In a previous post, we discussed the publicly-available facts regarding the January 29th crash of a medical transportation helicopter near the town of Zaleski, Ohio. In that post we speculated that poor weather conditions may have been a factor in that accident, which resulted in the destruction of the aircraft and the deaths of the three crewmembers on board. On Monday, the NTSB released its preliminary report regarding the circumstances of that accident.
Initial Findings of the Accident
The involved helicopter was a Bell 407, a single-engine turboprop aircraft, whose interior had been configured for the helicopter’s “air ambulance” mission. The helicopter was operated by Viking Aviation, LLC, doing business as (dba) Survival Flight, Inc.
The “night shift” Survival Flight pilot accepted the mission, but it would be flown by the “day shift” pilot. The report makes no comment regarding whether or not the oncoming pilot received a complete mission briefing prior to departure.
When the aircraft departed its base in Grove City (OH), local weather conditions met the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) “minimums” for the flight to take place under Visual Flight Rules (VFR).
As per Survival Flight’s operational procedure, the flight was monitored by an Operations Control Specialist who was in voice contact with the flight crew. The same specialist was also aware of the flight’s position and heading via flight tracking software that was present on the aircraft and operational at the time.
About 15 minutes into the flight, the aircraft was noted (via its flight tracking software) to have entered a right turn. Within seconds of that indication, the aircraft entered a sharpleft turn. All communication with the aircraft, both by voice and telemetry, were then lost and the Operations Specialist immediately activated the company’s emergency operations plan. The aircraft’s wreckage was located some four hours later.
The crash site was described in the NTSB report as being:
“… on a tree-covered hill and exhibit[ing] significant fragmentation. The wreckage and debris path extended about 600 ft downslope on a heading of about 345° magnetic. A portion of the front-left skid tube was found at the start of the wreckage path, followed by the main rotor hub and blades, tail boom and tail rotor, cockpit and cabin, and the engine and transmission deck. Tree branches broken about 30 ft above ground level were observed near the front-left skid tube. Additionally, one main rotor blade had separated from the main rotor hub and was embedded in a tree. The elevation of the wreckage area ranged from 850 to 980 ft above mean sea level (msl). There was no evidence of a post-crash fire, but a strong smell of fuel was reported by first responders …”
Conclusions from the NTSB Report
The NTSB report, which was complied with the assistance of local and state officials as well as the FAA, offers very little “new” information andnone that would contradict our earlier speculations. The report does, however, suggest that:
Except for the final seconds of the flight, there was nothing to suggest that the aircraft was in distress or was deviating from its flight plan. The pilot may, of course, have been “too busy” dealing with an inflight emergency to make a “Mayday” broadcast.
The reported right turn, followed by an abrupt left turn,could suggest that the pilot was searching for a suitable emergency landing area.
The description of damage to the trees at the crash site indicates that the helicopter was moving bothforward anddownward with respect to the ground at the time of impact. This is also suggestive of an attempted emergency landing.
The presence of “… a strong smell of fuel …” at the crash site indicates that “fuel starvation”was not a factor in the accident.
The NTSB report does make mention of an item that we noted in our previous post: two other medical flight operators haddeclined to undertake the same flight, with both operators citing concerns over weather conditions as their reason. Since there was a “last minute” change of pilots at Survival Flight, it is unknown if the second pilot received a full pre-mission briefing andmay have encountered deteriorating weather conditions once airborne.
We will continue to follow developments in this tragedy and will post updates as they become available.