A series of events that began with a swinging firefighting snorkel preceded the fatal crash of a 1981 Sikorsky UH-60A last month in Leesburg, Florida, that killed all four aboard, according to the NTSB’s preliminary report. N9FH, registered to Brainerd Helicopters, was conducting the first flight of a new STC-approved firefighting system.
After six uneventful water drops, things went askew on the seventh run, when the snorkel was observed swinging “violently” and then apparently hitting the main rotor blades, causing at least two of them to separate. Either the blades or the snorkel then caused the tail boom to also separate in flight. The main cabin wreckage was located in a wooded swamp 1,322 feet east of runway 3, while other key components were located some distance away: the tail rotor section was found 78 feet north of the main wreckage; one half of a main rotor blade was found 200 feet west of Runway 3; the snorkel cage was located 50 feet west of Runway 3 along with other main rotor blade sections; and several pieces of fairings and other material were lodged atop trees along the flight path to the main wreckage.
Before impact, the main wreckage was seen entering a flat spin and after impact was consumed by a post-crash fire. Employees of the operator attempted to contact the pilot when the snorkel began to swing, both via the airport control tower and through hand signals. One employee telephoned the tower and requested a relay of instructions to slow down and land immediately. Another ran beside the helicopter and made urgent gestures to the pilot.