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NTSB: Poor maintenance caused crash claiming 4 N.M. first responders

Four were killed when the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office helicopter crashed while fighting a wildfire in 2022

By Gregory Hasman
Albuquerque Journal

BERNALILLO COUNTY, N.M. — Federal investigators say engine failure due to poor maintenance caused a helicopter crash nearly two years ago that claimed the lives of four Bernalillo County first responders.

The men were returning to Albuquerque after conducting firefighting operations near Chapelle, which is south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, in July 2022 when the aircraft entered a descent and crashed.

Rescue Specialist and Paramedic Matthew King of Bernalillo County Fire and Rescue and three sheriff’s office members had been assisting with the East Mesa Fire

According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report released Wednesday, an examination of the engine found that the start-generator input gear failed because of fatigue. The failure led to a total loss of engine power.

“An examination of the remaining helicopter systems revealed no mechanical anomalies that would have precluded normal operations,” the report states.

Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff Larry Koren , 55; Lt. Fred Beers , 51; deputy Michael Levison , 30; and Bernalillo County Fire Rescue Specialist Matthew King , 44, died in the crash.

“This devastating event resulted in the loss of four invaluable lives, deeply impacting our team and our community,” BCSO spokeswoman Jayme Gonzales said Wednesday in a statement.

Bernalillo County Fire Rescue spokesman William Harris told the Journal in an email that Fire Rescue reviewed the NTSB’s report, and “further comments will be provided by Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office when they are available.”

According to the report, a small piece of “ferrous metal” was found on a magnetic chip plug about 17 flight hours before the crash.

“Following the chip event the oil system was drained and flushed and the filter elements were removed, cleaned, and reinstalled,” the report states.

The chip and oil sample were sent for analysis, according to the report.

“The results of the lab analysis were not used by the operator to troubleshoot the reason for the chip event. Had the operator conducted an analysis, they could have potentially identified the deteriorating component and impending failure.”

According to NTSB , the helicopter’s low altitude during the return flight “made the transition from powered flight to autorotation after an unexpected loss of engine power more time critical.”

The low altitude, along with the flying into a setting sun, “may have contributed to the unsuccessful autorotation following the total loss of engine power,” the report added.

According to a helicopter flying handbook on the FAA website, autorotative descent is a power-off maneuver in which the engine is disengaged from the main rotor disk and the rotor blades are driven solely by the upward flow of air through the rotor.

NTSB investigator Michael Folkerts said that the " NTSB does not assign fault or blame for an accident or incident; rather, as specified by NTSB regulation, ‘accident/incident investigations are fact-finding proceedings with no formal issues and no adverse parties ... and are not conducted for the purpose of determining the rights or liabilities of any person.’”

Dubbed “Metro 2,” the BCSO helicopter was powered by an Ozark Aeroworks engine with a two-bladed main rotor and a two-bladed tail rotor mounted on the tail boom. BCSO bought the helicopter from the U.S. Army on March 11, 1999 , according to NTSB .

For months, BCSO didn’t use its Metro Air Support Unit because Koren’s death left the unit without a pilot and Beers had been training under him. It was reinstated in November 2022 .

Gonzales said when Sheriff John Allen assumed office in 2023, he grounded the unit again and initiated a review and overhaul of all operational procedures to enhance safety and effectiveness. This included revamping and creating new standard operating guidelines and acquiring new aircraft that “meets the highest safety standards.”

The unit was relaunched in December, Gonzales said, “now supported by increased safety measures, including adding an extra pilot and mechanic.”

“In light of NTSB’s findings, it is clear that our decision to pause and thoroughly overhaul MASU was not only necessary but critical,” Allen said. “We have taken every possible step to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again.”

Koren, a pilot, had been with BCSO for more than 20 years, while Beers had been with BCSO for more than 13 years. Levison was also a member of the New Mexico Air National Guard , and King was a paramedic for 17 years.

“We will honor their memory with our actions,” Allen said.

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