Flying in Darkness, Clouds: Safety of Night Flights at Issue in Fatal BRPD Helicopter Crash

May 8, 2023

May 5—Two days after the Baton Rouge police helicopter flown by Sgt. David Poirrier and Cpl. Scotty Canezaro crashed into a field March 26, killing them both, the department grounded night flights.

More than a month later, the department's remaining helicopter hasn't taken to the air at night.

As the official investigation into the crash continues, one of several factors being examined would be whether the dangers inherent to night flights, especially low visibility, played a role, several experts said.

The last flight of Poirrier and Canezaro's Robinson Helicopter Company R44 helicopter took place on a night that was overcast, which can further degrade visibility. The helicopter crashed in a rural cane field near Port Allen with few sources of light on the ground to serve as visual cues to a pilot.

"Flying at night is dangerous enough. Flying at night in low clouds, you just put a multiplier on that which makes it much more dangerous," said airplane and helicopter pilot Craig Simon, who owns Aviation Academy of Louisiana. "Every flight is a calculated risk, and every time you add a multiplier to that, you're taking away your options."

The model of helicopter that crashed isn't certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in the lowest visibility conditions because it lacks the equipment a pilot needs to safely maintain control of the aircraft without visual cues from the ground below. Federal aviation records also show Poirrier and Canezaro lacked a certification that denotes additional training for flying in low-visibility conditions, although the qualification isn't required to fly at night.

Eight hours passed before the crash scene was discovered during the daytime by law enforcement, a fact BRPD cites as the reason behind grounding night flights.

Mechanical issues, pilot error and weather conditions, among other factors, could have contributed to the crash, several pilots interviewed by The Advocate said.

It could take years for the National Transportation Safety Board to complete its investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration, which performs an initial review of crashes, first said the accident occurred when the helicopter's rotor struck a tree but later recategorized the cause as unknown.

The board's investigation will focus on the credentials of the pilots, their activities prior to the crash, the aircraft's maintenance history and weather and visibility conditions.

"We are reviewing all of our current policies and procedures regarding the aviation division and will take into account any findings and recommendations made by both the FAA and NTSB before any policy or procedural changes are made," BRPD said in a statement.

Pilot disorientation: A factor?

The leading cause of law enforcement helicopter crashes is a phenomenon known as "inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions," or IIMC, said Daniel Schwarzbach, executive director and CEO of Airborne Public Safety Association, a law enforcement accreditation agency.

Eighteen agencies nationwide, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, Atlanta Police Department and FBI, are accredited by the organization.

IIMC occurs when pilots unexpectedly enter conditions, like clouds, that cause them to lose sight of reference points such as the horizon and the ground below. The experience is so disorienting it can cause pilots to lose control of their aircraft.

Simon, the Aviation Academy owner, compared the experience to the "internal panic mode" drivers feel when they unexpectedly drive into fog at high speeds on the interstate.

"It's too late to react, and before you know it, the road is gone and you're in a ditch," he said.

Such disorientation has been a focus of the industry for more than a decade because of how often it leads to crashes, said Schwarzbach, who flew for the Houston Police Department for 30 years.

The 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others occurred when the pilot flew into a cloud and became disoriented after failing to transition to instrument-reliant flight, according to the NTSB.

While no agency has publicly identified who was piloting BRPD's helicopter, a commercial pilot's license is federally required to operate an aircraft for a public agency. According to federal records, only Poirrier held that level of certification, suggesting he was piloting and Canezaro was the tactical flight officer. Canezaro did hold a private helicopter pilot's license, which allows for personal and leisure flights, according to federal records.

The helicopter went down some time after 2:30 a.m. while on a pursuit of a hit-and-run suspect fleeing in a car, according to the NTSB and local officials.

In the moments before crashing, the helicopter rapidly ascended as high as 1,300 feet and see-sawed between speeds of 40 mph, 102 mph, and 30 mph, according to publicly available flight data.

Pilots say the sharp changes in speed and altitude could be a sign of mechanical failure or that clouds caused the pilot to become disoriented.

Flying conditions above the crash site were "instrument meteorological conditions", or IMC, an NTSB preliminary report says. The cloud ceiling, or the altitude of the bottom of the clouds, was 900 feet, the report says.

Pilots who enter low visibility conditions must make a split-second decision to head for an area with better visibility or switch from flying primarily by sight to flying by instrument, pilots say. A pilot with an "instrument rating" certificate is trained for such a flight.

Neither man on board the helicopter was instrument rated, according to FAA records. An instrument rating is not required to fly for most law enforcement agencies but is considered beneficial for any pilot, Schwarzbach said.

"Even with an instrument rating, the inadvertent or unplanned entry into IMC conditions can be disorienting and lead to crashes," Schwarzbach said.

In response to questions by The Advocate, BRPD confirmed neither pilot held an instrument rating but added its biannual recertification includes basic training on how to handle an unexpected entry into low-visibility conditions. The department is considering requiring its pilots to be instrument certified as part of a review of all policies and procedures, the statement said.

Many helicopter transportation companies require their pilots to have an instrument rating because those flights cover longer distances at higher altitudes, where clouds pose a bigger risk.

But patrol, pursuit and search-and-rescue flights typically conducted by law enforcement pilots generally occur in smaller geographic areas at lower altitudes, beneath the clouds, Schwarzbach said.

"We're operating in the lower realm of where aircrafts operate," Schwarzbach said. "So that's the reason why ... it's not uncommon that local law enforcement that have aviation units would not require an instrument rating."

Cautioning that it's hard to know for sure until the NTSB completes its investigation, Simon said the helicopter's reported flight path in the minutes before the crash indicates poor visibility caused by weather conditions played a part.

"You look at the track prior to them losing control, you see a lot of up, down, left, right, a lot of erratic movement," Simon said. "They were fighting to stay alive at that point. Had that pilot had an instrument rating, it's possible he may have been able to utilize the navigational instruments he did on his aircraft to survive. It's possible — I'm not saying it would have solved it."

The Robinson R44 is a reliable aircraft common in law enforcement but is not approved by the FAA to operate under instrument flight rules, said Simon, whose business supplies parts for that model, though not to BRPD.

A safety notice posted to Robinson's website includes a warning about flying at night in bad weather in its helicopters.

"Be sure you NEVER fly at night unless you have clear weather with unlimited or very high (cloud) ceilings and plenty of celestial or ground lights for reference," the notice says.

While the helicopter was not approved for instrument flight, a pilot with an instrument rating would have gone through specified training to respond to unexpected low visibility, said Simon, who is instrument-rated for helicopters and airplane.

"It allows you to operate off the instruments in the aircraft, whatever they may be," Simon said. "That rating will help you stay alive."

Other questions

Toni Canezaro, Scotty Canazaro's mother, said her son was an expert pilot.

"I can't look at my son's picture without breaking down," she said through tears. "Scotty had a big heart. He'd do anything for anybody. He's saved a lot of lives. He's the best person you can be."

The questions she most wants answered are why it took more than eight hours for the crash site to be discovered and why it was the West Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, not BRPD, that eventually did so.

The Sheriff's Office found the crash after a family member of one of the pilots — worried they had not come home and using a smartphone to see where they might be — called to ask for a search of the area, according to the NTSB.

"Someone should be fired for that," Canezaro said. "It took them eight hours to find my kid."

She said regular contact is required for police in cars on the ground, and the same should be true for officers in the air.

"They radio check-in with the people on the bottom, why not on the top?" she said.

One requirement for accreditation by Schwarzbach's organization is a written procedure for "flight following," or the process of keeping track of a flying aircraft.

"I don't know BRPD's policies, but when you have that gap of time after an incident occurs, either I would say there wasn't a flight-following policy or it wasn't being followed as written," Schwarzbach said.

BRPD said it's investigating why the department was unaware of the crash.

Asking hard questions about any aviation accident is necessary to prevent further tragedies, however painful, Simon said.

"One of the ways we become safer is understanding why these things happen or contributing factors," he said. "It's not dishonorable to talk about it. It needs to be discussed amongst our professional community to reduce the number of accidents."


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