Copter crash laid to factory Police official says federal probe found engine assembly flaw

'It's a workmanship defect'

Fatal wreck unrelated to maintenance of aircraft, major says

November 14, 1998|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The sudden loss of power that sent a Baltimore police helicopter plunging to the ground last week, killing its pilot, was the result of an engine assembly problem at the motor manufacturer's plant, a high-ranking police official said yesterday.

Maj. John McEntee, commander of the division that includes the helicopter unit, said inspectors from the National Transportation Safety Board and the city Police Department reached that conclusion after examining the engine Wednesday at the Textron-Lycoming plant in Williamsport, Pa.

"It's a workmanship defect that occurred at the factory," McEntee said at a brief afternoon news conference. "There's absolutely no indication that maintenance is related to this crash."

Efforts to reach James J. Cain, the NTSB investigator assigned to the crash, were unsuccessful.

A woman who answered the phone yesterday at Textron-Lycoming's legal offices said the manufacturer would have nothing to say about McEntee's statements.

"The company is not commenting at this time," said the woman, who declined to give her name.

An attorney for Helicopter Transport Services Inc. -- which owns and maintains the helicopter and leases it to the Police Department and also had officials at Wednesday's inspection -- confirmed McEntee's account of the investigation's finding and said it agrees with the conclusion of HTS officials.

"The NTSB investigation confirms what our initial impression was," said James J. Wharton, attorney for HTS, which is based at Martin State Airport in Middle River.

The Nov. 4 crash at the B & O Railroad Museum killed Flight Officer Barry W. Wood, 50, and seriously injured his partner, Officer Mark A. Keller, 43. It also prompted Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier to indefinitely ground the helicopter unit.

A new factory engine was installed in the helicopter by HTS 13 days before the crash, and the engine had less than 50 hours of flight time, Cain said last week. An initial inspection revealed two holes in the engine casing, apparently caused by a connecting rod, he said.

McEntee declined yesterday to specify the manufacturing defect that led to what he called "catastrophic engine failure," saying, "The NTSB will get into that" in its written report on the crash.

But he said there did not appear to be any problems with the parts used in the engine's assembly. "All of the parts on this engine were brand-new parts," he said.

An investigation of a July 1997 crash of a police helicopter in Northeast Baltimore found that several parts used in an overhaul of the aircraft's engine were incompatible.

The 1997 crash is the subject of a negligence lawsuit filed Thursday in Baltimore Circuit Court by two former police officers who were injured in the accident. The suit seeks a total of $28 million from T. W. Smith Engine Co. of Cincinnati, which overhauled the engine; Textron-Lycoming, the manufacturer; and HTS.

Another lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on behalf of two former officers who were injured in a 1992 helicopter crash, seeks damages from Schweizer Aircraft Corp. of Elmira, N.Y., the manufacturer of the helicopter.

HTS was initially named as a defendant in that suit but has since been dismissed, according to Wharton and Henry L. Belsky, an attorney for the former officers.

HTS for years had maintained the city helicopter unit, founded in 1971. In 1996, the city sold its three police helicopters to the company, which maintained the aircraft and leased them back to the city.

The wisdom of the deal was questioned at the time by the police union, which feared it could compromise officer safety.

McEntee said yesterday that the pact with HTS remains in effect.

"Nothing has been done with the contract since the crash," he said.

But he said the question of whether the police helicopter unit will change the type of aircraft it uses when the unit begins flying again has not been fully addressed.

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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