Two pilots recall the remarkable teamwork that prevented a deadly accident.

On Sep. 24, 2022, while inbound to Houma–Terrebonne Airport (KHUM) in Louisiana, Capts. Steve Buhagiar and David Sidorski endured a perilous half hour. The Leonardo AW139 the pilots were flying for Bristow Group suffered an electrical fire that melted a collective torque tube, wreaking havoc on the cabin environment, the flight controls, and the helicopter’s performance. Both men wondered if they would survive the event.

With Sidorski in left seat and Buhagiar in right as captain, the two high-time pilots launched into rapid problem-solving mode, saving themselves and the four passengers on board. I asked them about their experience that day.

ROTOR: Set the stage for us. How did the day of the accident start?

Capt. Steve Buhagiar

Buhagiar: It’s a clear VFR day, late afternoon. We’re seven minutes from the airport. There’s a burning electrical plastic smell, but everything looks fine. Maybe it’s the air-conditioning? We turn that off. Then, the whole cabin up front fills with smoke immediately. We lose visibility and the aircraft goes out of control.

You went double IMC inside your cockpit? Are you coupled up on autopilot and flight director?

Buhagiar: Yes. We were at 4,500 inbound, beginning our descent to 500 ft. I had selected Alt A to 500 ft. and asked David to select the modes I needed. When the smoke started pouring in, the rotor rpm went to 83%. The Nr [rotor rpm] was so low the control response was very slippery.

At that low an Nr, was there a low-frequency vibration?

Capt. David Sidorski

Sidorski: Not really. The aircraft was pitching up, kind of yawing. I couldn’t see. My eyes are burning, my lungs are burning. It’s all these things at once, [and we’re] hearing low rotor rpm while the engines are screaming up to provide power. We’re thinking, “Why is this happening?”

You have an automated engine-control system on the aircraft, right, and the engines are trying to fix the problem?

Buhagiar: Yes, I’m assuming [the aircraft is] trying to get the Nr back to 100.

When describing the initial symptoms, you mentioned what sounded like you were climbing like a bat outta’ hell.

Buhagiar: Before that, there was a while where neither David nor I was talking. We’re both in shock. I didn’t know how we were going to survive. I remember thinking, “I just need to start talking, to start working the situation.” I say, “David, we need to clear the smoke.” That started getting us out of shock mode.

Did you remember your smoke and fume elimination procedure? I’m curious about instinct versus procedural recall.

Buhagiar: [It was] 100% survival instinct. When you can’t take your hands off the controls and the aircraft’s not responding and you can’t see each other and you can’t breathe, it’s not like, “David, please pull out the QRH [Quick Reference Handbook].”

Sidorski: Definitely survival mode. The smoke is coming from the entire overhead panel. I can’t see my nose in front of my face. I’m thinking, “How do I clear the smoke the fastest way possible?” We can’t see and we’ll asphyxiate soon.

The day of the accident, 150 miles southeast of New Orleans, in the Mississippi Canyon area, just before the return flight of the AW139. (Photo courtesy Capts. Steve Buhagiar and David Sidorski)

What did you do?

Sidorski: [After trying a few things], I put my hand through the little window, gave it a couple of tugs, and it snapped in half. The smoke was sucked out.

Time did slow down. I was able to think, “One problem at a time. Clear the smoke, then worry about the next problem.”

Buhagiar: Once the smoke cleared, the rotor rpm was still low and controllability was still sloppy. I noticed 140 PI [power index] on each engine. How does this make sense? The engines are at full speed, full power. The rotor rpm is low. The collective is against the floor. Then, the rpm recovers, but not because of anything we did. We start climbing 1,500 to 1,700 ft. per minute, nose level.

Sidorski: At 145 to 150 kt., our normal cruising speed.

Buhagiar: David brings [engine] No. 1 to idle. Immediately, the rpm goes to 81. The rotor is going to stall, especially now at altitude. He puts it back. Nr recovers to 100%.

This is an engine mode switch, right—you’re moving it from flight to idle?

Buhagiar: Yes. The engine control levers are in the ceiling in the 139, but we’ll get to that. We’re [6,000 ft.] over the airport. The only thing we can do is gently give it enough forward cyclic to start descending.

The landing gear extension speed on the 139 is 150 kt. It’s over 180 indicated with the gear down. I [plan] to make a shallow banked spiraling descent. I don’t want to overstress this thing.

It’s still going at maximum power and maximum speed, way past Vne [the never-­exceed speed]. I don’t want it coming apart.

You’re still at max speed well above Vne during descent?

Sidorski: We’re hauling ass toward the ground. I have no window. We’re missing one of our display units. Three out of the four radios aren’t working. We have no transponder code. A multitude of things have gone wrong. Even so, we were not giving up on each other, the aircraft, or the people inside. We’re dedicated to flying this thing as much as we can until we can’t.

Buhagiar: David contacted Houma Tower and declared an emergency. Maybe it’s strange, but I always think about the responsibility of being PIC. We need to make sure we’re doing what’s required—declare an emergency, brief the passengers, notify the company. Brief the passengers again and tell them when to brace.

Sidorski: We were stable at that point with a second to run through these things.

Buhagiar: So down we go, eventually from 6,700 to 1,000. We’re on both engines doing 160 kt. with the collective full down. As we’re about to fly past the tower so that they can verify that our gear’s down, I say to David, “We’re not going to die today. We have an hour to figure this out.”

Sidorski: We tried manual mode once more. The PI went up and down. We put it back into auto. Clearly, something was wrong with it.

Why didn’t you manually move the levers?

Buhagiar: That’s a question we get fairly often, “Did you think about putting it in manual mode and manually moving the levers or beeping the engine control levers with the collective switches?”

We had a 1-2 ECL engine control lever fail caution. Those are moved by an electronic motor and have failed, so the beeper switch won’t work. That leaves moving it by hand, but that’s difficult to do accurately. We decided not to deal with it.

An electrical fire that melted a collective torque tube wreaked havoc on the AW139’s cabin, flight controls, and performance, leaving both pilots wondering if they would survive the event. (Photo courtesy Capts. Steve Buhagiar)

Where were you?

Buhagiar: First of three laps. David brings the No. 2 engine to idle. This time, the Nr stays put, again, because we’re lower. We slowed from 160 to 140. Better, but still way too fast. If I take pressure off the cyclic, it still wants to climb like a rocket.

When we’re on final, David brings No. 1 to idle. The rpm goes from 100 to 67 immediately. What helicopter keeps flying at 67% Nr? He puts it back to flight. It spools up and the Nr goes to 100. All of a sudden, we’re going around.

Ah, we can use that to land—alternate from flight to idle and back, and work our way down. That’s what we did seven or eight times.

Sidorski: We started about 400 ft. agl, 4 or 5 miles south of the airport.

You were taking advantage of loss of efficiency?

Buhagiar: Yes, in idle, [the Nr] would be in the 60s. On the spool up, we’d let it get to 80 or 90, never back to 100.

Sidorski: Each time slowing down 10 or 15 kt.

You didn’t let it get to 100 because that forces you to start over again?

Buhagiar: Exactly. Going to 100 brings the speed back and starts a climb.

Sidorski: They say not to go below 90%. We found the aircraft did fly below that. In videos, you could see the blades were coning considerably due to the Nr dropping rapidly into the upper 60s.

Buhagiar: On final, we were over the swamp. I remember that feeling in my stomach.

Like, “If I survive this but land in the swamp, I don’t want to have to wrestle an alligator”?

Buhagiar: Right, or have the tree come through the windscreen.

Were you using your power pedal to bleed off energy?

Buhagiar: It was both. I wanted to stay relatively lined up with the runway. I’d flare it and go left pedal, then bring it back the other way. In the video, it looks like I’m making “S” turns. You see the helicopter kind of flare and go side to side. It was now or never. I had David cut the engines. The rpm immediately dropped. I pulled the collective all the way up, everything I could with 67%. I’m thinking, “I’m about to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life. We’re still high. I have nothing I can cushion with.”

You pulled collective all the way up at 67? That was your starting Nr?

Buhagiar: Yeah. That’s all I could do.

That’s a 30-ft. drop and Nr is bleeding fast.

Buhagiar: Really fast. I pulled up and we touched down.

Sidorski: It was smooth and cushioned. Then the helicopter started turning and I thought, “This is where we roll and blow up.”

Buhagiar: We slide in excess of 800 ft. and veer toward the grass. I know we’re both thinking, “Please don’t roll. Please don’t roll.” Fifteen feet into the grass, it came to a stop.

Sidorski: We went into action. I had my left seat flow. Steve had his right seat flow shutting down the aircraft.

When you say flow, do you mean normal shutdowns or an emergency shutdown?

Buhagiar: Bristow adopted a great system of airline-style flows for start-up, shutdown, cruise. Not a 70-item checklist, just two or three actions each.

What do you want people to remember?

Buhagiar: Keep flying. Keep talking and keep engaged. Push those scared thoughts out of your head and keep working the problem.

Sidorski: I agree. If you’re by yourself, keep talking to yourself. Keep working the problem. I think that would have been a fatal flaw if we didn’t keep talking.

Buhagiar: I want to add, if you’re unfortunate enough to go through something like this, talk about it with other people. Don’t keep it to yourself. Don’t try and be a tough person. Do what you need to do to cope with it. Personally speaking, there were difficult times in the aftermath, where I only felt normal when I was flying. The rest of my life felt very out of sorts. It was tough.

Pilot mental health is a big deal. What changed for you as a result of this?

Buhagiar: That adrenaline spike lasts for a time and then, suddenly, for me it was that I didn’t really care anymore. When I look back at how I was thinking then versus now, I was really in outer space and I didn’t realize it.

Sidorski: It was similar with me. Smaller things didn’t seem significant. I’d think, “That’s such a little problem. I’ll tell you a real problem.”

Any changes to training or preflights at Bristow?

Buhagiar: This problem is not something you could preflight or even should have to train for. The steering wheel shouldn’t fall off your car while you’re driving. It’s hard to tell people to practice in the simulator with the collective all the way down.
Congratulations on the award, though it’s small compared to surviving. Closing thoughts?

Sidorski: It’s fortunate it was us in the cockpit. Since we were really good friends outside of flying, we had a similar mindset. We could communicate effectively and openly.

Buhagiar: It was that friendship and openness between us to share ideas and work together … that kept us alive.

Editor’s note: See “Salute to Excellence: Honoring the Best in Vertical Aviation,” for more on Capts. Steve Buhagiar and David Sidorski, the 2024 HAI Matthew S. Zuccaro Land & LIVE Award winners. For the results of the US National Transportation Safety Board accident investigation, read the preliminary report at data.ntsb.gov/carol.

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Chris Hill

Chris Hill

After an aviation career in the US Army and Coast Guard, Chris Hill oversaw aviation safety management systems throughout the USCG as aviation safety manager. He holds an ATP rating and has logged more than 5,000 flight hours, primarily in military and commercial helicopters. Chris joined HAI in 2018 as director of safety.