Injured Helicopter Hunter Sheds Light on Aviation Loophole

Hunting is dangerous. Guns are dangerous. Helicopters are dangerous. How about people are dangerous when they don’t properly know how to hunt, shoot or fly? According to News 4 San Antonio . . .

Last September Thomas Swan and a friend were on a hog hunt near Burnet when the helicopter they had hired experienced engine failure. The pilot made a hard crash landing right in the lanes of Highway 281.

“The pilot said ‘hang on’ a half a second before we hit the ground,” Swan said.

Swan managed to escape injury for eight years as a Marine Sgt. in Afghanistan. He was sitting with his legs hanging out the door of the helicopter with his feet resting on the skids. The impact sent him spilling out onto the asphalt.

Swan says he suffered a badly broken ankle, broken tailbone and injured lower back.

“It’s probably the most painful thing I’ve experienced,” Swan said.

Sanger, a pilot, reckons the chopper ran out of fuel. He’s pissed that the heli-hunt company was operating under a “General Aviation” certificate, not a “Commercial Charter” certificate.

“That means that you have maintenance programs, that means you have FAA oversight, that means you have an operations manual, you have a chief pilot, you have a director of operations, you have training standards,” says Sanger.

Sanger claims many hog hunt operators are taking advantage of a loophole that allows them to fly up to six hunts a year with just a “General Aviation” certificate, if they stay within 25 miles of an airport and notify the FAA ahead of time.

He says the FAA needs to eliminate that loophole, or else more hunters will end up like Thomas Swan, whose injuries have made it difficult to continue farming.

Heli-hunts can be hellacious fun, shooting hogs from the air with a machine gun will bring a smile to your face. Until, maybe, it doesn’t.

So before you go, ask the company if they have a Part 135 “Commercial Certificate.” And you, yourself, be careful! As Spider Man’s uncle never said, with great danger comes great liability.


  1. avatar Alex Waits says:

    Nah, sucks the dude was in a crash, but increased government oversight is not the answer.

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “…but increased government oversight is not the answer.”

      History is full of examples of what happens when standards are relaxed in aviation maintenance and operations. Lots of dead bodies usually photographed or on TV.

      Every one of those rules is because people died.

      Including that pissy one about pilots being required to keep 45 minuets of reserve fuel on board for a planned flight.

      Sure would have been nice for that guy (and the chopper) if he bothered to follow that one…

      EDIT – Just heard a quick blurb on the radio news – That magical phrase “Australian-style gun control”. No other details, yet…

      1. avatar Chris T from KY says:

        I worked in aviation as a mechanic. Government regulations make things worse. But if a pilot takes off without full gas tanks, then I’d find another company to hunt from.

        It doesn’t take a government regulation for a pilot to check his fuel status before take off. If it does you are a sh*t pilot.

        1. avatar Casey says:

          “It doesn’t take a government regulation for a pilot to check his fuel status before take off. If it does you are a sh*t pilot.”

          Such is the case with many government regulations. Regulations are so your family can sue someone to pay for your funeral, but they don’t stop anyone from being crap at their job. And when you’re putting your life into someone’s hands, you have to be pretty dumb to think that a government rule is going to turn an unsafe idiot into a expert anything.

        2. avatar Joe R. says:

          There’s a minimum for safe fuel in certain flying conditions, but it’s more likely that the pilot intentionally took off with less (even much less) than a “full tank” of fuel, in order to keep the helo’s performance up (especially with the doors open / off). In aviation, everything’s a trade-off, and YMMV.

    2. avatar JS says:

      Agreed, do a little checking yourself before hopping in a chopper. Dont ask the government to come in and make your world safe.

  2. avatar EWTHeckman says:

    Ya know, it’s usually pretty obvious when a helicopter is in the process of falling out of the air. That would be a good time to keep your extremities—heck, your entire _body_—inside the vehicle.

    1. avatar neiowa says:

      Yeah, anytime the damn things are off of the ground. Just looking for a time and a place.

    2. avatar Eric in Oregon says:

      I thought the same thing. Target fixation maybe?

      1. avatar Joe R. says:

        Might as well enjoy the view.

    3. avatar Ben B says:

      But when you’re sitting on the floor, legs out the door, low altitude, and the engine fails, you are where you are, and not in a crashworthy seat. Even more important than making sure they are a commercial operation (that doesn’t eliminate engine failures), is making sure you’re properly secured in the aircraft.

      1. avatar Rattlerjake says:

        Why was this helo flying so low over a roadway, and shooting? A good helo pilot would have hit the dirt, not the asphalt – dirt is far more forgiving in a crash than concrete or asphalt!

  3. avatar MyName says:

    Another example that shows us that gravity is more dangerous than guns. Ban Gravity.

    1. avatar Tom of Toms says:

      Gun and ammo manufacturers have long fought any repeal on the laws of physics, particularly gravity, because it would hurt sales and undermine marketing efforts for the new-fangled, flatter-shooting cartridges they introduce every year.

      1. avatar MyName says:

        Hmm, true. Everything shoots pretty flat in space. What scope zero for satellite hunting?

        1. avatar Tom of Toms says:

          Dead-hold @ 1 lightyear.

          Also, mount that scope sideways. What were once elevation adjustments now figure lead. Now the question is, do I pick up my right-hand or left-hand-lead rig?

        2. avatar MyName says:

          Paging Elon Musk. I have a new idea for space tourism.

        3. avatar Kenneth says:

          The next question is really:
          If my projectile is moving at 5280 fps, where will my target(@ one lightyear away) be…. 5.865(OR, 5 thousand eight hundred sixty five Billion) Trillion years from now? That is a huge load of lead. The Star won’t even be a star by then, but a gas cloud or a new star. The universe probably won’t even be around by then.

        4. avatar MyName says:

          Details details, I just wanna shoot a gun in space. Is the moon a good backstop?

        5. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

          My Name. Just look at the thing. It looks like a shooting range on public land.

        6. avatar MyName says:

          I hadn’t noticed the shot up washing machines and TV’s but, now that you mention it …

        7. avatar Alan Esworthy says:


          Details details, I just wanna shoot a gun in space. Is the moon a good backstop?

          Never point a gun at anything you’re not willing to destroy. (-:

        8. avatar MyName says:

          Actual LOL

        9. avatar Defens says:

          Heck the star you’re shooting at is quite likely not even a star anymore – you’re just looking at the photons launched a few million years ago. Need a couple more “time of flight” calculations in the ol’ ballistic computer!

  4. avatar Texican says:

    It’s not the gravity. It’s the sudden deceleration at the end of your flight that gets you! 😉 Thankfully, I’ve only experienced that deceleration from heights of 10 feet or less. And not in an airplane of any sort.

    1. avatar MyName says:

      Maybe we should just repeal all of Newton’s laws to be on the safe side.

      1. avatar Special Ed says:

        No need to start repealing Newton’s laws. Just put up some signs. That should be all we need.

        1. avatar MyName says:

          Gravity Free Zones, for the children.

    2. avatar Cloudbuster says:

      A sudden deceleration from 9 feet destroyed one of my ankles.

      1. avatar MyName says:

        Are you sure it wasn’t .9 feet? I hear that’s worse.

  5. avatar Alan Esworthy says:

    “That means that you have maintenance programs, that means you have FAA oversight, that means you have an operations manual, you have a chief pilot, you have a director of operations, you have training standards,” says Sanger.

    All the maintenance programs, FAA oversight, operations manuals, chief pilots, operations directors, and training standards won’t help if your pilot is so careless and incompetent to FAIL to be constantly aware how much fuel he has, especially when that amount drops to ZERO.

    1. avatar Ben B says:


  6. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

    What part of strafing a ground target from a chopper is safe? Some activities just come with a certain level of risk.

    I don’t like choppers. They had more than enough chances to kill me as a young man. So I’m not going to pay some yahoo to relive that experience at my age.

    1. avatar Kenneth says:

      Choppers are a hell of a lot more dangerous than your avatar, and squirt bikes aren’t exactly safe…

      1. avatar Scoutino says:

        Squirt bike? Is that what puny little scooters are called these days? 😁

      2. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

        That avatar is an inside joke tween me and the missus.

      3. avatar Kenneth says:

        Can’t tell what size it is from the picture, but “squirt bikes” are what we in Montana always call any bike where you lay on the gas tank. Cause you mostly “squirt” them from one corner to the next, like toothpaste out of a tube hit by a sledge-o-matic…

  7. avatar Michael in AK says:

    Instructor: “keep your sh*t inside this f^cker until told to get out. always hang on to something. We take a round or the pilot has to itch his balls and you will go flying”

    There was more profanity but you get the point. Gravity is a bitch and even more so in a helicopter.

  8. avatar IFlyAirplanes says:

    Just because you’re Part 135 doesn’t mean you have better pilots or better maintenance. Just look at Papillon Helicopter tour’s accident history.

  9. avatar rogerthat says:

    This sounds just like an argument for government background checks, oversight and registration of… Oh wait it is… And I’m a private pilot so yeah, I know, I know.

  10. avatar Kenneth says:

    What a ridiculous claim. No chopper pilot, part 135(passenger charter regs) or not, is going to embark on a helo flight without sufficient fuel. Choppers cannot glide(autorotation is NOT a glide!) and without fuel everyone on board(including the pilot) is likely dead. Out of fuel incidents are usually either weather related or a fuel pump goes bad in flight. Ten will get you twenty this is one of those two and the hunter(and his ambulance chaser) are just looking for a free lunch.

    1. avatar Ben B says:

      They do autorotate, and it’s a required maneuver to get even a private pilot certificate to fly helicopters, and they have backup fuel pumps. An engine failure is not a death sentence.

      1. avatar Geoff PR says:

        As I understand it, in helicopters, there’s a minimum altitude required for the helo to autorotate. Flying 50-100 feet off the deck hog hunting may not have been enough.

        That may have bit that pilot. If just ran out of fuel, he’s a dumbass…

        1. avatar ropingdown says:

          The minimum is not one of altitude, but of airspeed. For example, the pilot of a 1970’s Bell Jet Ranger going at least 70 knots can experience engine failure 20 feet off the ground, yet climb to 100 feet and turn more than 90 degrees whie still maintaining adequate rotor speed to autorotate to the (now) reachable clearing.

          Engine failure at zero airspeed? You had better be no more than six or seven feet off the tarmac.

        2. avatar Kenneth says:

          Since he hit the ground within a second or two of the problem, likely enough it WAS at a very low and slow altitude/airspeed. No time at that point for backup pumps or anything other than hitting the turf. Or, in this case, the asphalt.

  11. avatar Jonathan-Houston says:

    “How about people are dangerous when they don’t properly know how to hunt, shoot or fly?”

    Naw, that’s OK, I’m going to stick with hunting, guns, and helicopters all being dangerous. More so if you don’t know what you’re doing, but still so even if you do.

    After all, it was right here on TTAG where I learned that you can do everything perfectly correct in a defensive gun use, but still end up dead. The reason being that, well, guns and criminal violence and defensive uses are inherently dangerous. The whole world is, for that matter. Getting through depends on your skill and some luck weighed against the intrinsic risk of the activity.

    1. avatar Gabriel says:

      “Getting through depends on your skill and some luck…”
      Getting through? GETTING THROUGH?!!
      NONE OF US ARE GETTING THROUGH! WE ARE ALL DOOMED! (Except me, I’m just the announcer.)

  12. avatar ACP_arms says:

    So, let me guess, the pilot here was getting paid to fly the heli, not just having the fuel paid for by the people they were flying? You really need to be a 135 operation and have a commercial pilot license if you want to do that and not get in trouble.

    1. avatar Kenneth says:

      You need a commercial license to fly for hire, but there is no need for a part 135 unless you are flying passengers further away from the home field than 25 statute miles, FARs 135.1(a)(5)
      “Nonstop sightseeing flights for compensation or hire that begin and end
      at the same airport, and are conducted within a 25 statute mile radius of
      that airport;”

      Naturally, not many charter flights come under this exception, but “sightseeing” flights do, and this is how these hunting excursions do it. Hunting from a helicopter is “sightseeing” of a sort. You have to see it before you can shoot it. They’re just seeing sights other than landscapes.

      1. avatar ACP_arms says:

        And most sightseeing flights aren’t below 500ft AGL, although less then 500ft AGL is legal most sightseeing is more then 1,000′ AGL.

        Being limited to no more then six of these flights a year, there must be a lot of heli pilots in that area.

    2. avatar Ben B says:

      You read the part about six hunts a year, and remain within 25 miles of the airport, right? But I’m pretty sure those are supposed to be incidental things, not their main mission. I’m guessing they’re within the letter of the law, maybe not the intent.

  13. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    Running out of fuel in an aircraft on a relatively short pleasure flight is absolutely inexcusable. The pilot should go to prison for gross negligence causing serious bodily harm. (I have no idea if there is an actual law for such a thing or the official wording for the crime. If there is no such law, there should be.)

    1. avatar Ben B says:

      I guess ‘Sanger’ is just a random guy they found to make up an opinion. He ‘reckons’ they ran out of fuel. I’m guessing it was something different. This Sanger guy seems to have a hard-on for helo companies like this, so who knows what he’ll say about them. They could have been doing everything right, and might have had the same issue even if they were operating under Part 135. But Sanger seems to dislike them…

  14. avatar Mark N. says:

    So this Sanger dude isn’t just a pilot, he is Swan’s attorney. He was not there when it happened, and unless there has been discovery as to the actual fuel load aboard at take off and the flight time, he is just whistling Dixie from his anal aperture. Which is pretty typical from plaintiff’s attorneys.
    Now truth be told, I am not a pilot, but my understanding is that checking fuel status is a part of the mandatory pre-flight inspection for all aircraft, and that the pilot is required to carry enough fuel not just for the anticipated duration of flight, but a substantial reserve as well. Last but not least, the primary cause of most private aircraft crashes is engine failure, whether due to mechanical defect (failed component) or bad fuel, the rest being a medical issue with the pilot or weather.

  15. avatar Ima Yeti says:

    Pilot in command should have checked the fuel tank as part of his pre flight duties. Period. Blaming the FAA is idiotic.

    1. avatar MyName says:

      I have to say, I have a hard time blaming this incident on anyone other than the pilot as well.

      I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t get away with claiming that the reason I ran out of gas in my car on my way to that important meeting was because the DOT had not supplied me with a NASCAR pit crew.

  16. avatar Tori S says:

    So many have no idea what Part 91 or Part 135 mean.

    I am involved in a Part 91 helicopter touring business. It’s a commercial operation, approved with a Part 91.147 letter of authorization by the FAA. It’s not a loophole. We can fly as many flights as we want each year – so long as we stay within 25 nm of the passenger-pickup point. We still have to do the same 100 hour aircraft inspections any Part 135 operation would. The FAA still randomly conducts inspections of our ship. Our pilots have to be on a drug testing program. The pilots have the same training. The pilots have the same physical exams.

    Part 135 wouldn’t be the slightest bit safer, but would remove the 25 nm restriction and would be a whole lot more paperwork. It does not mean the pilot is more experienced. It doesn’t mean they fly better. It doesn’t mean the ship gets more TLC. It’s the same aircraft and the same pilot, just more red tape.

    It wouldn’t be the slightest bit safer.

  17. avatar cg123m says:

    I am a helicopter pilot. I am commercial and instrument rated.

    Accidents happen to commercial pilots just as often as they happen to private pilots. Forcing an individual to turn his operation into a commercial one does not magically make that operation more safe.

    Most hog hunts occur in a Robinson helicopter. Which is literally the most dangerous helicopter to fly, in the world. Without question. It is the ONLY helicopter in general aviation use that requires an additional 10 hour rating just to fly it. Yes, to be certified in a commercial aircraft you need a rating to fly customers. However, the Robinson requires the rating even for private certification. It is a different control system, has a very low inertia rotor system and is notorious for chopping its own tail boom off in emergencies. The hunter and aircrew are fortunate they were able to land on a hard surface with only minor injuries. Most helicopter crashes do not have such an outcome.

    This “loophole” is not something that needs to be closed, or would it have prevented this guy’s crash, any more than universal background checks would have stopped a school shooting.

    Helicopters are inherently dangerous, but increased government regulation does not magically make them safer. The grand canyon crash last week was by a commercial operator. The military crashes helicopters left and right, and trust me no one has more oversight than military aviation.

    “He sprained his ankle! There should be a law to prevent that!”

    Does no one else see the irony and hypocrisy in that?

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      Are you familiar with what the minimum forward speed-height requirement needed to auto-rotate a Robinson?

      1. avatar cg123m says:

        No idea, I am not qualified on them. Nor will I ever be dragged into one…I am sure the avoid region charts are available online for the truly interested.

        That being said, even in my dual engine turbine with a high inertia rotor system, if I am low enough to the ground to aim and engage with a rifle, I am not going to be able to get the collective down fast enough to properly autorotate. Its really just a hovering auto at that point, and I am hoping that the struts and a little bit of cushion save my life.

        Keep the greasy side down

        1. avatar Geoff PR says:

          If I ever elect to get into a rotary-wing vehicle, I think it would be a tractor driven auto-gyro, like the antique ones, not a pusher-type like a Benson, they are prone to a nasty mode of failure of pushover, I think they call it, it’s kinda lethal.

          Anyways, thanks, fly safe…

        2. avatar cg123m says:

          I highly recommend anything that has two turbine engines. And thats about it.

        3. avatar ACP_arms says:

          Anything with two turbines if someone else is paying for fuel that is.

        4. avatar Paddyo says:

          I own a pusher type gyroplane, it’s from autogyro in Germany and they got rid of the pushover problem by putting on a horizontal stabilizer tail that works very well.
          It has two seats and will haul 550 pounds with full fuel and i try to keep it full, the dumbest thing you can do is run it out of gas.
          You always run aircraft on time not miles.

  18. avatar RCC says:

    I am wondering how he flew out of the helicopter if he was wearing any sort of decent seat belt?

    My experience with helicopters started with being a passenger in Hueys. Then years later being over swamps doing mosquito control. My own flying is limited to some small fixed wing. Checking fuel etc and using installed safety equipment was always part of pre flight.

  19. avatar Curtis in IL says:

    Ok, I think I get it. The pilot didn’t check his fuel gauge before the flight, and he didn’t check it during the flight,

    … and it’s the government’s fault!

    Sorry, but regulation can’t fix stupid.

  20. avatar rt66paul says:

    Attention to the rules set down by the government would have saved the US from bailing out banks that were using government money on wild ventures. These rules, just like aviation rules, OSHA rules, LE rules and others are what kept so many in the US out of trouble.

    These rules, like any law, should come up for review and should allow for safe practices due to technology, but allowing for profit companies to operate without rules is crazy.

    Could you imagine an electric company that had a nuclear reactor being allowed to operate without any oversight?

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      Japan had national oversight out the ass on the Fukashima reactor, and it didn’t do much good when TEPCO’s corporate arrogance let them put the damn backup generators where seawater could flood them…

  21. avatar Wally1 says:

    It is irresponsible people that cause the rest of us to have to deal with increased regulation. Pilot did not check his fuel, sounds simple. How about tire pressure monitoring systems, all because idiots would not check tire pressure on their vehicles drove on under inflated tires causing the tire to overheat and fail. So the rest of us responsible car owners suffer for other stupidity. Same with guns.

  22. avatar MLee says:

    Running out of fuel or having some other engine failure at low altitude in a helicopter isn’t good. There is a transition time when entering an auto-rotation and going slow at low altitude pretty much means entering a successful auto-rotation isn’t likely to happen. There is a point where the air stops being pulled down through the rotors and starts going up through the rotors for an auto-rotation. If you’re not in a hover, you’ll need rotor RPM, airspeed and some altitude. Fifty feet isn’t going to work. Things are going to happen damn fast at low altitude. No wonder the craft was balled up.

  23. avatar . says:

    That’s what happens when you hunt helicopters

  24. avatar cg123m says:

    Where is everyone getting the information that the aircraft ran out of fuel?

    1. avatar Kenneth says:

      Its just a claim by the guy’s ambulance chasing barrister. Likely pulled directly from his A**…

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