In the space of just a few seconds, world renowned helicopter pilot Quentin “Captain Q” Smith makes several split second decisions that saved the lives of all on board Airbus Helicopters AS350B3 as a loose object was sucked into rotor blades while landing on luxury yacht moored off Bergen, Norway.
For those that have never met the larger than life personality affectionately known as “Captain Q” or just “Q” to friends, Quentin Smith – Owner of HQ Aviation located at Denham Airfield in the U.K is a pilot with a lifetime of experience at the controls. A world record holder, Smith is exactly who you would want at the controls of a helicopter when something goes wrong. A pilot for over thirty years with a penchant for adventure, Smith was the first pilot to fly to both the north and south poles in a helicopter, has circumnavigated the globe and is a Guinness World Record holder.
The accident occurring in Bergen was not the first time Smith needed to draw on his thirty years of flying, Smith was also forced to ditch a Robinson R44 off the coast of Chile due to an engine failure in 2003. Smith has trained likely thousands of pilots in his years, and influenced many more. Some that have gone on to achieve many firsts in the industry. Some involved a little luck along with their achievements, but luck took a backseat to experience on May 10th as Smith approached the 196 foot luxury “super yacht” Bacarella, to land on the rear deck in his brand new AS350B3, registered to Smith’s company HQ Aviation that was flown from Scotland to Norway, and had departed Flesland prior to its approach to land on the rear helideck of the Bacarella before sunset.
As Smith approached the helideck on the yacht and placed the skids down, he noticed an unsecured fuel tank cover that become airborne in a split second and was sucked through the blades of the AS350 – seen shredding into multiple pieces in a grainy video that captured the approach and ensuing ditching of the helicopter into the water off the port side of the Bacarella.
In a press conference held upon Smith’s release from the hospital, he detailed his split second actions after the impact in a desperate attempt to stay clear of crashing into the yacht.
“The first objective was to not crash with the boat, the consequences of which could have been very severe. The second was to land the helicopter which was barely controllable in a non-fatal manner. This was achieved. The final part of the crash sequence was to evacuate the helicopter and this was also a challenge. The helicopter was in the water, with the belly over the water. So I just respond, I open the door and I’m out of the helicopter and it’s relatively easy for me and then I realize my friends are not out and I have a terrible dilemma because with the helicopter on its side, maybe 120 degrees, it’s relatively easy to get out.”
Although everything in Smith’s years of flying taught him to never return to the wreck and to get as far away as possible. But with two friends still on board and the risk of the helicopter sinking with them still in the helicopter, Smith risked his own life getting back in the helicopter to activate the emergency floats on the upturned helicopter, returning a second time to retrieve a friend, identified only as Charles, 62, also a pilot and the owner of the mega yacht.
“One of the things they teach you is that you should not go back in, it’s one of the firm pieces of advice, but personally I’ve never really believed that part. So I went back down again and I was pretty ineffective, I don’t know what I did, I don’t think I achieved anything, you couldn’t really see much and then David come up and he spoke and he appeared OK and I went down to try again because Charles hadn’t come up and all I found in the murk was an arm, so I pulled it, pulled it really hard, and Charles came out.”
Smith played down any mention heroism for his life saving actions in Bergen, choosing instead to spend the next several days posting photos on social media of and praising the rescue efforts of those involved in retrieving the trio from the water, the hospital staff and ambulance crews. The trio’s retrieval from the water happened in only minutes after the crash, thanks to the close proximity Norwegian search and rescue boat Bjarne Kyrkjebø who’s well-trained volunteer crew had just completed assisting another boat in the same area. Bergen Police gave credit to the crew of the Bjarne Kyrkjebø for their quick actions in retrieving the trio from the water quickly, likely preventing further complications.
Smith also spoke of his initial concern for London based lawyer David Tang, 57, a longtime friend of Smith. Tang was able to free himself from the wreckage and was talking right after the accident, but quickly deteriorated, collapsing and requiring emergency medical crews to administer life saving CPR that Smith detailed as being performed for over twenty minutes. Tang was listed initially in critical but stable condition in hospital after suspectedly inhaling noxious fumes from the helicopter after the crash causing lung damage. Tang has since made a rapid recovery, seen in a video taken from his hospital bed that shows Tang now speaking and conscious just a few days after the ordeal.
Smith’s new AS350B3, only registered to HQ Aviation in April is a total loss, retrieved from the water later the same evening by authorities who will investigate the crash. However, from initial reports made by witnesses, the incident looks to be an accident caused not by pilot error, but by ground crew that failed to secure an item that posed a risk to the helicopter due downwash that eventually picked up the debris, sending it into the helicopter’s main rotor system as seen in video of the incident as the pieces of the debris are ejected to the port side of the aircraft rapidly in the moments before the helicopter lifts off away from the yacht and impacts the water. The helicopter landing almost upside down in the water, was speculated by some industry experts contacted by Collective Magazine in relation to the accident as possibly an intentional move by Smith to dissipate the power of the spinning rotor blades that would destroy themselves on impact.
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Ryan Mason is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of Collective Magazine. Ryan has worked in aviation media for the last nine years as a photographer and journalist, providing written and photographic content for multiple international aviation publications covering both fixed wing and helicopters. Ryan has also written for law enforcement publications on tactics, equipment and airborne law enforcement, drawing on his years of experience as a police officer in the Midwest United States. You can reach Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org