The Bell 407 helicopter that crashed and burned outside Charlottesville on Saturday, killing two Virginia State Police pilots, sustained “substantial damage” seven years ago after completely losing power in an incident that ended in a hard landing seven minutes after takeoff, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report.
The 2010 rough landing in Abingdon, which caused the aircraft to bounce once on the ground, resulted in its fuselage being crushed and the partial loss of one of its vertical stabilizers, the report says. Neither the pilot nor the co-pilot was injured in that landing, said state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
The NTSB determined that the likely cause of the 2010 crash was the “improper repair of an engine component by a repair facility, which resulted in a complete loss of power,” according to the report.
It couldn’t be immediately determined whether the 2010 incident and faulty repairs figure into the NTSB’s investigation of Saturday’s fatal crash. A preliminary report of the facts and circumstances of Saturday’s crash will be available in two to three weeks, the NTSB said.
In 2010, the NTSB report stated: “Contributing to the accident was the failure of the repair facility to recognize that an improper repair had been accomplished, which allowed the component to be placed into service.”
The investigation revealed that a “circular metal deflector plate” was found fragmented in the helicopter’s turbine section, and that the required “circumferential fillet weld” between the aircraft’s combustion liner and deflector plate had not been performed.
“Only the preliminary positioning welds attached the deflector plate to the liner, and those welds failed during normal engine operation,” the report said.
“The investigation was unable to determine the specifics of why the repair facility replaced, inspected and approved the deflector plate,” an NTSB investigator wrote.
“Although 19 months had transpired between the improper repair and the liner’s failure, the investigation did not locate any information that indicated that either the repair facility or the Federal Aviation Administration principal maintenance inspector for the repair facility was aware that the maintenance personnel at the repair facility had accomplished a procedure that it was not authorized to conduct.”
The name of the repair facility that conducted the unauthorized repairs resulting in engine failure of the 2010 crash is not clear in the report.
After the repair facility was advised of the deflector plate failure due to the improper repair, the facility identified 19 other assemblies that had a known or suspected improper repair. Those assemblies were recalled from their customers and “no additional in-service failures occurred,” the 2010 report said.
Geller, the state police spokeswoman, said Monday: “Following that (2010) incident, the damage to the helicopter was fully repaired by Bell Helicopter.”
On Saturday, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, of Midlothian and trooper-pilot Berke M.M. Bates, 40, of Quinton were killed when the same helicopter, manufactured in 2000, crashed in Albemarle County about 50 minutes after leaving the Charlottesville airport.
The helicopter was one of two state police choppers that had been circling over Charlottesville as violence broke out before the scheduled white nationalist rally and after police canceled the event as an unlawful assembly. A police spokeswoman said Cullen and Bates were assisting police personnel on the ground by “forwarding them the aerial optics.”
The NTSB said the helicopter was flying over downtown Charlottesville at 4:04 p.m. and engaged in mission-related activities there until 4:42, when it left to provide support for a motorcade carrying Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The first 911 call reporting the crash was received at 4:44 p.m.; the chopper’s vertical flight path was about 45 degrees when it descended into trees, the NTSB said.
Cullen, the pilot, was the commander of the department’s 33-year-old Aviation Unit. Bates, the co-pilot, previously served on McAuliffe’s protection unit.
Cullen was not aboard the helicopter during the 2010 incident, Geller said. Bates became a trooper-pilot in July.