An investigation is underway into Tuesday’s crash of a medical helicopter outside a church in the Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby Township. Four people, including a child, were on board; none suffered life-threatening injuries, the authorities have said.
Thus far, the evidence points to the crash having been an accident, said Brian Rayner, a senior air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. They are looking at the physical condition of the aircraft before it is removed from the street for even more review, including how the pilot dealt with the situation.
Rayner said that will include, “the environment clues … terrain, the air, the air traffic. And then, you know, what communications might have been going on inside that airspace, what equipment, what certificates, that sort of thing are required to operate inside that environment.”
The evidence gathering is well underway, he said in a morning briefing Wednesday at the scene in front of Drexel Hill United Methodist Church on Burmont Road.
“We’re collecting witness and video evidence that describes the helicopter maneuvering erratically, for lack of a better term, and then descending,” Rayner said, noting that the crash took place toward the end of the trip.
“Preliminary radar data shows the helicopter in a just a laser-straight course line, steady, [and that it] has been in altitude until it reached this local area,” he said.
The work Wednesday morning at the scene in Delaware County was preliminary to the aircraft being loaded onto a trailer to be transported to secure storage for more review, said Rayner.
“We’re just going to document the cockpit … all those things here, while the major components as found. We’re going to do our best to get the helicopter out here today, and then we’ll do a more detailed examination,” said.
The medevac helicopter was transporting a young child to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia after leaving Lost Acres Airport in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, shortly after noon Tuesday. As the flight progressed about 37 minutes in the air, the helicopter crashed. Even though neighbors have praised the pilot for avoiding a day care center at the church and other buildings, Rayner said he’s not sure if the pilot had any degree of control of the aircraft in the seconds before the crash.
“That’s what we are here to find out. I don’t know, all credit to him if that is the case,” Rayner said.
“Right now, this is strictly a safety investigation. All the evidence that we have to this point supports an accident. If there was criminal activity involved, if there was evidence of criminal activity, then those notifications would be made. And if it turned out to be a crime, our chair, the NTSB chair, would be in touch with the director of the FBI.”
Neighbors and local public officials are calling the pilot a hero.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, the aircraft was loaded onto a flatbed for transport to Delaware, where it will undergo more tests and data downloads. A full NTSB crew will be there Thursday to begin the painstaking process of disassembly and evaluation of the parts and pieces that remain of the fuselage and rotors, Rayner said at a Wednesday afternoon briefing.
Officials say some of the equipment on the helicopter might have to be sent to Europe for evaluation. The aircraft does not have a flight data or voice recorder, so that information will have to come from the airport and radar reports, Rayner said. An NTSB meteorologist is also working up weather conditions specifically from the time of the impact to help with the overall evaluation of the crash.
As for the pilot, he is still not physically able to give a statement, Rayner said.
“His medical condition precludes him from speaking to us any time in the immediate future,” Rayner said. “He’s doing well, his prognosis is good, but he’s very uncomfortable.”
That statement will be key to any final report, which could take a year or more to complete, he said.