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On November 24, 1999, about 1935 (all times central standard time), a Hughes 369HS, N395WM, registered to Vertical Air, Inc., crashed near Helena, Alabama, while on a Title 14 CFR Part 91 business flight. Instrument meteorological conditions prevailed at the time and no flight plan was filed. The helicopter was destroyed and the commercial-rated pilot and one passenger were fatally injured. The flight last departed Dannelly Field, Montgomery, Alabama, the same day, about 1855.
A person identifying himself as the pilot of N395WM called the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Anniston Automated Flight Service Station, at 1301:50, stating he was visual flight rules from Birmingham to Montgomery, leaving around 1600, and flying in the area and coming back to Birmingham around 2000. The pilot was told "the airmets for instrument flight rules do expire around three o'clock today so it looks like you got a shot at that uh cold front pretty much right on top of you right now drifting real slow to the east the progs do indicate it's going to start to stall out here shortly though uh forecast for Birmingham for that time frame calls for four thousand broken all the way through ten pm tonight and Montgomery anywhere from three to five thousand broken to scattered so looks pretty good for you." The briefing concluded at 1303:03. See transcripts of communications.
A person identifying himself as the pilot of N395WM called the FAA, Anniston Automated Flight Service Station, at 1839:43, stating he was in Montgomery, and would be leaving in the next 20 minutes, going toward Birmingham. The pilot was told "we got clouds looks like rains a little bit off to the north and east of your route of flight but ah with the front in the area it could be poppin up ah we do have an airmet from Birmingham northward for instrument flight rules conditions so visual flight rules not recommended but uh and right now Birmingham is down they were clear below twelve earlier now they're calling it eight hundred overcast with four miles in mist so they've dropped in a good bit uh Montgomery is still clear below twelve with ten miles and calm." The pilot was further told "the forecast is for cloud cover in the Birmingham area generally to be uh fifteen hundred scattered occasional overcast another layer at twenty five hundred feet six miles occasionally down to five light rain showers and mist wind three forty at six and really that's as far south as the airmet for instrument flight rules is right now." The pilot then asked "so if we can get there in forty five fifty minutes we might be okay." The weather briefer replied "right and if you do need to get back into visual flight rules conditions head south." The briefing ended at 1841:28. See transcripts of communications.
A line serviceman for Montgomery Aviation, at Dannelly Field, Montgomery, Alabama, stated that N395WM arrived on the ramp with the pilot in the left front seat and the passenger in the right front seat. The pilot asked that he fuel the helicopter by adding 30 gallons of Jet-A fuel. The pilot also stated he was in a hurry because the weather was getting bad and the ceilings were going down.
At 1850:51, the pilot of N395WM called the local controller at the FAA, Montgomery Air Traffic Control Tower, stating "we're over at ah Montgomery Aviation we're ready to depart ah toward ah the city and up sixty five to Birmingham." At 1854:35, the flight was cleared for takeoff on taxiway alpha with a left turn out. At 1855:46, the pilot was told to contact the FAA, Montgomery Departure Control. The pilot made contact with the departure controller, and when asked what his destination was, the pilot responded Shelby County. At 1915:47, the departure controller stated to the pilot that radar service was terminated, squawk visual flight rules code, and frequency change approved. The pilot did not respond to this transmission. See transcripts of communications.
Recorded radar data from the FAA, Montgomery Approach Control, showed that after takeoff, the flight climbed to 1,800 feet msl, and flew a north-northwest heading. The flight was last observed on the Montgomery Approach Control radar at 19:14:27, while at a bearing of 335 degrees at 26 nm from Montgomery, at an altitude of 1,800 feet, on a heading of 327 degrees, and at a ground speed of 107 knots. See radar data.
Witnesses located in a house near the crash site stated that shortly after 1930, they heard the helicopter fly over their house at a very low altitude, from south to north, making a steady, loud, whining noise. About 2-3 seconds later they heard a "thump" crash sound and then heard no more sound from the helicopter. They went outside and observed the fire from the helicopter wreckage on the hill to the north of their house. They stated the weather at the crash site was dark and slightly foggy.
The pilot held a FAA commercial-pilot certificate, with a rotorcraft-helicopter rating, last issued on December 30, 1993. The pilot held a FAA second-class medical certificate, with no limitations, issued on January 20, 1999. The pilot's wife stated he lost his pilot logbook in 1996, and started a new logbook at that time. She further stated that he carried his pilot logbook with him when he flew the helicopter and that it would have been destroyed in the post crash fire. The pilot reported on his application for his second-class medical certificate on January 20, 1999, that he had 680 total flight hours, and had flown 45 flight hours in the previous six months. A flight instructor reported to NTSB that he had given the pilot a biennial flight review on January 15,1999. The pilot completed an aircraft standardization course for the McDonnell-Douglas model 500 helicopter, conducted by the University of North Dakota, on May 15, 1999. According to the University of North Dakota, the pilot was not signed off for a biennial flight review after the training. See University of North Dakota records.
The helicopter was a Hughes model 369HS. Maintenance records showed the helicopter had accumulated 5,483 total flight hours at the time of the accident. The helicopter was last inspected on May 17, 1999, 97 flight hours before the accident, when it received an annual inspection. See maintenance records.
The National Weather Service, Surface Analysis Chart for 1800 indicated a cold front extending from the northeastern United States through western North Carolina, northwestern Georgia, and southeastern Alabama into the Gulf of Mexico. Station plots on the chart showed mostly overcast cloud conditions west of the front over Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. In addition, the station plots indicated northerly-northwesterly winds, diminishing temperatures, and patchy restricted visibilities west of the front.
The Alabaster-Shelby County Airport, 1953 surface weather observation was winds 340 degrees at 5 knots, visibility 6 miles, mist, few clouds at 1,000 feet, temperature 64 degrees F, dew point temperature 62 degrees F, altimeter setting 30.11 inches hg. Alabaster-Shelby County Airport is located about 9 miles east-southeast of the accident site.
The Birmingham International Airport, 1953 surface weather observation was winds 350 degrees at 8 knots, visibility 2 miles, mist, clouds 800 feet overcast, temperature 57 degrees F, dew point 66 degrees F, altimeter setting 30.13 inches hg. The Birmingham International Airport is located about 20 miles north-northeast of the accident site.
Sun and Moon data show that at the time and location of the accident the sun was at an altitude of -35.4 degrees on a 268-degree bearing. The moon was at an altitude of 14 degrees, on a bearing of 75.8 degrees, and had a 95 percent illumination. See NTSB Meteorological Group Chairman Factual Report.
Witnesses near the accident site stated the weather was dark and slightly foggy at the time of the accident.
At the time of the accident there were no known contacts with the pilot by ground persons. Personnel from Dent Aviation at the Shelby County Airport stated they were closed at the time of the accident and there would not have been anyone at the airport to answer the radio set to the airport Unicom frequency. The last known contact with the pilot was at 1902, when the pilot communicated with the departure controller at the FAA Montgomery Approach Control. See transcripts of communications.
WRECKAGE AND IMPACT INFORMATION
The helicopter crashed in a wooded area to the northeast of a house located at 2680 Coalmont Road, Helena, Alabama. The accident site was on a 30-degree sloped hill. Examination of the accident site indicated the helicopter crashed while in a near vertical, nose down descent. The 60 to 70 foot tall trees above the impact point had very little branch damage. The final impact heading was about 185 degrees. All components of the helicopter necessary for flight were located on or around the main wreckage. Wreckage was scattered over a 75 feet long by 30 feet wide area, which extended from the main wreckage and impact point, westerly down the sloped terrain. A postaccident fire had erupted and consumed the main wreckage.
The forward portion of the left and right landing gear skids were found embedded in the ground about 90 degrees downward from the normal direction of flight, which is perpendicular to the ground. The skid portions were about 7.5 feet apart. The cockpit, cabin area, main rotor transmission, and main transmission were located about 10 feet to the south of the embedded front portion of the landing gear skids. The engine was located about 12 feet downhill, toward the west, from the initial impact point. The tailboom, with tail rotor gearbox, tail rotor hub assembly and blades, and the vertical and horizontal stabilators attached, was located about 25 feet downhill, toward the west, from the initial impact point. One main rotor blade was located about 75 feet downhill, toward the west, from the initial impact point.
Examination of the cockpit, cabin, and fuselage area showed they were completely consumed by fire. Examination of the tailboom indicated it had separated from the fuselage due to overload compression. The horizontal and vertical stabilators had ground impact damage. The tail rotor blades showed no rotational damage. The tail rotor pitch change assembly and drive assembly operated normally after the accident. The tail rotor drive shaft had separated at the point the tail boom separated from the fuselage, due to overstress.
Examination of the main rotor transmission and rotor system showed the transmission and rotor head rotated freely. The main rotor head and main rotor blades showed evidence of extensive rotational damage. One main rotor blade separated during ground impact due to overload fractures of the strap pack laminates. The upper main rotor system flight controls showed evidence of multiple overstress fractures and bends typical of a power on condition during sudden stoppage.
Examination of the engine to transmission drive shaft showed overload fractures due to sudden stoppage. The overrunning clutch showed normal wear when examined after the accident.
The engine sustained extensive ground impact and post-crash fire damage. Post-crash examination of the engine did not evidence any internal or external failures that were not a result of ground impact and postcrash fire damage. See Boeing Helicopter and Rolls-Royce reports.
MEDICAL AND PATHOLOGICAL INFORMATION
Dr. Stephen Pustilnik, State Medical Examiner, Birmingham, Alabama, performed postmortem examination of the pilot and passenger. The cause of death for each was attributed to multiple blunt force trauma. No findings that could be considered causal to the accident were reported. Postmortem toxicology tests were performed on specimens obtained from the pilot by Dennis V. Canfield, Ph.D., Manager, Toxicology and Accident Research Laboratory, Federal Aviation Administration, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The tests were positive for ethanol, acetaldehyde, and n-butanol in muscle. These findings were attributed to postmortem ethanol formation. The tests were negative for drugs.
The aircraft wreckage was released by NTSB on November 27, 1999, to Tom Dilbeck, Claims Representative, AIG Aviation, Inc. Components retained by NTSB for further examination were returned to Atlanta Air Salvage, Griffin, Georgia.