NTSB finds holes in engine casing of downed chopper Motor was installed 13 days before crash that killed officer

Police pilots grounded

November 06, 1998|By Peter Hermann and Eric Siegel | Peter Hermann and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Federal officials investigating Wednesday's helicopter crash that killed a Baltimore police officer have found two holes in the engine casing, which has led them to focus their attention on a new motor installed 13 days before the accident.

James J. Cain of the National Transportation Safety Board said yesterday that the engine from the crumpled helicopter has to be taken apart to determine a cause for the accident. "It [the engine] looks like it seized, but when, I don't know," he said.

The investigator said similarities were found between the condition of the crashed helicopter's engine and the engine of Baltimore police helicopter of the same model involved in a July 1997 accident.

The crash Wednesday at the B&O Railroad Museum killed Flight Officer Barry W. Wood, 50, and seriously injured his partner, Officer Mark A. Keller, 43.

The accidents have raised safety concerns. The city sold its three helicopters to a private company in 1996 and rents them back -- a move criticized at the time by the police union president, who said he believed maintenance would be sacrificed for profit.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier indefinitely grounded the helicopters after Wednesday's crash. But police officials would not speculate on the future of the unit or its contract with Helicopter Transport Services Inc.

"Of critical concern to the department is the cause of the accident and the physical state of the engine casing," said Robert W. Weinhold Jr., a Police Department spokesman. "The casing is a crucial factor which will assist investigators."

Wood, a 27-year veteran, was helping officers locate a stolen car about 2:30 p.m. when his craft's four-cylinder engine apparently broke down. The experienced pilot managed to maneuver the crippled helicopter away from homes on West Pratt Street.

Wood died at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center 2 1/2 hours after the accident, the second city officer to die in the line of duty in five days. Keller was in serious condition last night at the same hospital.

The two-seat model 300C helicopter was built by Schweizer Aircraft in Elmira, N.Y. Federal records show that before Wednesday, model 300C helicopters have crashed 10 times nationwide since 1995, resulting in two fatalities -- neither of whom were police officers.

Schweizer's marketing director, Barbara Tweedt, who has known Wood for more than two decades, called Wednesday's crash the "most tragic accident" in the company's 33-year history. She said that model of helicopter has logged more than 1 million flight hours for law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Baltimore's helicopter unit, known as "Foxtrot," was founded in 1971 and is regarded by officers as invaluable in helping them chase stolen cars and locate elusive suspects.

Helicopters in the unit have responded to 274,605 calls, assisted in 15,723 arrests and logged 96,656 hours of air time.

Since 1977, Baltimore police helicopters have either crashed or been forced to make emergency landings five times.

The most recent accident occurred July 17, 1997, when a police helicopter crashed at Loch Raven Boulevard and The Alameda in Northeast Baltimore, seriously injuring the observer. The pilot, Officer Bobby J. Lawson, reported hearing a loud "clunk" before the engine died.

NTSB investigators reported that a connecting rod had pierced the engine casing.

Their report also noted that the engine had been overhauled shortly before the accident, and several installed parts were incompatible.

Although the helicopter that crashed Wednesday had similar holes in the engine casing, it had a new engine that was shipped by its manufacturer, Pennsylvania-based Textron-Lycoming, and installed Oct. 22.

It was unclear yesterday whether the holes were connected to the accident. NTSB investigators could not say whether the holes were created as a result of the accident.

Cain, the NTSB investigator, could not explain how similar problems could develop in an engine that had been overhauled and one that was new.

"The symptoms look the same, but what started it, we don't know," he said.

The engine will be boxed and shipped to Textron-Lycoming's plant, where investigators and company engineers will try to determine what went wrong, he said.

The engine had been installed after maintenance workers discovered metal chips in the oil crank case of the old engine, Cain said.

It was installed by Helicopter Transportation Services Inc., based at Martin State Airport.

HTS, which had maintained the police helicopters for years, bought the city's three aircraft in 1996 for $476,912. Police Sgt. Douglas Womack, a former pilot, said HTS had refused to renew the maintenance contract because it was losing money, putting the unit in jeopardy.

"I don't think anybody wanted to privatize the unit," Womack said. "But I think if we didn't do it, the alternative would have been to shut it down. We didn't have many options."

At the time, Officer Gary McLhinney, the police union president, questioned whether a private company would spend the money necessary to maintain a high level of safety.

Yesterday he said, "We still have the same concerns that we had in 1996. But it's not fair to comment until we know all the facts."

A woman who answered the telephone at HTS, but would not give her name, said the company had no comment. "There is no information at this point," she said.

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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