The helicopter had been called out for a rescue mission to take charge of an injured person on Conquet beach.
The experienced pilot had carried out numerous flights and approaches to sites outside aerodromes and he was familiar with the environment between Brest and Le Conquet. The execution of the day’s mission seemed straightforward. During the flight preparation, he had obtained the information (weather reports, airspaces) permitting him to take the decision to take off. He had not received any specific information about hazards at the intervention site. Immediately after take-off, he followed a direct track to the area where the injured person was to be taken on board and opted to land on the beach as close as possible to this area.
Due to the short flight time, the pilot chose to fly at a low height to allow him to quickly reach the site. For this same reason, the pilot chose to carry out a semi-direct approach, with a constant descent angle which led to a start of descent at 2 Nm east abeam the site. This path thus restricted his field of vision of the beach, concealed by the high ground which bordered it, a few tall trees and houses.
The pilot and TCM then noted the presence of kitesurfers on the left while the pilot continued his approach. When he had passed the last of the high ground and was aligned on final, the pilot saw the paraglider ahead of him and on his right. The pilot assigned a task to each person on board in order to ensure that collision with the kites and paraglider was avoided.
The helicopter was 170 ft above the beach, the paraglider was ahead of him at around 300 m to his right.
The pilot’s choice to make a semi-direct approach with a constant angle, without carrying out a reconnaissance by flying overhead the site, left him with a limited choice of manoeuvres from when he observed the kitesurfers and paraglider.
He had two options: to carry out a go-around to line up for the beach again with a new action plan or to continue his final approach and land. He rejected the go-around thinking that the turbulence from the helicopter’s downwash might affect the paraglider’s flight. He considered that the risk for the paraglider pilot was less if he continued the landing on the identified site as he had him in sight, on the right and slightly
below the helicopter.
Arriving overhead or indeed with a high-angle approach as recommended by the operator’s manual would in all likelihood have alerted the paraglider pilot to the arrival of the helicopter and the associated risks. Such an arrival would have also given the helicopter pilot the possibility of taking another flight path to maintain separation with the paraglider pilot. It is likely that the pilot thought that he controlled the situation, due to his experience, and that this overshadowed the need to take the time to analyse the obstacles by a complete reconnaissance of the landing area.
The mission to the beach had not presented any major difficulties for the pilot. On arriving at the beach, he discovered, almost all of a sudden, a new situation with associated difficulties. This short-term risk management put the crew in a relative impasse with the only possible solutions being a go-around or continuing the flight path and landing but in unfavourable conditions (downwash, restricted manoeuvring space).
The paraglider pilot was slope soaring, flying back and forth along the beach close to the cliff. It is probable that he only saw the helicopter when he was flying south, the helicopter at that time being higher than him, on his right side. Although witnesses tried to warn him of the presence of the helicopter, it was only possible to see it when flying south. His field of manoeuvre was then limited.
In this configuration, the paraglider pilot could neither turn left as he would then be slightly below and facing the cliff with a tailwind nor turn right because of the presence of the helicopter. Moreover, it is probable that the paraglider pilot, who was flying at a low height did not want to quickly descend by closing his wing because of the risk of injuring himself. A descent to land with a tailwind only provided a degree of safety.
Consequently and assuming that the paraglider pilot had identified the presence of the helicopter coming towards him and had taken into account the associated risk, it is likely that he wanted to continue on his path, this being the less risky solution.
The fact that the paraglider pilot did not make any manoeuvre may also indicate that he was not aware of the danger that the wake vortex represented at that moment which, given the wind, would be pushed towards the cliff.