An NTSB investigation of the KOMO-TV helicopter crash in 2014 reports no mechanical troubles were found. It details an issue with the preflight checklist and the long hours worked by the pilot.
A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into a fatal KOMO-TV helicopter crash in 2014 found no evidence of mechanic problems with the chopper.
However, a factual report released Tuesday reveals that the preflight checklist provided to the pilot was out-of-date and missing a revision designed to prevent a specific anomaly that had caused crashes of this model helicopter during take-off.
In addition, the report confirms that the pilot worked very long hours, adding the early morning part-time KOMO shifts to a full-time day job.
The helicopter, attempting to take off from the helipad on the roof of KOMO-TV’s Fisher Plaza headquarters near the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Broad Street, crashed into the street, hit two cars and burst into flames. The pilot and a photojournalist onboard died, and a person in one of the cars was gravely injured.
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The NTSB report — based on witness statements, reviews of three security-camera recordings, inspection of the crash debris and a review of pilot records, among other items — contains a detailed factual narrative but doesn’t arrive at any conclusions. NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said a final report that usually follows in about eight weeks will attempt to ascertain a probable cause.
The factual report describes how the helicopter landed on the helipad on the roof of the building and remained there for about 15 minutes before attempting a take-off for a repositioning flight to Renton Municipal Airport.
After the helicopter lifted off, it began to spin counterclockwise as it ascended. As it began to move away from the helipad, it “transitioned to a nose-low (tail-high) attitude” then began to descend rapidly.
Debris was found within a 340-foot radius of the main wreckage.
The factual report seems to rule out the possibility of mechanical malfunction, or anything amiss with the engine.
The crash killed pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59; and photojournalist Bill Strothman, 62. Richard Newman, 38, who was driving one of the cars struck by the helicopter, was severely burned.
Pfitzner worked part-time flying the newsgathering chopper on the early-morning weekday shifts before going to his full-time day job as a technical analyst at Boeing, where he had worked for 36 years.
The report describes his longtime routine of rising at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., reporting for work at KOMO at 5 a.m., then after his helicopter shift reporting going straight to his Boeing job.
Upon finishing his workday, he’d “predictably” get to bed at 8 p.m., the report states.
The report cites a family member saying that Pfitzner “was in excellent health, had no sleep disorders and had performed this schedule for many years.”
The NTSB has found pilot fatigue to be a factor in other helicopter crashes, with officials saying a lack of sleep can reduce reaction time, judgment, situational awareness and attention.
When the crash occurred at around 7:40 a.m., Pfitzner had already been out on assignment, flying to Covington to get footage of a water-main break, according to KOMO.
However, that day was his first day flying the Airbus AS 350 helicopter after he had completed 3.5 hours of training on the chopper soon after its delivery to its Renton base 39 days earlier.
The report indicates that the pre-take-off checklist provided to Pfitzner was not up-to-date. It was missing a revision that mandated a change to the procedure for starting the helicopter, designed to avoid a specific take-off anomaly.
Between 2000 and 2006, this model of Airbus helicopter had five known events that involved the inadvertent unlocking or improper locking during pre-take-off checks of a control lever that adjusts the pitch of all the rotor blades.
Failure to ensure that this control was properly locked prior to performing the pre-takeoff hydraulic checks resulted in an inadvertent lift off and a counterclockwise spin, followed by loss of control and impact with the ground, the report states.
In those five crashes, the helicopters did not rise high before hitting the ground and none involved fatal injuries.
In response, Airbus in 2009 mandated a change to the settings during the preflight checks so that the rotors would not exceed about 70 percent of maximum rotation speed. With this change, the report states, “the helicopter should not become airborne” even if the control lever becomes unlocked during the system checks.
This change was included in a revised pilot checklist sent to the helicopter operator, Helicopters Inc., of Chalkia, Ill., in 2010.
“However, the checklist in use at the time (of the accident) was not revised,” the report states, the “result of an oversight” according to Helicopters Inc.