Two men injured in the deadly 2014 crash of a KOMO-TV helicopter claim the news station and its aviation contractor are to blame for allowing a pilot who was not commercially certified to pilot a substitute chopper during the ill-fated flight.
Before a KOMO-TV helicopter plunged off the station’s rooftop near the Space Needle four years ago, killing two people aboard and crashing onto two motorists on the street below, the aviation contractor that supplied the chopper says it raised safety concerns about landing at KOMO’s heliport.
Pilot Gary Pfitzner “was not super experienced” or commercially certified to fly the Eurocopter “AStar” — a temporary substitute for the Bell chopper he’d flown for years for KOMO, said Jeffrey Lieber, vice president of operations for contractor Helicopters Inc., during a sworn deposition last year.
“We felt it was better to operate from the (Renton Municipal) airport,” Lieber said. “Gives us a wider margin of safety because we’re not operating from a constricted, confined area.”
But instead, the news station, which had only recently been purchased by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, pressured the helicopter firm to have Pfitzner refuel the loaner chopper on KOMO’s helipad — a landing spot elevated 75 feet in a congested city that posed more risks for pilots and the public, Lieber said.
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The reason? Sinclair wanted to save money on fuel, he said.
“They had a fuel tank at the helipad, so they wanted us to operate from the helipad because it was more cost-effective than paying retail at the airport,” Leiber testified.
Sinclair’s top official at KOMO disputes pressuring the contractor, saying the firm and its pilot had final say on decisions made during the ill-fated flight.
The never-before-publicized details of the alleged circumstances leading up to the fiery crash on March 18, 2014, that killed Pfitzner and cameraman Bill Strothman, and injured motorists Guillermo Sanchez and Richard Newman, are now at the center of a civil trial underway in King County Superior Court.
Sanchez and Newman separately have sued Sinclair and Helicopters Inc., as well as aircraft manufacturer Airbus and Pfitzner’s estate, as part of a complex case in which defendants are pointing fingers at each other. A jury ultimately will decide whether, and for how much, each defendant is negligent for the two men’s injuries.
“This was a pilot, unfortunately, that was set up to fail,” Newman’s attorney, David Beninger, said during opening remarks in the trial. “ …(T)his wasn’t an accident, a simple error. This was an accident waiting to happen because of institutional problems as to what they did by not following the contract and safety protocols.”
Both men claim their lives were changed for the worse because of the accident. Sanchez, 46, a handyman from Mountlake Terrace, injured his shoulder and ankle while trying to escape his burning truck after the falling chopper struck its hood, then watched Pfitzner and Strothman perish in the crash’s fiery aftermath. He underwent shoulder surgery and now suffers post-traumatic stress, according to testimony and records.
Newman, 42, a clinical-trials manager, suffered serious burns and head injuries after the chopper landed on his car and spent a month in Harborview Medical Center. He now must actively avoid the sun to protect his grafted skin and has suffered memory problems and nightmares, according to testimony and records.
Already, officials for the St. Louis-based Helicopters Inc. have conceded the firm breached its contract with KOMO during the flight.
Pfitzner was an experienced chopper pilot, but he’d been minimally trained on the Airbus-manufactured loaner helicopter used for the newsgathering mission, and wasn’t certified to Federal Aviation Administration standards to commercially fly it — a violation of the firm’s contract with KOMO, records and testimony show.
The AS 350 B2 helicopter provided by Helicopters Inc. to replace the station’s usual helicopter while it underwent maintenance also didn’t meet the contract terms, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. The agreement required any substitute aircraft to be “of similar make and model” to the American-made Bell 407 Pfitzner typically flew.
In fact, the day of the crash was the first and only time Pfitzner had landed and taken off from the KOMO helipad in the AStar.
KOMO agreed to use the helicopter after receiving “assurances” from its contractor it was similar enough, according to General Manager Janene Drafs.
Drafs testified last week she was “unaware” that Helicopters Inc. had raised safety concerns about Pfitzner landing on KOMO’s helipad and disputed the news station pressured the contractor to land there for cost reasons.
“If there was direct conversation between someone in my organization and someone at Heli, Inc. that specifically states that, I have not seen it,” she said.
Drafs said KOMO couldn’t find any emails or other records showing the contractor raised such concerns or that KOMO knew at the time Pfitzner wasn’t certified to fly the substitute helicopter. If any such emails existed, she said, they likely were destroyed under Sinclair’s retention policies.
Drafs denied that KOMO bore any responsibility, contending the contractor and its pilot had the final say on where to land and refuel under an agreement that paid Helicopters Inc. up to $87,000 per month.
But despite the fatal crash and contract breach that came to light, Drafs said KOMO still contracts with Helicopters Inc. Drafs also said the news station didn’t conduct its own internal investigation about the matter.
A two-and-a-half-year National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of the crash could not pinpoint exactly why Pfitzner lost “hydraulic boost” while taking off from the helipad, causing the helicopter to spin out of control. The probe found no mechanical problems, but noted the helicopter’s hydraulic system had been too damaged in the fire to examine it for problems.
Issued in September 2016, the NTSB’s final report cited pilot error as the most likely cause for the crash, theorizing that Pfitzner, who had been operating the helicopter with an outdated preflight checklist, probably didn’t re-engage a hydraulic press button during takeoff, leading to the loss of control.
During depositions taken in April 2017, both Lieber and Bill DeReamer, Helicopters Inc.’s director of safety, testified the company’s own investigation also found no mechanical problems and concluded a mistake by Pfitzner likely caused the crash.
Helicopters Inc. has since changed its story, now blaming the crash on a jammed slide valve, a component in the hydraulic system controlling the chopper’s tail rotor.
Steven Rosen, the Portland attorney representing both Helicopters Inc. and Sinclair, despite their at times conflicting contentions, claims the equipment failure is manufacturer Airbus’ fault. The mechanical failure only was discovered after officials for the aviation contractor testified in their depositions they believed pilot error caused the crash, Rosen said.
Airbus attorneys Bill Robinson and Steve Fogg dispute Rosen’s defense, contending there’s never been a documented instance of such a mechanical defect with any AS 350 model during its 40-year history.
NTSB investigators, due to the crash’s fire damage, couldn’t rule out hydraulic-system mechanical failures for causing the accident, but found such scenarios “unlikely.”
Drafs testified the news station no longer uses its rooftop helipad, and eventually worked with the Seattle Fire Department to remove the jet fuel from the building for safety reasons.
But emails turned over by Helicopters Inc., appear to indicate KOMO wanted its contractor to use and refuel at the station’s helipad a year after the crash. In a March 2015 email, initiated by Drafs’ executive assistant, KOMO sought to “schedule a conference call to resume landing on the heliport — to empty the fuel tank on site here. There is currently 6,441 gallons of fuel in it.”
Helicopters Inc. officials later discussed the email among themselves.
“I can sympathize with KOMO’s situation, they have several thousands of dollars tied up in Jet Fuel in their storage tank,” DeReamer emailed to other officials. “This puts us in a precarious situation. if we start landing on the helipad to burn up the remaining fuel this might send the wrong message that we are willing to use the helipad on a full-time bases [sic].”
The trial is expected to continue for several weeks.