NTSB: Loose iPad factors into 2022 crash of firefighting helicopter
Pilot Thomas Hayes and co-pilot Jared Bird died from their injuries while fighting the Moose fire in Idaho
By Annie Berman
Anchorage Daily News
NORTH FORK, Idaho — A loose iPad that may have become jammed beneath a pedal midflight is a key factor in the investigation into the crash of a firefighting helicopter in Idaho last year that killed two pilots, including one from Alaska.
That’s according to a summary of investigators’ examination of the iPad, and further testing, that was released this summer by the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that probes the causes of aviation accidents.
“What we theorize at this point is that the iPad was in the cockpit, somehow it was dropped, it fell down in between the pedals, which limited the movement of the pedals, and that most likely contributed to the accident,” said Clint Johnson, chief of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Alaska regional office. An NTSB Alaska investigator helped investigate the crash.
On July 21, 2022, co-pilot Jared Bird, 36, of Anchorage, and pilot Thomas Hayes, 41, of Post Falls, Idaho, died from injuries they sustained when their CH-47D Series Chinook helicopter abruptly crashed in the Salmon River during a firefighting mission near North Fork, Idaho.
According to an eyewitness video account of the accident, the helicopter was in the process of filling its bucket from the river using a long line when it suddenly began spinning to the left, then crashed into the river.
During accident recovery, the crew’s iPad was found in the river near the cockpit, according to the summary, which was submitted by NTSB senior aviation accident investigator Joshua Lindberg.
Distinct gouge marks on the iPad — and a subsequent test using a similarly configured helicopter — indicate that the iPad likely became jammed against the co-pilot’s left pedal just before the fatal crash, the summary said.
During the test, additional pressure applied to one of the pilot’s pedals caused the lodged iPad “to apply more pressure to the (co-pilot’s) pedal adjustment lever,” the summary said. The stuck iPad also prevented the pedals from recentering during the test.
According to the summary, in the position the pilot and co-pilot’s pedals were adjusted to at the time, and taking into account seat restraints and their respective heights, they would not have been able to reach the lodged iPad to remove it.
Johnson, with the NTSB, said the latest findings were not a final determination of what caused the accident, and that a more conclusive crash investigation report is due out later this fall.
He said that the reason the agency released this summary was to let the public know as quickly as possible about the possible safety implications.
“We’re not at a point where we’re ready to announce probable cause, but (the iPad) likely contributed to the accident,” he said. “The initial intent here is to get the word out about some of the findings in this investigation, and obviously keep it from happening again.”
Johnson said this was not the first time that an electronic device — including phones, cameras and iPads — had fallen into flight controls and contributed to accidents over the years.
Those devices “can impede the controllability of an aircraft” in both helicopters and planes if they become trapped beneath controllers, he said.
“We’re just trying to call attention to some of the concerns about having this kind of equipment inside the cockpit and making sure they’re secured,” Johnson said.
He said it was possible more official safety recommendations would be released as a result of this crash.
Bird and Hayes were employees of Anchorage-based ROTAK Helicopter Services, which was contracted to help fight the Moose Fire burning about 21 miles north of Salmon.
In an emailed statement, Ely Woods, a general manager with ROTAK, said he hopes the latest findings from the NTSB help prevent future accidents. He wrote that it was important for pilots to find safe ways to secure their devices so they don’t become loose during flight.
“When the final report is released, we will be more than willing to share more information and hopefully help educate our industry on safe practices and guidance that will prevent future incidents and accidents,” Woods wrote.