HAI Convention News

An S-61 with a Past

 - March 12, 2007, 12:48 PM

Without doubt, Coulson’s most famous helicopter is S/N 61428. In 1977, while operating as New York Airways’ N619PA, the S-61L was involved in one of New York City’s most highly publicized accidents, the deadly rollover of the helicopter high atop a landmark skyscraper.

From its opening in 1963, the Pan Am Building (today the MetLife Building) operated a helipad on the roof that gave visitors easy access to Midtown Manhattan. New York Airways used the heliport as a terminal for its service to the three major area airports. On May 16, 1977, N619PA was loading passengers for a shuttle flight bound for JFK International Airport when the right landing gear suddenly collapsed due to what was later diagnosed as metal fatigue. The helicopter–its rotor still turning–rolled over on its right side. Of the dozen or so passengers waiting to board, three were killed outright by the blades, while a fourth later succumbed to his injuries. As the blades struck the concrete roof, they shattered, sending a shower of debris to the ground nearly 70 stories below, killing a woman on the sidewalk and seriously injuring another pedestrian.

In the wake of the tragedy, plans to air-lift the stricken helicopter from its resting place were quickly vetoed by city authorities. As a result, workers were forced to dismember N619PA and carry it down to street level in the building’s freight elevators.

The S-61’s remains were sold and taken to South Africa, where the airframe was rebuilt by Court Helicopters–in what was described as one of the most expensive rebuilds in the history of a Sikorsky helicopter–converting it from an L model to an N model in the process. The Namibian government purchased the refurbished helicopter and operated it for several years for offshore search and rescue, taking advantage of the big boost in range afforded by the addition of extra fuel tanks.

When poor working conditions failed to attract trained aircrew to operate it, the S-61 languished as a hangar queen until Coulson Group CEO Wayne Coulson heard about the famous helicopter and decided to come to its rescue. After negotiating “a good deal” for the helicopter, he had it shipped from Cape Town to Houston and then trucked more than 2,000 miles back to the Coulson Group’s Port Alberni, British Columbia base.

With less than 8,000 hours since the rebuild, Coulson describes the airframe as “practically new.” While it hasn’t flown since it was returned to North America, the airframe did make an appearance at the 2003 Heli-Expo with an executive transport interior. Currently, the S-61 remains in storage while Coulson weighs whether to sell it to interested buyers or convert it into a head-of-state VIP transport.