NTSB releases preliminary report on Bristol Commons helicopter crash

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Firefighters and investigators remove debris from the site of a helicopter crash Monday, July 9, 2018, at the Bristol Commons townhouse complex. COURTESY PHOTO / WYDAILY.COM

The National Transportation and Safety Board released the preliminary report on the helicopter crash that took place in the Bristol Commons apartment complex July 8.

The crash occurred across the street from the College of William and Mary’s Dillard Complex when a Robinson R44 helicopter hit the 1100 building of the apartment complex. This resulted in a fire which destroyed most of the building structure.

There were two fatalities in the accident:  91-year-old resident Jean Lonchak-Danylko, and the 85-year-old pilot and Virginia Helicopter Association President Henry Schwarz.

According to the NTSB report, Schwarz had taken off from the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport only five minutes before the crash. He was returning to the Stafford Regional Airport. Earlier in the day, he attended a meeting at the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport.

The helicopter took off at 4:30 P.M., moving north towards the site of the incident. It climbed to a pressure altitude of 1700 feet, leveled out, and then sped up from 60 knots (60 MPH) to 110 knots (126 MPH) in 1.5 minutes. When the helicopter went out of range of the Federal Aviation Administration’s tracking, it was turning right, while descending at a speed of over 10,000 feet per minute.

Witnesses said that in the moments before the crash, the helicopter was flying mostly steady, until it suddenly pitched downward into the roof of the apartment building.

The preliminary report does not specify a cause for the crash, but does go through several factors that could have contributed.

Schwarz was a Vietnam War veteran, and had flown helicopters as part of the U.S. Army. He had a commercial pilot license with ratings for airplane single engine land, airplane multiengine land, instrument-airplane, and rotorcraft helicopter. These ratings cover the helicopter he was piloting during the crash.

He had 5,693 total hours of flight time. 545 of those hours were specifically spent in Robinson R44 helicopters — the same make and model as the one from the accident.

The helicopter had last been inspected by the manufacturer, Robinson Helicopter Company, August 24, 2017, and had last received maintenance January 26, 2018. The helicopter’s airframe total time, or total number of hours in the air since manufacture, at the time of the accident is unknown. During maintenance in January, the airframe total time was 649 hours according to the logbook.

Airport personnel reported that both fuel tanks in the helicopter had been refilled at the airport prior to its final flight.

Much of the helicopter was damaged in the crash, but the report states that all major parts of the vehicle were found at the accident site except for the tail boom, the tail rotor, and the tail rotor gearbox. Many parts were severely damaged by the fire and impact of the crash. Other parts could not be recovered because building damage and fire prevented emergency officials from retrieving them.

The report lists the recovered parts and the damage done to them, as well as missing parts like an absent cap on the auxiliary fuel tank. However, it does not specify whether the damage happened before or after the crash, nor does it hint at a specific malfunction that could have caused the incident.

The final NTSB report will be released sometime in the next 18-24 months.