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Helicopter hit wire before deadly crash

July 31, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A helicopter that crashed last week while returning from Hagerstown to Frederick, Md., killing four people, "struck and broke an unmarked, steel guy-wire" about 70 feet off the ground, according to a preliminary report released Friday.

The report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said an employee of the helicopter company who lives near Frederick Municipal Airport told the pilot the weather was "miserable" and twice offered to drive to Hagerstown to pick up the group.

The pilot, however, decided to wait for weather conditions to improve and fly back to Frederick, according to the report.

En route, the helicopter "appeared to fly into 'low clouds,' turned around, and was heading back toward the west" when it struck power lines, according to the report.

All four people in the helicopter died when it crashed July 23 about 10:26 p.m., landing on Interstate 70 near Boonsboro.

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The NTSB report does not name the pilot or passengers, but the pilot has been identified as Jeffrey D. Nordaas, 24, of Columbia, Md.

The passengers were identified by Maryland State Police as George H. Tutor Jr., 39, of Westminster, Md., and Kim R. Felix, 48, and Niall R.Y. Booth, 43, both of New Market, Md.

Nordaas and Tutor were employees of Advanced Helicopter Concepts, a flight training company based at the Frederick airport. Booth was directing a charity event for a nonprofit organization affiliated with the helicopter company, and Felix had flown with the group to attend an event at Hagerstown Regional Airport.

On the day of the accident, Nordaas had been giving rides in a Robinson R44 helicopter in conjunction with the event at the airport, according to the NTSB report. The rides ended about 8 p.m., the report says.

About 9 p.m., Nordaas called another employee of Advanced Helicopter Concepts to ask about weather conditions for the return flight, according to the report.

The employee told Nordaas weather conditions were "miserable," with severe thunderstorms in the area, and offered to drive in his car to the Hagerstown airport to bring the helicopter passengers back to Frederick, according to the report. Nordaas said he would "wait out" the weather, the report says.

Nordaas called back sometime between 10 and 10:15 p.m. to again ask about the weather, according to the report. The employee told Nordaas the rain had stopped, but it still was foggy and windy, with lightning in the area, the report says.

The employee again offered to pick the group up, but Nordaas again said he would wait for the weather to improve, according to the report. Nordaas also said the wife of one of the passengers owned a minivan and could pick them up if needed, the report says.

The NTSB estimates the helicopter left the Hagerstown airport about 10:15 p.m.

The air traffic control tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport closed at 10 p.m. and there were no known communications with the helicopter, according to the report.

The helicopter was certified to be operated under visual flight rules only, according to the report. No flight plan had been filed for the flight.

Drivers on Interstate 70 reported seeing the helicopter flying parallel to the interstate.

One witness described it as a "dark night" with fog about 50 feet above the road.

The witness said he saw the helicopter fly into low clouds and turn around to head back west. The helicopter struck power lines just as his car passed under them, according to the report.

"The helicopter impacted the ground and 'burst into flames,'" the report quotes the driver as saying.

Another driver said he noticed the helicopter seemed to get lower, then disappeared from view. After that, he saw "sparks in the sky" and saw the helicopter descend toward the road, according to the report.

The accident site was near the top of South Mountain at an elevation of about 1,130 feet above sea level, according to the report. The steel guy wire the helicopter struck extended perpendicular over I-70, near mile marker 37, the report says.

The helicopter came to rest on its side about 42 feet west of the power lines, and a fire consumed the cabin, according to the report.

Initial examinations of the wreckage did not reveal evidence there were any mechanical malfunctions before impact, according to the report.

Nordaas was hired by Advanced Helicopter Concepts in January, according to the report. He was a certified commercial pilot and flight instructor with 630 hours of total flight experience as of July 13.

The NTSB will continue to investigate the crash before issuing a final report, which includes a decision as to the probable cause of the crash and might include safety recommendations.

The report is available at www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief.asp?ev_id=20090724X05537&key=1

Staff writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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