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Pilot: Texas medical copter spun out of control in fatal crash

The NTSB report relied heavily on the pilot who survived after the helicopter crashed and burst into flames, killing a flight nurse and patient on board

Times Record News

WICHITA FALLS, Texas — The pilot of the ill-fated Air Evac helicopter that crashed Saturday morning in Wichita Falls has told the National Transportation Safety Board his helicopter spun out of control shortly before it crashed onto a street near United Regional Health Care Systems and burst into flames.

A preliminary report released by NTSB Thursday quoted extensively from pilot Zechariah Smith, who survived the crash with serious injuries. A patient in the chopper was killed in the crash, a flight nurse died of burns, and a medical crewman was critically injured.

Smith reported the flight from Waurika, Okla., where they had picked up a shooting victim to bring to URHCS, was uneventful. As the craft was arriving at the hospital and was about 700 feet up, the pilot felt “fast about 12-15 knots and a little high.” Smith said he decided to abort the initial landing.

The report quotes Smith as saying he added power, “tipped the nose over to get airspeed,” and “pulled collective.”

“The pilot said that as soon as he brought the collective up, the helicopter entered a rapid right turn,” the report said . “He described the turn as ‘violent’ and that it was the fastest he had ever ‘spun’ in a helicopter. The pilot told the crew to hold on and that he was ‘going to try and fly out of it.”

The pilot said he tried hard to get control of the helicopter by applying cyclic and initially ‘some’ left anti-torque pedal ‘but nothing happened.’ The pilot said he added more, but not full left anti-torque pedal as the helicopter continued to spin and he was still unable to regain control.

He also said the engine had plenty of power and was operating fine. The pilot recalled the helicopter spinning at least five times before impacting the ground. The pilot said the helicopter landed inverted and quickly filled up with smoke. He unbuckled his seat belt assembly, took off his helmet, punched out the windshield and exited the burning helicopter.”

Smith said he did not hear any unusual noises before the “tail coming out from underneath them” and did not recall hearing any warning horns or seeing any warning/caution lights. When asked what he thought caused the helicopter to spin to the right so quickly, he replied, “I don’t know.”

The NTSB report notes a visual flight rules flight plan was filed for the patient transfer and visual meteorological conditions prevailed. It also notes Smith had flown into United Regional many times.

NTSB said an on-scene examination of the helicopter was conducted on October 4-5 and determined the helicopter collided with power lines and came to rest inverted between two trees that lined a public sidewalk about one block northeast of the helipad.

“A post-impact fire consumed the main fuselage and portion of the tail boom. The tail rotor assembly and vertical fin exhibited minor fire and impact damage,” the report said. The time of impact was recorded at 1:54 a.m., with a large explosion occurring six seconds later.

A portion of the accident flight and impact were captured on one of the hospital’s surveillance cameras. A preliminary review of the surveillance tape by NTSB revealed the helicopter approached the helipad from the north with the spotlight turned on. The helicopter then climbed and went out of frame before it reappeared in a descending right hand turn before it impacted the ground.

Gunshot victim Buddy Rhodes of Waurika died in the crash. Flight nurse Leslie Stewart and paramedic Erasmus. J. Vandercloff IV were rushed to Parkland Hospital in Dallas while Smith was treated at United Regional. Stewart died from her injuries late Wednesday.

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