Durham County

Federal investigators delve into mystery of Duke Life Flight crash

Duke Life Flight helicopter crashes, kills four

A Duke University Health System helicopter crashed Sept. 8, 2017, killing four people in Perquimans County in eastern North Carolina. The crash occurred around 11:45 a.m. The helicopter was returning to Duke from the Sentara Albemarle Medical Cent
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A Duke University Health System helicopter crashed Sept. 8, 2017, killing four people in Perquimans County in eastern North Carolina. The crash occurred around 11:45 a.m. The helicopter was returning to Duke from the Sentara Albemarle Medical Cent

The National Transportation Safety Board has taken control of the inquiry into the crash of a Duke Life Flight helicopter that killed its pilot, two flight nurses and a patient.

An initial report with basic facts about Friday’s crash should be “out in about a week,” NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said, adding that the agency’s deeper look into the causes normally takes about a year.

The preliminary report will have some of the early information gathered, Williams said. “In the meantime, we will be looking at maintenance records, the pilot’s record and the weather,” he said. “These are all standard parts of our investigation, some of the many things we’re looking at.”

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The Duke helicopter – one of two Eurocopter EC145s in the Life Flight program – came down in a field in Perquimans County near Belvidere. It was bringing a patient to Duke Hospital from the Sentara Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City.

Duke officials say those killed included pilot Jeff Burke, flight nurse Kris Harrison, R.N., and flight nurse Crystal Sollinger, R.N. The patient’s name has not been released. Planning for a campus memorial service is underway, Duke University Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld said.

The Perquimans County Sheriff’s Office took the lead in the investigation on Friday, securing the scene with help from the N.C. Highway Patrol until federal officials arrived. Sheriff Shelby White said the handoff to the NTSB occurred on Saturday, and that the wreckage of the helicopter was removed on Sunday.

White said some eyewitnesses have been interviewed and that anyone else who might have seen something should contact the NTSB at eyewitnessreport@ntsb.gov.

The sheriff declined Monday to recount what the witnesses told investigators. A WTVD report from Friday, however, attributed to White a comment that a witness had seen smoke coming from the helicopter as it hovered before the crash.

Television video of the crash site shows that the helicopter came down in one of the mowed paths that criss-cross a field otherwise covered by tall grass. The airframe, though burned, appears to be largely intact. The weather itself was clear, in keeping with the crystal-blue conditions that prevailed that day back in Durham.

Those factors suggest to Jim Crouse, a Raleigh-based aviation lawyer, helicopter pilot and Duke School of Law alumnus, that “some sudden emergency happened in the air” that the crew ultimately couldn’t overcome.

“So it is very odd,” said Crouse, who added that it looked to him from the crash-site videos that the craft had come down near-vertically, with little horizontal motion.

The NTSB’s report database documents seven previous accidents since 2010 involving Eurocopter EC145s, formerly known as the MBB BK 117 C-2. Six involved air ambulance operations like Life Flight. The seventh, the only fatality, involved an air-rescue helicopter that lost a rescue worker to a fall.

Before Friday, the most recent of the EC145 air ambulance accidents happened in January in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That helicopter suffered an inflight engine fire. Its pilot was able to land the twin-engined craft without injury to the three people on board, bringing it down on one engine after triggering both its built-in fire-extinguishers. The NTSB is still investigating.

Three other accidents came when an engine cowling – one of the lids covering the engine compartment – came off mid-flight and struck either a helicopter’s main rotor or tail rotor. No injuries resulted from those incidents; in fact, people on board of two of the aircraft only noticed the part’s loss after they were back on the ground. NTSB probes faulted a ground crew’s error in one of those accidents and pilots’ “inadequate preflight inspection” in the other two.

The remaining accidents were apparent one-offs. In one, the pilot of a copter belonging to the Pitt County Memorial Hospital suffered a stroke at the controls and lost the use of his right arm. A nurse on the crew helped him work the flight controls for an emergency landing at the Cherry Point Marine Corps base.

In the other, a Pennsylvania-based air ambulance clipped the warning marker of a construction crane with its main rotor. Its pilot, knowing flight nurses were struggling to keep their patient alive, flew a “straight-in” approach to a hospital’s rooftop landing pad instead of first circling the area to look for hazards. Again, no one was hurt.

Crouse – who represented the family of a Duke Life Flight pilot killed in a 2000 crash triggered by a gearbox failure – said he doesn’t “doesn’t know anything about this aircraft that would lend me to believe it has a specific design flaw or flaw that comes out through operations.” He noted that the U.S. Army operates militarized versions of the EC145 and added that “as far as I know, it’s a good aircraft.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg