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NTSB: Pilot, chopper sound in Bayflite crash

The federal agency's report finds nothing wrong with the pilot or the helicopter.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

The federal agency's report finds nothing wrong with the pilot or the helicopter.

ST. PETERSBURG -- There was nothing physically wrong with the pilot nor mechanically wrong with the aircraft when a Bayflite medical helicopter crashed into a radio tower near Weedon Island 13 months ago, federal investigators say.

All three people aboard the German-build BK117 were killed.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday filed its findings of fact in the crash, disclosing that toxicology tests on the pilot, found no trace of carbon monoxide, cyanide, drugs or alcohol in his system. He had passed a flight physical a month before the crash.

The helicopter was owned by Rocky Mountain Helicopters of Provo, Utah, and operated here as Bayflite-3. It had undergone maintenance service, in compliance with federal aviation regulations, five weeks before the crash and had logged only 15 hours of flight time after the maintenance.

The NTSB report stopped short of assigning blame for the accident. That likely will come in the agency's final report in the next few months.

One matter investigators likely are weighing is the presence in the helicopter of a new navigational system used for vehicle tracking. Because it was new -- installed at the time of the maintenance -- it could have become a distraction if it was in operation during the flight.

The latest report adds details to what is already known about the April 25, 2000, accident that killed Wallace, paramedic Erik Hangartner, 29, of Sarasota, and flight nurse Alicia Betita-Collins, 51, of Tampa.

The twin-engine helicopter had dropped a patient at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg and was en route to its base at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa shortly after noon. After getting clearance to proceed from the tower at Albert Whitted Municipal Airport, Bayflite-3 flew northeast toward Weedon Island, an area dotted with radio and television transmission towers.

The standard flight path would have taken Bayflite-3 into a right turn and then on a course parallel to the Gandy Bridge. But on this day, Wallace flew north of the usual point of the turn and hit a 649-foot radio tower at 480 feet above the ground.

All three aboard died instantly of impact injuries. Debris from the helicopter fell over an area a half-mile long by a quarter-mile wide, the NTSB said.

There was no chart of obstructions aboard the helicopter, but they were often discussed, along with minimum safe operating altitudes, at pilot safety meetings, federal investigators said.

Wallace and other Bayflite pilots had recently been advised of noise complaints from the Snell Isle neighborhood and were asked to fly east of the area, but they were not given specific routes. Those were left to pilot discretion.

But Wallace had flown in the area for 15 years, the NTSB said, and was familiar with local obstructions. The radio tower was built in 1977.

After the accident, Bayflite pilots began flying at higher altitudes, clear of area obstructions.

Neither Bayflite nor Rocky Mountain Helicopters officials returned calls for comment Tuesday.

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