NTSB: Mechanic checklists a lesson in copter crash
By KEN RITTER
LAS VEGAS -- Federal regulators Tuesday recommended aircraft mechanics and inspectors get enough rest and use checklists to guide their work after a 13-month investigation of a Las Vegas sightseeing helicopter crash that killed five people -- including a Utica couple -- when a crucial bolt came loose.
"A checklist can be a crucial reminder and especially helpful when we are tired or distracted or new to a job," National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said after the five-member board reached its conclusions in Washington.
"Look what checklists have done for safety in the cockpit," Hersman said. "They can make similar lifesaving contributions on the hangar floor. They are a backstop to human error."
Killed were a couple from Utica celebrating their 25th anniversary, Delwin and Tamara Chapman, both 49; a honeymooning couple from India, Lovish Bhanot, 28, Gurgaon, and Anupama Bhola, 26, New Delhi; and the pilot, Landon Nield, 31.
The board cited "inadequate maintenance" for the December 2011 crash of the Sundance Helicopters Inc. chopper during a scenic twilight tour of Hoover Dam and the Lake Mead reservoir on the Colorado River. Investigators found a crucial bolt might have been reused too many times and improperly installed, with the mistake not found during inspections.
Sundance CEO Bob Engelbrecht issued a statement Tuesday promising to study the NTSB report, review the board findings and recommendations, and "look to further improve our processes and procedures."
The board accepted 12 findings and made three recommendations based on its conclusion a crucial lock nut worked loose in the rotor mechanism during flight, causing the aircraft to wobble into an uncontrollable climb and fall into a rocky ravine some 14 miles east of Las Vegas. Most of the six-seat Aerospatiale AS-350 helicopter was pulverized to small bits and burned.
Nield was a devout Mormon who grew up in Wyoming and Utah, and had married six months before the crash.
"I know what happened to my brother can't be changed," Nield's sister, Angalena Adams said Tuesday. "But I hope Sundance has fixed the problems that were wrong," she said.
"The choices they make to overwork their workers can affect other people's lives," said Adams, who monitored the NTSB hearing from her home in Cedar City, Utah.
Gary Robb, a Kansas City, Mo., lawyer who filed wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of the four passengers, wasn't immediately available for comment.
Sundance was acquired for $44 million in December by Air Methods Corp., a publicly traded Denver-based emergency air medical transportation company. Sundance has a fleet of 22 helicopters based at McCarran International Airport focusing mostly on Grand Canyon helicopter tours. It also provides firefighting, air lift, natural resource surveying and photography operations.
In his statement Tuesday, Engelbrecht maintained the company had an excellent safety record and made safety its top priority.
"Based upon the investigation to date and our own internal reviews, we have already initiated a number of safety improvements," he said.
Safety board members noted in 2003, a Sundance pilot and six passengers were killed when a company helicopter slammed into a canyon wall east of the Grand Canyon West Airport. That crash was blamed on the pilot, who investigators said violated federal aviation regulations by flying too close to the canyon wall to thrill his passengers. The company wasn't punished.
The Sundance crash of Dec. 7, 2011, was blamed on a self-locking nut that wasn't properly secured with a simple split pin during a maintenance overhaul. The NTSB report noted both the mechanic and inspector were called in six hours early to work and worked far longer than an eight-hour day.
The board called fatigue on the part of the workers a contributing factor in the crash, along with "the lack of clearly delineated maintenance task steps to follow."
Nigel Turner, owner of a competing Las Vegas tour helicopter firm, Heli USA Airways, counted 90 tour helicopters a day flying in and out of Las Vegas, including his fleet of 11. He said he'd endorse a federal regulation for hangar maintenance checklists.
"Let's raise the standard," he said. "There's no reason for a person to die in a sightseeing tour."
But Turner said the Federal Aviation Administration would have to implement such a requirement to avoid giving one company an edge over another.
"Everybody needs to be on the same page," Turner said. "Safety costs money, and we're in a very competitive industry."
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency agreed with the intent of the safety recommendation and would respond to the NTSB within 90 days, as required.
Nield made no emergency call before the chopper went down in rugged terrain approximately 4 miles west of Lake Mead. But a fellow tour company pilot nearby reported hearing a man's terrified shriek over the radio about 30 seconds before seeing a plume of smoke in the rocky brown hills.
Hersman noted there were no flight data or cockpit voice recorders, no onboard cameras, no air traffic control tapes and no eyewitnesses to the crash.