Crashed Tour Helicopter Had Fresh MX

 - January 2, 2012, 4:55 AM
A Sundance AS350B2 crashed during a twilight tour flight near the Hoover Dam. The helicopter had just returned to service after a 100-hour inspection.

A 1989 Eurocopter AS350B2 registered to Sundance Helicopters crashed December 7 during a twilight tour flight near Nevada’s Hoover Dam, killing all five aboard. The helicopter crashed the day after it was returned from maintenance for a 100-hour inspection and the replacement of its Turbomeca Arriel 1D1 engine, a main-rotor blade actuator and a tail-rotor actuator due to life-limit requirements.

Radar track data shows the helicopter departed McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, and followed its normal tour route and altitude: north up the Las Vegas strip, a turn east for five miles, and then southeast at 3,500 feet toward the Hoover Dam.

One minute before impact the helicopter made a sudden departure from the tour route: climbing to 4,100 feet, making a sharp 90-degree left turn and then descending back to 3,500 feet. Twenty seconds later it made another left turn and then descended into a 150-foot deep, V-shaped canyon near Lake Mead. The helicopter crashed into a canyon wall 20 feet above its base.

NTSB member Mark Rosekind described the crash site as “extremely rugged” with “highly irregular terrain.” The canyon is 150 to 200 feet wide at the top and narrows to 20 to 30 feet wide at the bottom. At the impact point it is approximately 40 to 50 feet wide. “The last minute is where things changed. Why? That’s what we don’t know yet,” Rosekind said.

Sundance pilot Landon Nield, 31, and died four passengers in the crash. Nield had worked for the company since June 2009 and had a clean pilot record.

While most of the wreckage was consumed by fire and fragmented, the last three feet of the tail boom was recovered with both tail-rotor blades attached. On-site investigation found all three main-rotor blade roots were attached to the hub.

Rosekind said engine parts were identified on scene and that the engine apparently was producing power at the time of impact. The NTSB also recovered all of the actuators. The wreckage was sling-loaded out of the site and transported to Phoenix for further analysis.

In addition to a check flight, the helicopter had flown two tours after coming out of maintenance. The helicopter was not equipped with any data or voice recorders or non-volatile memory devices.

The crash is the second fatal accident for U.S, helicopter tour operators in less than a month and the second fatal for Sundance in less than a decade. Last month a Blue Hawaiian EC130B4 crashed the island of Molokai, with five fatalities. Heavy rain was reported in the area at the time.

The 2003 fatal crash of a Sundance Grand Canyon tour helicopter was an impetus for formation of the tour operators’ program of safety and audit program. The NTSB report of that accident cited “reckless behavior exhibited by the accident pilot,” and noted, “Following the accident, Sundance implemented a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy with regard to pilot actions that break company rules.”

The NTSB noted that Sundance currently has a safety management system and flight operations quality assurance program in place. Sundance stood down operations on December 8 and returned to flying the following day.