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Deadly helicopter flight was delayed by weather

July 24, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

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    BOONSBORO -- The pilot of a helicopter that crashed Thursday night on Interstate 70 at South Mountain, killing all four people aboard in a fiery crash, had delayed the flight for two hours because of bad weather, a transportation safety official said Friday.

    The helicopter crashed on the interstate east of Hagerstown shortly after taking off for the 25-mile flight from Hagerstown Regional Airport to Frederick, Md.

    Those killed in the crash were tentatively identified by Maryland State Police as Jeffrey D. Nordaas, 24, of Columbia, Md.; Kim R. Felix, 48, and Niall R.Y. Booth, 43, both of New Market, Md., and George H. Tutor Jr., 39, of Westminster, Md.

    Neither the National Transportation Safety Board nor Maryland State Police on Friday would identify the pilot of the helicopter, but Nordaas was the only licensed commercial pilot aboard, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and the agency's registry records matched information the NTSB provided at a news conference.

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No one on the ground was injured in the crash of the Robinson R44 helicopter, which was reported at about 10:30 p.m. Thursday near the mile-marker 37 of eastbound I-70.

Nordaas, Booth and Tutor worked for Frederick-based Advanced Helicopter Concepts, and Felix, the lone female passenger, was a friend who had flown with them to Hagerstown, the NTSB said.

Advanced Helicopter Concepts began operations in 1987 at Frederick Municipal Airport, according to its Web site at www.advancedhelicopter.com.

The company's main focus is providing helicopter training, the Web site says. It also offers aerial platforms for photographers and videographers, helicopter introductory flights and lessons, and powerline/pipeline patrol.

The group made the flight from Frederick to Hagerstown Regional Airport for an event at which the helicopter was used to give rides to benefit the Advanced Helicopter Youth Foundation, a charity that benefits at-risk youth, Kitty Higgins of the NTSB said during a press conference Friday morning at Hagerstown Regional Airport.

The pilot waited two hours after the event ended at 8 p.m. before taking off from Hagerstown, she said. The Associated Press reported that Booth told his son he was waiting to fly back to Frederick because of bad weather.

Although there was fog in the area, NTSB officials would not say if weather conditions played a role in the crash.

Witnesses said the helicopter was flying low, and at some point hit power lines in the area that are about 70 feet above the ground. One witness also described seeing sparks.

The helicopter was destroyed and fire consumed the cockpit, making the crash unsurvivable, Higgins said.

All four aboard were pronounced dead at the scene and the bodies were taken to the state medical examiner in Baltimore, Kevin Lewis, director of Washington County Emergency Services, said Friday morning.

The pilot took off at 10:15 p.m. for a visual flight, which Higgins described as "see and avoid" flying. The pilot had no contact with air traffic control and did not have to file a flight plan, she said.

She said it had not been determined whether the aircraft had instruments that would assist a pilot in bad weather. If the helicopter were equipped with such instruments, the pilot would have been rated to use them, she said.

The altitude at which to fly and whether to take off would have been decisions left to the pilot's discretion, Higgins said.

Higgins described the pilot as a commercial pilot certified to fly both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. FAA records show his medical certification had been updated in July, and he had 630 hours of experience, she said.

Investigators did not yet know how familiar the pilot was with the area, Higgins said. She said a witness described the weather at the time of the crash as clear close to the ground, but foggy at a higher altitude.

All of the wreckage was recovered by Friday morning, Higgins said. It was being kept at a hangar at Hagerstown Regional Airport and will be taken to Delaware for further inspection, she said.

Maryland State Police initially responded to the crash, but NTSB personnel began arriving at the scene at about 12:30 a.m. Friday, Higgins said.

Firefighting units from Mount Aetna and Myersville, Md., were the first to arrive and put out the fire in about 20 minutes.

Community Rescue Service and units from Funkstown also responded to the crash site and Hagerstown Regional Airport officials were called in, Lewis said. Hagerstown Regional Airport manager Carolyn Motz was at the scene Thursday night.

Investigators will examine the helicopter's maintenance records and pilot records, Higgins said. They will interview witnesses and first responders, and examine the weather conditions at the time of the crash.


View Helicopter crash in a larger map


Victims remembered as dedicated pilots, business people and humanitarians

By HEATHER KEELS

heather.keels@herald-mail.com

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