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Helicopter company suggests Bayflite pilot was distracted

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- The pilot of the Bayflite helicopter that crashed into a radio tower April 25 made no attempt to avoid the collision, which suggests the pilot might have been distracted, according to the company that leased the helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center.

Russ Spray, chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Helicopters in Provo, Utah, said radar and other data showed that the twin-engine BK117 flew directly into the radio tower at an altitude of 504 feet. Helicopter pilots flying over Pinellas County routinely stay between 500 and 800 feet to avoid other traffic.

"At this point, that's basically all we know," said Spray. "There is the possibility of a distraction as simple as you looking away from the road for a few seconds while you're driving your car. They were flying at 140 miles an hour. That's more than 2 miles a minute. You cover a lot of distance real fast at that rate. There may not have been any time to react.

"We checked on the altitude, and 500 feet is appropriate. What's got us all baffled is the route of the flight."

The crash killed veteran pilot Mark Wallace, 39, an employee of Rocky Mountain Helicopters, as well as a flight nurse and a paramedic. The helicopter was traveling from Bayfront to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa when it struck the radio tower in the area of Weedon Island. It fell into marshes overgrown with mangroves.

The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office is conducting a toxicology test of Wallace's blood, but the results are not yet in.

The National Transportation Safety Board report on the cause of the crash is not expected for at least another three months.

Bayflite has activated a backup helicopter so that its active fleet is back up to three.

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