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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rotorcraft Report: Maryland I-70 Helicopter Victims Mulled Driving

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a preliminary report on the I-70 helicopter crash in Maryland that resulted in the deaths of the pilot and three passengers. The Robinson R44 helicopter struck a guy wire that crossed I-70 near Boonsboro the night of July 23 and crashed just off the roadway. Advanced Helicopter Concepts (AHC), a nonprofit charity and helicopter pilot training organization based at Frederick Municipal Airport (FDK), was maintaining the helicopter for a private owner, who is a trustee for the Advanced Helicopter Youth Foundation (AHYF). While the NTSB report did not reveal who piloted the R44, media outlets have identified the pilot as Jeffrey Nordaas, 24, of Columbia, Md. Two of the passengers — Niall Booth, 43 and George Tutor, 39 — were employees of AHC. Kim Felix, 48, was the other passenger.

NTSB notes that on the day of the accident, the helicopter flew from FDK to Hagerstown Regional Airport (HGR) to transport passengers, followed by sightseeing rides for an AHYF event. After finishing business meetings and the rides, the pilot called another AHC employee to ask about weather conditions for the return flight to FDK. The employee "informed the pilot that the weather conditions were ‘miserable’ with severe thunderstorms in the area," the NTSB report states. He offered to drive to HGR to pick up the pilot and passengers, but the pilot said he would "wait out" the storm, calling the employee back around an hour later, at around 10:00 pm. According to NTSB, the employee relayed that the rain had stopped, but said it was still foggy with wind and lightning in the area. He renewed the offer to pick them up with a car or minivan. The pilot again said he would wait out the storm, and NTSB estimates that the helicopter took off from HGR at around 10:15 pm. "The HGR air traffic control tower closed at [10:00 pm], and there were no known communications with the helicopter," the report continues.

One witness driving eastbound on I-70 described the helicopter appearing to fly into "low clouds," and turn around to head west when it hit the power lines, crashed into the ground and "burst into flames." Another witness said the helicopter was flying parallel with the interstate when it "seemed to be getting lower" and faded out of view, followed shortly after with "sparks in the sky."

The helicopter struck an unmarked steel guy wire about 70 feet high that ran across I-70 near mile marker 37. According to power company records, a power fluctuation took place at 10:26 pm. Two power lines below the guy wire were also damaged. The resulting fire severely damaged the R44’s cabin, a majority of the main rotor gearbox and all the drive belts. NTSB took the wreckage to a storage facility in Clayton, Del. Initial inspection of the airframe, engine and drive system does not indicate mechanical malfunctions. The helicopter’s most recent inspection took place in March 2009. AHC hired the pilot in January 2009. He amassed a total of 630 hours of flight experience, and held a flight instructor certificate with ratings for rotorcraft and instrument helicopter operations, as well as a commercial pilot certificate.

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