Friday, September 8, 2017

Schweizer 269C-1, N204HF, operated by Helicopter Flight Services: Fatal accident occurred September 08, 2017 at Flying W Airport (N14), Medford, Burlington County, New Jersey

MEDFORD -- The pilot of the helicopter that crashed, killing him and country music star Troy Gentry, hovered for 10 minutes while he reviewed his option and waited for first responders to get on scene before he attempted an emergency landing, according to 911 calls. 

Gentry, one half of the country duo Montgomery Gentry, died after the helicopter crashed on Sept. 8. He was scheduled to perform at the airport and resort later that evening. 

The helicopter's pilot, James Evan Robinson, 30, was pronounced dead at the scene. He had taken Gentry up in the helicopter for a "spur of the moment" ride, officials said.  

A preliminary National Safety investigation into the incident determined that the helicopter crashed after experiencing a mechanical failure. 

Employees at the Flying W Airport and Resort placed three calls to 911 that afternoon. In the first, the airport's manager tells the the dispatcher that she plans to close the airport so the pilot can land on the runway, but wants to wait for the fire department before giving the pilot the OK to do so.

The manager calls back a second time, inquiring about the fire department's response time. 

"I have a helicopter hovering. He's going to make an emergency landing," she told the dispatcher. "I just want a fire truck here before I let him land." 

In a third call, a man from the airport says it's been 10 minutes since the first call was placed, and that no one had arrived at the scene yet. 

"I have a helicopter emergency. The fire department has been notified already," he said. "I'm curious about when they're getting here."

"We just dispatched them," a man answered. "You guys didn't give us an ETA of when the chopper was coming in. They're volunteers, so... but we did dispatch them." 

Medford Fire Chief Thomas Thorn said there was a delayed response that day after Lumberton firefighters were first dispatched. 

"This is unusual," he said, explaining that calls from the airport, which sits between Lumberton and Medford, prompt responses from both departments. Because Lumberton's fire department is comprised of volunteers, they generally take longer to arrive, while Medford has full-time staff that can respond immediately during the day.

Once Medford's firefighters received the call, they left the station within two minutes, Thorn said.

Still, he said, it's unlikely first responders could have assisted much at this type of scene, where impact, rather than fire and smoke, fatally injured Gentry and Robinson. 

He also said this is his first time in 30 years with the department that he can remember being called to the scene before a plane or helicopter crashes, as the department usually responds to the scene after a craft is down.  

"We were kind of blown away," Thorn said. 

While there's little to nothing firefighters could have done to keep the situation from turning fatal, it's also unclear what the pilot could have done differently. 

"It's like most of these aviation accidents," said Ladd Sanger, a Dallas-based aviation lawyer with Slack & Davis and licensed helicopter pilot who has experience with the type of helicopter Robinson flew that day. "There are a series of things that contribute to the outcome. [The throttle issue] set the sequence of events in motion. That's definitely not on the pilot."

With only a preliminary crash report, there's no concrete explanation of what caused the fatal crash, and Sanger said it's unclear whether the risky, emergency autorotation landing method was performed poorly, or if there was an additional tranmission failure that made the crash landing inevitable. 

While several options were discussed once Robinson realized there was a problem with the helicopter, he chose to kill the power and perform an autorotation, rather than a run-on landing. 

"While we train for them, [power-off autorotations] are a high-stress event," he said. "You have very little margin for error, and everything happens quickly." 

What strikes Sanger about the report, he said, is the fact that the helicopter attempted to land on the runway, but ended up in a field area nearby. If an autorotation was properly initiated over the runway, it's unlikely the helicopter would have crashed that far away, he said. 

As for hovering and waiting for the fire department to arrive, Sanger said he can see both pros and cons in making that decision. While firefighters can sometimes save lives at crashes with a quick response, continued hovering can further damage the engine, depending on what type of mechanical issue has occurred. 

"If it was a transmission issue, the longer that you let that run, the worst things are going to be," he said. "But it's unclear without knowing what the underlying mechanical issue is. It's easy to sit here after the fact and second-guess anybody."

Story, video and photo gallery:

The National Transportation Safety Board traveled to the scene of this accident.

Additional Participating Entities:
Federal Aviation Administration / Flight Standards District Office; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Sikorsky; Coatesville, Pennsylvania
Lycoming; Williamsport, Pennsylvania

Aviation Accident Preliminary Report - National Transportation Safety Board:

Herlihy Helicopters Inc
Helicopter Flight Services

NTSB Identification: ERA17FA317
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, September 08, 2017 in Medford, NJ
Aircraft: SCHWEIZER 269C, registration: N204HF
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On September 8, 2017, about 1300 eastern daylight time, a Schweizer 269C-1 helicopter, N204HF, operated by Helicopter Flight Services, was substantially damaged during collision with terrain while performing a forced landing to Runway 01 at Flying W Airport (N14), Medford, New Jersey. The commercial pilot and passenger were fatally injured. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed for the personal flight which was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91.

According to the chief flight instructor for the operator, the purpose of the flight was to provide an orientation/pleasure flight to the passenger who was scheduled to perform in a concert on the airport later that evening.

Several minutes after takeoff, the pilot reported over the airport UNICOM frequency that he was unable to control engine rpm with throttle inputs. He reported he could "roll" the twist-grip, but that there was no corresponding change in engine rpm when he did so.

The company flight instructor and another certificated helicopter flight instructor were monitoring the frequency and engaged the pilot in conversation about potential courses of action to affect the subsequent landing. Options discussed included a shallow approach to a run-on landing, or a power-off, autorotational descent to landing. The pilot elected to stop the engine and perform an autorotation, which was a familiar procedure he had performed numerous times in the past. Prior to entering the autorotation, the pilot was advised to initiate the maneuver over the runway.

The company flight instructor reported that the helicopter entered the autorotation about 950 ft above ground level, and that the helicopter was quiet during its descent "because the engine was off." During the descent, the rotor rpm decayed to the point where the instructor could see the individual rotor blades. The helicopter descended from view prior to reaching the runway threshold and the sounds of impact were heard. Both instructors reported that a high-pitched "whine" could be heard from the helicopter during the latter portion of the descent.

A video forwarded by local police showed the helicopter south of the runway as it entered what appeared to be a descent profile consistent with an autorotation. Toward the end of the video, the descent profile became more vertical and the rate of descent increased before the helicopter descended out of view. No sound could be heard from the helicopter.

The pilot held commercial and instructor pilot certificates, each with ratings for rotorcraft-helicopter and instrument helicopter. His most recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) second-class medical certificate was issued April 12, 2017.

Excerpts of the pilot's logbook revealed he had logged 480.9 total hours of flight experience. It was estimated that he had accrued over 300 total hours of flight experience in the accident helicopter make and model. The last entry logged was for 1.2 hours in the accident helicopter on the day of the accident.

The company training records indicated the pilot had received the training required by the operator for employment as a flight instructor, and his last airman competency check was completed satisfactorily on April 19, 2017 in the accident helicopter.

According to FAA records, the helicopter was manufactured in 2000 and had accrued approximately 7,900 total aircraft hours. Its most recent 100-hour inspection was completed August 17, 2017 at 7,884 total aircraft hours.

At 1254, the weather recorded at South Jersey Regional Airport (VAY), 2 miles west of N14, included clear skies and wind from 260° at 13 knots gusting to 18 knots. The temperature was 21°C, and the dew point was 9°C. The altimeter setting was 30.13 inches of mercury. Airmen's Meteorological Information (AIRMET) Sierra for instrument meteorological conditions and mountain obscurations was in effect for the area surrounding the accident site at the time of the accident.

The wreckage was examined at the accident site, and all major components were accounted for at the scene. The initial ground scar was about 10 ft prior to the main wreckage, which was about 220 ft prior to the threshold of runway 01 and aligned with the runway.

The cockpit was significantly deformed by impact damage, and the tailboom was separated at the fuselage. The engine and main transmission remained mounted in the airframe, and all main rotor blades were secured in their respective grips, which remained attached to the main rotor head and mast. The pitch-change link for the yellow rotor blade was fractured, with fracture signatures consistent with overstress. Each of the three blades was bent significantly at its respective blade root. The blades showed little to no damage along their respective spans toward the blade tips, which was consistent with low rotor rpm at ground contact.

Flight control continuity was established from the individual flight controls, through breaks, to the main rotor head and tail rotor. Drivetrain continuity was also established to the main and tail rotors.

The engine was rotated by hand at the cooling fan, and continuity was confirmed from the powertrain through the valvetrain, to the accessory section. Compression was confirmed on all cylinders using the thumb method. The magnetos were removed, actuated with a drill, and spark was produced at all terminal leads. Borescope examination of each cylinder revealed signatures consistent with normal wear, with no anomalies noted.

The carburetor was separated from the engine, displayed impact damage, and was found near the initial ground scar. The throttle and mixture arms were actuated by hand and moved smoothly through their respective ranges. The filter screen was removed, and was absent of debris. The carburetor contained fuel which appeared absent of water and debris.

The collective control and jackshaft assembly as well as the associated throttle cable, push-pull tube, and bellcrank assemblies were retained for further examination at the NTSB Materials Laboratory.

Those who may have information that might be relevant to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation may contact them by email, and any friends and family who want to contact investigators about the accident should email

Medford Township Police Chief Richard Meder, center, speaks to media. At right is Lumberton Township Police Chief Tony DiLoreto. Burlington Prosecutor Scott A. Coffina is at left.

Burlington Prosecutor Scott A. Coffina is interviewed.

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