot deciding that they didn’t need a license. Which *suggests* a cavalier attitude with regards to the rules (either dismissive of the need to follow the rules, or unaware they exist). And this same mindset *may* have led the pilot to fail to inspect the rotor blades, or have them inspected by a knowledgeable person (such as during a condition inspection).

        • Ah, but there is no evidence he wasn’t a very skilled helicopter pilot either, so does your statement suggest a cavalier attitude towards objective truth?

          Many of the best pilots in this country fly non certified, high performance aircraft everyday without pilot certificates.

          I understand the knee jerk reaction, but I don’t approve of it. The magic of the pilot certificate is purely bureaucratic. Of course people should all get the proper papers, but let’s not say any particular bad outcome was due to lack of proper papers. It’s bad enough the billions of dollars and years of youth we collectively waste on college degrees because of this sort of mindset.

          • Proof is the owner is dead.
            You can argue whether the owner was incompetent with maintenance or incompetent with skills; but he’s still dead because of it. Don’t be “that guy”.

          • Gee, Arthur, kind of a tough world you live in. Do you vote according to this standard? Have you EVER voted for an incumbent?
            I’m not certain from the given information he did not follow the maintenance properly, but I don’t know anything about homebuilt helicopter maintenance. At any rate, I never said anyone should emulate the deceased pilot, my point is to be less inaccurate and abusive in reviewing the tragedy.

  4. Get serious people.

    Yes, not having a license – and possibly not even any training – is not a good thing. But in this case it had no bearing on the situation – even to the point of the report stating that. So get over it. This is about the accident; not about the guy being an idiot. Those who have rushed to be outraged should also note there was no evidence FOUND of training. Given the flight it would appear likely that some training had occurred somewhere.

    Now, if you want to throw off on the guy because he bought a(n old) second hand amateur built helo, I got your back. “Ignernt” in the extreme. But let’s not forget there’s a family out there without one of it’s members.

    My focus on this – the article’s mention of other such accidents. Recurring problems are something to be aware of. I feel certain Rotorway has addressed this in the past and will revisit their policies as a result of this. Most important though is that the possibility is made known to the flying ( and aircraft buying) population.

    • No rating, no annual inspection, no AD compliance, no time-in-type.
      That’s not an accident, it sounds like suicide.

      • No rating? Certainly. But the man bought the helicopter with 256 hours, and at the time of the accident it had more than 50 hours more. Would it have taken an ATP more than 50 hours to learn how the fly the helicopter? Is there any evidence to suggest those 50 hours were flown by anyone else? On the surface of it, it looks like the pilot had 50+ hours time in type.

        “No annual inspection, no AD compliance?” Where on the TSB report does it say that? It merely says the TSB had been unable to verify the maintenance status of the aircraft. Wouldn’t be the first homebuilt crash where the aircraft’s maintenance records disappear….

        In the US, at least, homebuilts do not undergo annual inspections (they get Condition Inspections, which are different). And AD notices aren’t issued for experimental aircraft (although they may apply to certain accessories).

        • I’m saying that buying someone else’s home built helicopter project, not getting it inspected by someone who knows that type, and “hopping in” without a rating will usually end up in an accident report. And here we are.

          • Oh, that’s your point. And you know it’s applied accurately here? I don’t see all that info in the story.

  5. One has to careful about forward or negative sounding press statements
    Majority of these advance sensationalism before truth

    Reminds me of …

    ”Here is a description of millions and millions of takeoffs,
    the kind of takeoff made every day, every minute:”
    ‘the light aircraft took off from an uncontrolled airport,
    without radio control without a flight plan.’
    -Words story in Gift of Wings by Richard Bach

  6. It was a mechanical failure. That’s all we know. We don’t know a thing about him or his aircraft. He could have hundreds of hours in helos, many hours of training, perfect maintenance on the aircraft, we don’t know. But none of that matters because the blade came apart. The pilot seemed to be flying it quite well up until that point. It was mechanical.