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Wed, Dec 27, 2006

NTSB Releases Prelim On Fatal Chopper Crash In Delaware

Witnesses Estimated Visibility At 1/8-Mile

The NTSB's preliminary report on the December 14 crash of a Bell 407 helicopter (file photo of type below) in Dagsboro, DE says the pilot, Alisa Howell, took off at night in a thickening fog. Both Howell and her passenger Joshua Freeman were killed in the crash.

The report says Freeman contacted HeloAir Inc. requesting passenger service from his private residence to Washington Dulles with a stop enroute. Howell picked Freeman up at 12:30 local and flew him to a golf course in Ocean View, DE. She then took the chopper to a local airport and refueled it. She was to return to the golf course at 17:30 to take Freeman to Washington Dulles.

According to the report, Howell held a commercial pilot certificate with a rating for rotorcraft helicopter. She also held a flight instructor certificate with a rating for rotorcraft helicopter. Her most recent FAA second class medical certificate was issued on April 28, 2006, and on that date, she reported 2,800 total hours of flight experience.

At 1700 witnesses reported seeing the chopper flying near the accident site at 75 feet over the trees. They said they observed the aircraft disappear in fog then reappear traveling in the opposite direction.

At 17:15 Howell set down in a farm field near the golf course. The property owner notified the State Police who arrived on the scene and questioned Howell. She said she couldn't get to the golf course to pick up Freeman because of the fog and was waiting for him in the field instead.

Another witness working about 800 feet from the accident site watched the departure. He says he heard the engine start and went outside to watch the takeoff. The helicopter climbed vertically to a height just above nearby trees and utility lines, the hovered for a moment. While hovering, the landing light turned on, off, on, and off again. The helicopter then pitched nose down and began to accelerate forward.

The witness said he expected to see the helicopter climb as he had seen others do in the past. Instead, the accident helicopter just accelerated forward in a shallow descent until it impacted the ground. The witness reported the engine sound as smooth and continuous. He said at the time of the accident it was dark, the fog was dense, and that it thickened throughout the evening. When attempting to get to the accident site to render aid, he said he couldn't find his way and had to go back to his work site for a light.

An off-duty firefighter who heard the crash and notified authorities before responding to the scene. He estimated the visibility at 1/8 mile or less in fog.

NTSB investigators could find no evidence of damage to trees or utility lines near the accident site which was just under 1,100 feet from the departure point.

The chopper was substantially damaged, but investigators were able to determine its drivetrain and flight controls were all operating normally prior to the crash. Evidence of fuel was found near the crash site. The NTSB retained the engine and engine control unit for further testing.

At 18:01, Sussex County Airport located 11 nm from the accident site reported visibility 3 miles in mist with temperature 46 degrees and dewpoint 45 degrees Fahrenheit. At 18:40, the visibility had dropped to 1 1/4 miles in mist. Evening civil twilight ended at 17:10 local.

FMI: www.ntsb.gov

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