Aviation investigators said yesterday that there is no indication that the pilot whose helicopter crashed Wednesday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport made a distress call and they have found no obvious defects or mechanical problems with the aircraft.
Brian Rayner, an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said a team of investigators will resume its search today for clues into what caused the helicopter to plummet to the ground, killing the pilot and his passenger.
Rayner refused to rule out any possible causes for the accident, but said investigators plan to follow through on an interview they conducted yesterday with the pilot of another helicopter who had been flying near BWI at the time of the accident.
That pilot, whom Rayner would not identify, said surface and upper-level winds were "very unusual" when the Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter dropped out of the sky.
"He discussed varying wind speeds. He said winds would change from strong to no winds at once," Rayner said at an afternoon news conference at Martin State Airport. "He talked about the rapid changes in updrafts and downdrafts ... and changing wind directions."
The aircraft crashed onto the Runway 15 taxiway about 1 p.m. after hovering at 300 to 400 feet, Rayner and witnesses said.
The pilot, James Vincent Osterman, 37, of Davidsonville, was killed instantly. His passenger, Daniel James Breitenbach, 50, a photographer from Parkville, died a few hours later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
The two were using an aircraft operated by Helicopter Transport Services, based at Martin State Airport, to photograph a construction site at BWI.
Helicopter Transport Services declined to comment yesterday for a second day.
Rayner said a team of NTSB investigators and Helicopter Transport Services officials huddled around the crumpled wreckage of the aircraft much of yesterday, retrieving the helicopter's engine, which will undergo extensive testing.
Federal Aviation Administration officials determined yesterday that the helicopter was in full compliance with regulations governing routine maintenance, inspections and flightworthiness, Rayner said. He did not know when the aircraft was last inspected.
Officials have yet to review information on Osterman, such as his flight experience and health records. Investigators also plan to review the pilot's autopsy and toxicology reports.
"We look at the man, the machine and the environment," Rayner said. "Right now we are doing a detailed examination of the machine."
Unlike a passenger airplane, the helicopter was not equipped with a voice recorder to monitor cockpit communications. But investigators have recovered FAA tapes of the conversation between the pilot and BWI air traffic controllers, who were talking with the pilot before the accident.
Rayner said the tapes gave no indication that the helicopter was in trouble.
The controllers "received no radio calls suggesting the aircraft was in distress," Rayner said. "Communication was routine."
The FAA transcript will be released when the NTSB concludes its investigation, which is expected to take at least six months, Rayner said.
Since 1996, the Bell 206B JetRanger helicopter has been involved in at least 10 crashes nationwide in which mechanical problems were at fault, according to a review of accidents that the NTSB has investigated.
Rayner would not comment about past accidents. "At this point it is entirely too early to suggest there are any systemic problems," he said.
Osterman, a pilot for 10 years, took off from Martin State Airport about 30 minutes before the helicopter crashed at BWI, Rayner said.
Because the accident took place at the airport, Rayner said investigators will also look into "wake turbulence" -- winds caused by arriving and department planes -- as a potential cause.
"Wake turbulence is a concern at major airports," Rayner said, noting it is up to air traffic controllers to direct helicopters around turbulence caused by other aircraft. "I do not know if any cautions were used."
Officials will also investigate whether the pilot interviewed yesterday was experiencing wake turbulence, Rayner said.
Friends mourning the death of Osterman, a 17-year member of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, said yesterday that his life was firefighting or flying. Last year, he was part of a volunteer team of helicopter pilots who helped fight wildfires in the West.
County police also mourned his death. Osterman's wife, Cynthia, is a civilian employee in the police narcotics unit.
Breitenbach, who was shooting aerial photographs for the airport when he died, was a graduate of Towson University. He started his photography company -- Dan Breitenbach Photography -- in 1990. Breitenbach grew up in Parkville and has been living in his Redwood Avenue house since he was 4 years old.
"He's always been interested in photography," said daughter Sarah Breitenbach, 17. "He's a very creative person."