The Science of Flying a Helicopter

Richard Schuman
Richard Schuman

HONOLULU (KHNL) - Many unanswered questions days after a fatal helicopter crash killed four on Kauai. Initial reports indicate the pilot had hydraulics problems before he crashed, but what exactly are hydraulics?

"They give the pilot assist with his controls while flying," said Richard Schuman, a helicopter pilot who runs Makani Kai Helicopters.

Hydraulics are similar to power steering in a car.

"So your rack and pinion or your power steering allows you to maneuver the vehicle a lot easier," said Schuman.

But can hydraulics problems cause a helicopter pilot to lose control?

"You can control the aircraft forever," said Schuman. "I mean, it's a little tough muscle-wise. It may be a bit of a problem, but you can control it for quite a while."

In fact, helicopter manuals account for such emergencies, and instruct pilots on what to do.

"In cruising flight, reduce speed, entering into a side-slip if necessary. Then, cut off hydraulic pressure by actuating the switch situated on the collective pitch control level," instructs one manual.

"A little bit difficult maneuvering but it's completely maneuverable," said Schuman.

Another unusual aspect to the crashed helicopter: its pontoons were deployed. They're only recommended for water landing.

"In the event of a forced landing, the pontoon floats would allow the aircraft to stay upright and land successfully in water," said Schuman.

As investigators continue to comb through the wreckage, it will be a while before we know exactly what happened.

"We just need to wait for the NTSB and the experts to come up with their final report and find out what happened," said Schuman.

The National Transportation Safety Board said, typically in a case like this, it could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months before a final report is released.