Howard Elections Chief's Son Among Copter Crash Dead

July 25, 2009|By Jacques Kelly and Brent Jones | Jacques Kelly and Brent Jones,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of a fiery helicopter crash that claimed the lives of four persons, including the son of a Howard County elections official.

State police said a four-seat Robinson R44 copter crashed on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70 about 10 miles east of Hagerstown around 10:30 p.m. Thursday after it struck power lines.

The aircraft's cockpit was engulfed by fire when emergency crews arrived at the crash site. The pilot and three passengers onboard were pronounced dead at the scene.

Authorities identified the pilot as Jeffrey D. Nordaas, 24, of the 9700 block of Owen Brown Road in Columbia, the youngest son of Betty Nordaas, Howard County's elections administrator.

Also killed were two other employees of Advanced Helicopter Concepts: George H. Tutor Jr., 39, of the 100 block of Opal Ave. in Westminster and Niall R.Y. Booth, 43, of the 6900 block of Meadowpoint Terrace in New Market; and a female passenger, Kim R. Felix, 48, of the 6700 block of Balmoral Ridge, also in New Market.

Advanced Helicopter Concepts is based in Frederick, and the employees and Felix were returning home after spending the day offering helicopter rides to help raise money for troubled youth, family members said.

One of the company's instructors, Gary Smith, said the company had suffered a "huge loss."

Nordaas "was training to be a pilot most of his life," said his half brother, Michael Hart of Sykesville.

Hart said Nordaas' father, Arnstein Nordaas, is also a pilot, and he was on his way home from Norway, where he does search-and-rescue flights over the North Sea.

Hart said Advanced Helicopter was providing 20-minute flights between Hagerstown and Frederick all day Thursday as a way to help raise money for children's charities.

"He was a great brother," said Hart, who is 18 years older. "We played a lot of golf. We went fishing a lot."

Family members said Nordaas grew up in Columbia but went to a private high school, the Kent School in Connecticut, to play ice hockey. He was a 2008 graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.

"He's been home with his nieces and nephews, who absolutely love him to death," Hart said.

"You couldn't have asked for a more responsible individual. He was so excited to do this charity event yesterday."

George H. Tutor Sr., the father of one of the victims and a DuBois, Pa., resident, said his son had only recently started working for Advanced Helicopter.

"He just got the job a few weeks ago and was working as an instructor," the father said.

His son had worked for several years as an electrician for Constellation Energy Group. He grew up in Carroll County, graduated from North Carroll High School in 1987, then did a stint in the Navy.

"Flying always interested him," his father said. "Hang-gliding piqued his interest at first. He learned that, and it went on from there."

Tutor lived in Westminster with his mother, Nancy Tutor, and his 14-year-old daughter, Jessica.

His father said his son's life was all about flying and about his daughter. "Those are what he loved the most," he said.

Suzanne Coomes, the fiancee of George Tutor, said his job at the flying company had been a "dream come true."

Advanced Helicopter trains pilots, takes photographers on aerial tours and repairs and sells helicopters, according to its Web site.

Coomes said her fiance was not slated to get on the flight but asked to get on at the last minute.

She said that Tutor had a pilot's license and was working on getting his commercial license. He had flown helicopters in several movies, she said.

Officials said it was not clear what caused the crash or whether the craft was already on its way down when it hit the power lines.

Kevin Lewis, Washington County's emergency services director, said a witness described an electricity flash in the air before the crash.

"The witness basically saw a large arc, at which point the helicopter crashed onto the interstate," Lewis said.

The aircraft had no flight data recording system such as the "black boxes" on large commercial planes, according to Kitty Higgins, a National Transportation Safety Board member investigating the crash. She said the wreckage was being taken to Clayton, Del., for further investigation.

The helicopter took off about 10:15 p.m. from Hagerstown Regional Airport and was headed to Frederick Municipal Airport, she said. The helicopter had been flying low, and it struck power lines about 70 feet above the ground, she said.

Officials said visibility was somewhat limited by fog at the time of the crash, but it wasn't known if weather played a role, Lewis said.

The crash occurred on the western slope of South Mountain.

Storms had passed through the area earlier in the night, and the pilot delayed the flight for about two hours because of weather, according to the NTSB's Higgins.

"For these kind of flights, it's the pilot's decision for the altitude he flies and the weather he takes off in," she said.

Higgins said Nordaas was certified to fly Robinson R44 helicopters, had 630 hours of experience, and was a certified flight instructor for Advanced Helicopter Concepts.

The pilot was not required to file a flight plan and there was no contact with air traffic controllers because the control tower was closed, she said.

Troopers temporarily shut down traffic in both directions at the crash site Thursday night. The highway was reopened early Friday.

The investigation is expected to continue for several weeks.

Baltimore Sun reporters Mary Gail Hare and Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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