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On September 12, 1997, about 1640 hours Pacific daylight time, a Bell 205A-1, N90HJ, was destroyed after colliding with mountainous terrain during the initial takeoff climb phase near Sequim, Washington. The pilot and two passengers received fatal injuries, five passengers received serious injuries. The helicopter was operated by the National Park Service (NPS) as a single pilot public-use aircraft. It was being used for personnel transport during an on-going search for a lost hiker. The flight originated on the day of the accident in the Buckhorn Wilderness Area of the Olympic National Forest. Instrument meteorological conditions with visibility's less than 1/4 mile prevailed at the time of departure. Flight plan/following was provided by the NPS dispatch.
The pilot had no known prior flight experience in the Olympic National Forest. The accident flight was his second mission into the area and the first landing at this landing zone (H10). According to ground and passenger witness interviews, the takeoff was vertical into an obscuration. The NPS contract called for day visual flight rules only.
The pilot had advised the search and rescue (SAR) personnel to load quick as he had no intentions of spending the night there. There were seven SAR persons and one search dog loaded onboard as the area became obscured in clouds/fog. The pilot held up five fingers. Ground personnel assumed that to mean wait 5 minutes for the obscuration to move on. However, in less than that time, the helicopter performed a vertical takeoff into the obscuration that had engulfed H10. The helicopter was to have returned to Port Angeles, about 18 miles northwest of H10.
According to the remaining SAR personnel, they lost sight of the helicopter about 50 feet agl. They continued to hear the helicopter throughout its climb, impact, and as it fell down the side of the mountain towards H10. The sound of the tumbling helicopter was described by several witnesses as that of an avalanche and caused several SAR personnel to take cover.
The day before the accident the pilot repositioned the helicopter from Eugene, Oregon, to Port Angeles, Washington. According to notations in the pilot's appointment book, the flight took 2.6 hours. On the day of the accident he had flown 1.4 hours for the NPS. The last flight for the park service from Port Angeles to the accident site was .9 hours.
The NPS contract approved the single pilot operation with 9 passengers or less.
The helicopter, a Bell 205A-1, was FAA certificated in both normal and restricted categories. At the time of the accident the helicopter was operating in the normal category. The takeoff gross weight and the center of gravity were found within the certificated limits. The helicopter was not instrument flight rules certified per FAR 91.411.
Witnesses reported that the weather conditions in the accident area were instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) with very low ceiling and visibility less than 1/4 mile in fog. Satellite images confirmed an overcast condition in the area around the time of the accident.
A Safety Board meteorologist obtained archived weather information for the accident location and time. The complete report is attached. The report of surface weather observations, surface weather charts, and satellite images showed that a moist, unstable air mass was present over the Olympic National Park during the afternoon of September 12. The data revealed that visual meteorological conditions (VMC) were generally present throughout the region. However, higher elevations, particularly in the Olympic Mountains, were occasionally in IMC due to low clouds, fog, and light rain showers.
On the morning of September 12, 1997, the pilot was provided a copy of the area forecast from the National Weather Service Forecast Office. The forecast for the time and location of the accident was "rain changing to showers by late afternoon, temperatures in the mid to upper 50's, and wind westerly 10-20 mph." Official reporting sources were not representative of the park's actual weather conditions, which are known to change frequently.
There were numerous witnesses interviewed by the Safety Board and the Department of Interior Office of Aviation Services. There are 18 written statements attached to this report addressing their weather observations during the accident time and other issues.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
After liftoff from H10 (5,300 feet msl), the initial impact point on Baldy Mountain was estimated at 5,910 feet msl. The wreckage was scattered downslope over a distance about 1,310 feet on a path about 330 degrees magnetic.
The main rotor and mast assembly was located near the initial impact point. An outboard portion of one tail rotor blade was located abeam of the main rotor location about 300 feet west.
A rear portion of the tail boom, vertical stabilizer, and 45- and 90-degree gear boxes were located downslope about 110 feet below the main rotor mast and blades.
The forward cabin floor and seats were located about 780 feet downslope. At 900 feet, the main fuselage had impacted a tree. Continuing downslope, the engine was located in a ravine west of H10.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
On September 15, 1997, the Clallum County Coroner performed an autopsy on the pilot. During the course of the autopsy the Federal Aviation Administration Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, obtained samples from the pilot for toxicological analysis. According to the analysis, the samples tested negative for carbon monoxide, cyanide, volatiles, and drugs.
NPS policy requires crew and passengers to wear flight helmets conforming to a national certifying agency standard and equipped with avionics. The pilot wore an approved helmet. Six of the passengers were wearing plastic hard hats and one wore a personal bike-riding helmet.
The wreckage was released to the Department of Interior Office of Aircraft Services on September 17, 1997.
An additional party participating in this accident investigation is Wayne Hazard, Heli-Jet Corporation, Eugene, Oregon.