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Pilot picked flight path

Though Bayflite pilots have a routine for crossing the bay, they are not directed by controllers for much of the trip.

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- From the rooftop helipad at Bayfront Medical Center, Mark Wallace coaxed Bayflite 3 into the air, knowing he had a lot of options.

The tower at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport had cleared him to fly northeast.

photo
[Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
A Bayflite helicopter takes off from the helicopter pad at Bayfront Medical Center on Wednesday.
Exactly where northeast wasn't specified by pilot or air traffic controller.

"If he says he's northeast bound, that covers a lot of area," the tower manager, Glenn Lenhoff, said Wednesday. "He can fly more north or he can fly more east. We just make sure there's no (air) traffic out there in his path. We give them the okay and a frequency to call and get rid of them."

More than 24 hours after the twin-engine helicopter hit a radio tower and crashed near Weedon Island, investigators searched for pieces of the wreckage.

With no obvious mechanical cause for the crash, investigators had more questions than answers about why Wallace, a surgically precise pilot, hit an obstacle whose location he knew as well as his own driveway.

And why, en route to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, was Wallace flying near Weedon Island, an area dotted with radio and television transmission towers that soar hundreds of feet into the air? On paper, at least, it appears a more direct route would have been to fly out over Tampa Bay, then cut northeast toward Tampa.

"We don't do that," said Terry Campbell, local manager for Rocky Mountain Helicopters, the Utah company that leased the BK117 that flew as Bayflite 3.

"If we flew due east from the hospital, we would overfly the Whitted tower, which you don't want to do, and we quit cutting across town because of noise complaints from folks on Snell Isle."

So the Bayflite pilots developed the routine of flying a route to the north, with Fourth Street to their east and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street to their west.

"Then, when they got up in the area of Weedon Island, they would turn right and fly alongside the Gandy Bridge to Tampa, a route we call the Gandy Transition," Campbell said. "It looks like the pilot got too far north before he turned right."

At normal flight speeds of 140 to 150 mph, Wallace would have had little time to avoid the collision. His aircraft was eating up ground at a rate of a half mile every 12 or 13 seconds.

Investigators reiterated Wednesday that they have no evidence of Wallace contacting Tampa International Airport on the frequency given to him by Whitted controllers. He would have done so shortly after leaving Pinellas County, but he never got that far.

Russ Spray, chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Helicopters, said part of his company's investigation is the safety of the typical route to Tampa flown by Bayflite.

"We're researching the routing to determine what the prescribed flight paths and procedures are," Spray said. "We have a team on the ground going over that right now."

According to the autopsy reports, Wallace, 31, paramedic Erik Hangartner, 29, and flight nurse Alicia Betita-Collins, 51, all died instantly of blunt impact injuries.

Scot Cary, an investigator with the Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office, said the autopsy revealed nothing to suggest that Wallace suffered from any health problem that could have led to the crash.

"Everything is consistent with the crash as far as the injuries . . . are concerned," he said.

A toxicology report on each victim will be finished in several weeks. The Federal Aviation Administration also does its own battery of blood and tissue tests.

Hangartner's funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the Starkey Road Baptist Church in Largo. Burial will be at Palms Memorial Park Cemetery in Sarasota, and the family has asked that memorial contributions be made to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Funeral arrangements for the other two victims were not released Wednesday.

One other Bayflite helicopter resumed service Wednesday, and another was expected to resume today. While they were down, their calls were covered by Tampa General Hospital's Aeromed service, though Aeromed took only three to four calls that normally would have gone to Bayflite.

Meanwhile, National Transportation Safety Board inspector Phillip Powell and a team of investigators muscled through a quarter mile of mangrove swamp and thigh-high water to reach the wreckage.

By late afternoon, they had started examining the main cabin, lying on its left side, and had located the tail assembly, Powell said. No flight data or cockpit voice recorders were on board, but the helicopter did send information like altitude and airspeed to local radar. That data will be recovered by the NTSB.

Tips of the main rotor blades, key evidence in the inquiry because they could clarify what hit what and when, have not been found.

Investigators did find a length of cable that might be part of the guy wire support for the fallen radio tower. WRMD-AM 680, a contemporary Spanish-language station, will be off the air indefinitely.

Airlifting the helicopter wreckage from the muck to a large flatbed truck was scheduled to begin early this morning. Eventually it will be taken to an NTSB facility in Griffin, Ga., for examination.

"We would like to account for an entire helicopter," Powell said. But finding all the pieces might prove difficult.

"You have to understand the dynamics of a helicopter," said Powell, a helicopter specialist and a helicopter pilot from Atlanta. "You have a lot of external moving parts. Given their velocity, they could be thrown anywhere."

As the wreckage is reconstructed, the NTSB also will look to the last days of the pilot's life.

"Whether there are other factors that came into play, we don't know," said Spray, of Rocky Mountain Helicopters. "The NTSB will prepare a profile. They will ask questions about the pilot's performance. Was he fatigued? What had he done when he wasn't flying? Was something distracting him? It's part of the normal investigation."

Once the NTSB is finished in the area, cleanup teams will move in to recapture spilled fuel and hydraulic fluids, said Dwaine Booth, assistant director of EMS and fire administration for Pinellas County.

Across San Martin Boulevard from the investigators' staging area, an impromptu memorial was taking shape. Friends and colleagues left tributes of flowers and messages for the three victims.


-- Staff writers Wes Allison, Adam Smith and Linda Gibson contributed to this report.

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