Iranian President dies in helicopter crash.

Iranian President Dead in Helicopter crash

Yesterday, (19th May 2024) I was called by the Al Jazeera Arabic service asking for comment on a, “hard landing,” by a helicopter carrying the Iranian President and Foreign Minister. They had been en route to a site near Tabriz and reports stated that bad weather was hampering search and rescue operations.

Pictures on Al Jazeera showed quite thick fog and it was clear that this was also in hilly or mountainous terrain. I was asked to comment because my book is about the causes of aviation crashes, albeit mostly related to airline operations but there are some principles that apply with any aviation activity and so this presented an interesting case to look at.

I am not a helicopter pilot and were this event to prove to be a specifically heli related crash, than I will bow to those with superior knowledge of heli operations but at first glance, the possible causes do not obviously fall into that category.

When attempting to land any aircraft, there are some basic principles that will generally apply. The pilot or pilots (crew) will either be descending towards a landing site using a published and therefore safe, procedure, or they will be positioning the aircraft using mark one eyeball – visually flying clear of obstacles and landing at a clearly visible safe site. That might be a runway, a Heli-pad or for a helicopter a safe open space that is within the capability of the aircraft and crew – my local pub has such a site next to the car park for example.

If a published procedure is not being used – very likely in this case – then the weather conditions, which means all relevant weather, must fall into the criteria laid down for safe operations. Visibility is, of course, the big issue if the crew are operating by visual rules. Yesterday, the visibility in the area was bad, with fog. One report I saw said 50 metres, although I have no idea how accurate that was. Certainly, the fog seen showing the rescue team was pretty thick and I would consider unsuitable for even an instrument landing and certainly not a visual one.

Given the poor visibility and the hilly terrain it would appear that a successful landing would not normally be attempted and so either poor judgment or a sudden technical problem, on an elderly American Bell Helicopter looks likely.

It is at this point that two well known fatal crashes come to mind and I wonder if culture has played a part in the event. My book is about the impact of culture on safety and this could well be a classic example, for reasons that look clear when compared to the two other crashes referred to above.

On the 10th April 2010, a Polish Airforce Tupolev 154, carrying the Polish President and others, crashed at Smolensk whilst attempting to land in fog. Without analysing the event in detail, the pilots were under pressure from VIP Passengers to achieve a landing due to the important event they were flying to. Instead of diverting to an alternate airport the pilots made an approach below correct limits and crashed as a result.

The second event that comes to mind is the tragic death of US baseball star Kobe Bryant. In January 2020 a helicopter carrying Bryant, his daughter and others, crashed into a hill when the pilot, who was not instrument rated, flew into cloud and hit high ground killing all on board. Bryant had taken the helicopter in order to reach an event they were running late for. Instead of turning back when weather became poor, the pilot continued, no doubt feeling under pressure to get his important client to destination, even though conditions dictated otherwise.

This psychological pressure is well known in aviation and often called, “get hone itis,” in general aviation circles. It was something we used to stress when teaching private pilot students to be very wary of. You will never be criticised for erring on the side of caution, the opposite action may have grave consequences.

Did the crew of the Presidential helicopter feel under pressure to get to destination come what may? Was verbal pressure put on them but the VIP passengers? Or did the old helicopter develop a catastrophic fault?

If I were a betting man, I would put my money on a bad decision under pressure, either real or imagined and in a culture where dissent is not viewed kindly, it is a real recipe for disaster and I suspect that is exactly what followed.

If we get an open and competent report on the crash, I may be proven wrong but the chances of such a report are sadly not that great.