Witness: AW139 Was Spinning before Bahamas Fatal Crash

 - July 29, 2019, 11:14 AM

More details emerged last week into the July 4 AW139 helicopter accident that killed American coal billionaire Chris Cline and six others during a night flight in the Bahamas. According to the NTSB's preliminary report, an eyewitness saw a running light pattern that suggests the helicopter was spinning on its vertical axis just before it hit the water. According to the report, the witness saw the helicopter depart and climb to an altitude of 40 to 50 feet agl, “then shortly thereafter, he noted blue and white lights spinning to the left at a rate of about one to two seconds between rotations while descending." He estimated that the helicopter "rotated to the left three to four times” before hearing the sound of impact. 

At 2:05 a.m., the caretaker of Cline’s Bahamas estate unsuccessfully attempted to locate the crash wreckage with a private boat. The helicopter was reported overdue by the FAA at 3:21 p.m, and the wreckage was later found about an hour later by local residents approximately 1.2 nm from the departure point, inverted, in 16 feet of water.

According to the NTSB preliminary, the helicopter was found with the “tailboom was separated from the aft fuselage and was recovered in multiple pieces. All five main rotor blades were separated but recovered. The tail rotor assembly, which was also separated, was subsequently recovered. All four tail rotor blades were separated, and one tail rotor blade was not recovered.” The helicopter was equipped with a flight recorder, EGPWS, and “several additional components capable of storing non-volatile memory, which were retained for evaluation and data download."

Cline’s helicopter dispatched from Palm Beach International Airport (KPBI) at 12:57 a.m. local time and landed on a concrete pad on Big Grand Cay, five nm south of the Walker’s Cay Airport (MYAW), between 1:30 a.m. and 1:45 a.m. local. The helicopter then hot-loaded the passengers, two of whom were being evacuated for medical treatment, for a flight to Fort Lauderdale International airport (FLL). IFR flight plans were filed and activated in both directions. Weather at the time was reported as VFR with a 2,500-foot broken ceiling and visibility of 10 miles.  

The Air Accident Investigation Department (AAID) of the Bahamas requested delegation of the accident investigation to the NTSB.