June 2, 2010 in City

Witnesses say helicopter suffered mechanical failure

The Spokesman-Review
 
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A student helicopter pilot is dead after the craft he was piloting crashed Wednesday in a residential neighborhood just east of Felts Field.

The small helicopter owned by the Inland Helicopters flight school appears to have lost power, leaving debris scattered over several blocks before crashing into the backyard of a home at 3730 N. Center Road about 4:30 p.m.

Miraculously, the two-seater Robinson R22 crashed without injuring any residents or hitting any structures in the neighborhood situated in the path to the runway approach at the Spokane Valley municipal airport.

The pilot, who was not identified, was flying solo at the time of the crash, officials said.

Dispatch reports say Felts Field air control operators had the craft on radar as it approached for a landing, and then lost contact, said Sgt. Dave Reagan, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

According to witness reports, the helicopter appeared to lose power to the main rotor, which caused the rotors to “droop down.” The tail rotor broke off from the rear wing, causing the craft to lose control. It was reportedly spinning “360s” before it crashed into a yard. The pilot died upon impact, witnesses said.

The cause of the crash is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board was notified, Reagan said. No additional information was released Wednesday night.

The crash created a swarm of neighbors and onlookers, who clogged the area as rescue crews converged on the area, taping off the scene.

Reagan said the debris field spanned several blocks, and that some debris had been taken away by residents. Anyone who finds debris from the crash is urged not to touch it, and to call 911 immediately.

While the crash was the first anyone could recall in the quiet Millwood neighborhood, residents say they are always concerned about the low-flying aircraft near their homes.

“It always scares me; I always wonder what will happen if something goes wrong,” said Amanda Gillaspy, who lives near the crash site. Gillaspy and other residents saw the helicopter go down, and raced to see if they could help.

“There was another man doing CPR (on the pilot) but they said he was already gone,” Gillaspy said. “There were kids out playing when it happened. It just freaks me out.”

Mac Baxter, 13, was at home playing video games when he heard the helicopter making noise before it crashed.

“It was making a sound like a quarter in a washing machine, then there was a loud pop,” and the craft started spinning, Baxter said.

Mike Rohme, a student with Inland Helicopters for the past two years, said the company takes excellent care of its equipment, “so this shouldn’t have happened.”

Calls to the company based at Felts Field were not returned. No additional information about the victim and his flight experience was released.

Reagan estimated crews would work through the night collecting debris and investigating the crash. The Spokane County Medical Examiner was on scene late Wednesday.

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