January Jinxed?

 - January 15, 2008, 4:46 AM

TS Eliot may have written that “April is the cruelest month,” but he didn’t try to make a living operating helicopters. The opening weeks of this year were proof that January is no slouch either, its first weeks memorable as a nightmarish procession of helicopter hijackings, mishaps, disastrous crashes and, sadly, deaths.

• The infamy began January 3 when two gunmen hijacked a Eurocopter AStar owned by Puerto Rican operator Helicorp during what began as an apparently innocent charter flight. Angel Rivera Marcano and Jesus Rojas Tapia, later cited for armed aircraft piracy and carrying a weapon on an aircraft, chartered the helicopter from San Juan-based Helicorp, claiming they were construction engineers who needed to inspect a building site from the air. En route, the two pulled guns on the startled pilot and ordered him to fly to the Las Cucharas prison in the southern Puerto Rican city of Ponce. Tapia is the brother of convict Jose Rojas Tapia, who escaped via the helicopter along with four others–Orlando Valdes Cartagena, Jose Perez Rodriguez, Victor Gonzalez Diaz and Hector Marrero Diaz. All five were serving lengthy sentences for murder and were subsequently captured following a massive manhunt. (The jailbreak recalls memories of an equally ambitious escape from the Rio Piedras State Penitentiary in San Juan in 1991, when a helicopter landed in the courtyard of the prison and flew away with three prisoners serving time for drug trafficking.)

• A little more than a week later, an aeromedical Agusta A109K2 operated by Salt Lake  City’s LDS Life Flight program crashed into an open field on the grounds of Salt Lake City International Airport a quarter mile south of Interstate 80 in dense fog on the night of January 11. Killed were pilot Craig Bingham, 47, and paramedic Mario Guerrero, 38. Injured and reported in serious condition was flight nurse Stein Rosqvist, 32. The helicopter was returning to base after Bingham declined to land at an accident site near Wendover, Utah, that apparently become obscured in fog while the aircraft was en route. Minutes later, contact with the flight was lost shortly after Bingham contacted the tower at Salt Lake City International with what was thought to be an emergency call. At the time, Bingham’s helicopter was hovering west of the airport, awaiting approval to cross the traffic pattern on its way home. An airport spokesman went on record as saying airport personnel were unsure if Bingham was trying to make an emergency landing within the airport boundary. Life Flight policy calls for flight only under VMC, even though Life Flight’s A109K2s are equipped for IFR. Should a crew encounter IMC, they are required to fly out of that condition by gaining altitude, turning the aircraft away from known obstacles and seeking a hole in the weather.

• This latest Salt Lake City aeromedical crash echoes the loss of a University of Utah-based Air Med Bell 222 on Jan. 11, 1998, five years earlier to the day. That helicopter crashed in nearby Little Cottonwood Lake Canyon during a tricky on-site pickup on steep, mountainous terrain in near-whiteout blizzard conditions. All three crewmembers and the patient were killed in the crash.

• On a happier note, on January 10, U.S. Coast Guard personnel rescued four men on a sightseeing flight that made a forced landing into San Francisco Bay when the Bell JetRanger they were flying in lost power about 15 minutes after departing from Sausalito, Calif. Pilot John McClelland of Alameda, Calif., put the helicopter into autorotation and popped floats as the rotorcraft gently settled onto the waves. Within minutes Coast Guard rescue craft were alongside (and San Francisco TV helos were overhead). The people were taken off by boat, and the JetRanger, operated by Bay Area sightseeing San Francisco Helicopter Tours, was towed to shore.