NTSB: Helicopter not certified to fly in conditions before crash

The preliminary report details prevailing weather conditions and the crash debris of an Ala. helicopter crash that killed the crew and a patient

WASHINGTON — Fog, mist and reduced visibility, described as prevailing night instrument meteorological conditions, existed at the time a Haynes Life Flight Eurocopter AS 350 crashed just after midnight on March 26, 2016.

The NTSB preliminary report describes the incident which killed the pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic and patient being transported after the helicopter impacted trees and terrain near Enterprise, Alabama.

The helicopter, operated by Metro Aviation Inc., was operating on a visual flight rules or VFR plan. The flight departed from a farm field near Goodman, Ala. about 0017, destined for Baptist Medical Center Heliport in Montgomery, Ala.

Haynes Life Flight dispatch was contacted when it was discovered that a vehicle was overturned and its occupant was unconscious inside the vehicle. The helicopter landed in a farm field adjacent to motor vehicle accident about 30 minutes after it was requested.

After touchdown, witnesses told the NTSB the pilot remained in the helicopter with the engine running. The flight paramedic and flight nurse exited the helicopter and entered the Enterprise Rescue Squad ambulance to help prepare the patient for transport. Once the patient was ready for transport, the flight nurse, flight paramedic and other emergency responders rolled the patient gurney approximately 70 yards through a grassy area to the helicopter and loaded the patient on board.

Once the patient had been loaded, the flight nurse and flight paramedic boarded and the helicopter lifted off and turned north toward the Baptist Medical Center Heliport.

Fog, mist and reduced visibility existed at the LZ at the time of the helicopter's arrival. Witnesses also observed that these same conditions were still present when the helicopter lifted off approximately 23 minutes later.

Pilot's qualifications detailed
According to FAA records, the pilot held an airline transport pilot certificate with a rating for helicopter and type ratings for the AB-139 and AW-139. He also held a flight instructor certificate with ratings for helicopter and instrument helicopter.

He had been employed with by Metro Aviation Inc. for approximately 6 months and had 90 hours of flight experience in the accident helicopter make and model since he was hired. His total flight experience was 5,301 hours, 5,265 of which was as pilot in command, 474 hours of which was at night and 265 of which were in actual instrument meteorological conditions. His flight experience during the 90 days prior to the accident was 47 hours, including 20 hours in the 30 days prior to the crash.

The helicopter he was flying was not certificated for flight in instrument meteorological conditions.

Helicopter's flight path and wreckage described
The NTSB report describes the helicopter's vertical climb into the cloud layer that was approximately 150 feet above ground level. Weather at a nearby airport also reported drizzle and overcast clouds.

According to Haynes Life Flight, the on-board Skyconnect satellite tracking system provided position updates for the helicopter every three minutes. Additionally, the pilot was supposed to contact Haynes Life Flight every 15 minutes via radio.

After the helicopter departed on the accident flight, Haynes Life Flight did not receive the pilot's normal 15-minute check-in, and when they checked the satellite tracking system, it showed that the helicopter was still at the landing zone, though they knew it had lifted off.

Haynes Life Flight then began to notify authorities that the helicopter was missing. After an extensive search by authorities, at approximately 0700, search parties began to smell what they believed was jet fuel. The helicopter was eventually located the wreckage in a swampy, heavily wooded area.

Examination of the accident site and wreckage revealed that the helicopter had struck trees approximately a 1/2-mile north of where it had departed. A debris path that passed through the trees prior to where the helicopter came to rest and ran from south to north, exhibited an approximate 45-degree descent angle through the trees. The wreckage was heavily fragmented with only the aft fuselage being generally recognizable. The NTSB preliminary report provides specific details on the condition of the helicopter and its components.

The helicopter was manufactured in 1998. It was equipped with a three-blade main rotor system, a two-blade tail rotor system and was powered by a Turbomeca Arriel 1D1 engine rated at 641 shaft horsepower. The helicopter was equipped with skid-type landing gear, Night vision goggles and NVG-compatible lighting, a helicopter terrain avoidance warning system and an autopilot.

According to the operator, the helicopter was maintained under a Federal Aviation Administration approved aircraft inspection program. The helicopter's most recent inspection was completed on February 12, 2016. At the time of the crash, the helicopter had accrued 8,923.2 total hours of operation.

The wreckage was retained by the NTSB for further examination.

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