Final Report: Pilot, ATC blamed in helo tower crash

 - March 31, 2010, 8:15 AM

Bell 222, Aurora, Ill., Oct. 15, 2008–The crash of the medevac helicopter into a radio tower was caused by the pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from the 734-foot-tall lighted structure due to inadequate preflight planning and a flight route too low to clear the tower, according to the NTSB. The helicopter was destroyed in the collision and ensuing fire, killing the pilot, flight paramedic, flight nurse and infant patient. Air Angels was operating the helicopter as an EMS transport. The accident occurred 10 minutes after takeoff as the flight headed to Children’s Memorial Hospital Heliport in Chicago in night VMC.

The helicopter was equipped with a Garmin GNS 430, which included GPS, navigation and communications radios, and its Jeppesen aviation database had last been updated four months before the accident. The company’s director of flight operations told investigators the unit was the operator’s primary source of navigation information. The unit could display terrain and obstacles, but the software for that capability had never been installed.

In a controversial decision, the Board also listed as a contributing factor the air traffic controller’s failure to issue a safety alert. While the helicopter was outside the DuPage Airport (DPA) class D airspace, the pilot contacted the airport’s tower and provided the controller with his destination and altitude of 1,400 feet. The controller acknowledged and cleared the helicopter through the airspace.

According to training materials obtained during the investigation, the antenna tower that was struck was included in a list of obstructions that DPA tower controllers were required to memorize. A review of radar data showed the helicopter at a constant altitude and on a straight course to the tower, which was identified on the ATC radar display.

In a dissenting opinion, NTSB vice chairman Christopher Hart expressed his concern that pilots would become less vigilant if they believed that controllers had a responsibility to help them avoid obstacles. “For VFR pilots, seeing and avoiding obstacles is solely and exclusively the responsibility of the pilot-in-command,” he wrote.