September 19, 2017 – The National Transportation Safety Board has released the Aviation Accident Preliminary Report for the accident involving Duke Life Flight earlier today. The report sheds some light into some of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy that claimed the lives of all four souls onboard. While the internet is running with theories on the cause of this accident, there are still many unanswered questions that investigators are still working to answer.
What we do know, is that on September 8, 2017, at around 11:20 Eastern Standard Time, a BK117 operated by Air Methods Corporation, went down in a wind turbine farm in Hertford, North Carolina.
For the crew of that fateful last flight, it started as a usual day. They started their shift flying from their base located at Johnston Regional Airport (JNX) in Smithfield, North Carolina to the Elizabeth City Regional Airport (ECG) in Elizabeth City, North Carolina for fuel. They arrived at ECG around 9:24 am and loaded 70 gallons of fuel. Shortly after, they radioed the company dispatch and advised them they were departing for Sentara Albemarle Regional Medical Center Heliport and had two hours of fuel on board. They arrived at Sentara at around 10:22 am. At 11:08 am the pilot radioed company dispatch and announced they were departing for Duke University North Heliport with two hours of fuel and four people onboard. This would be the last communication from the Life Flight helicopter.
Preliminary data transmitted from the helicopter showed that it departed Sentara Albemarle Regional to the northwest, climbing up about 1000 ft MSL before turning west. They then climbed to about 2500 ft MSL and continued westerly with a groundspeed of around 120 knots. About eight minutes after takeoff, they changed their heading to the south, and one minute later, the transmitted data ended at an altitude of around 1200 ft MSL with a groundspeed of 74 knots.
There were several witness reports observing a smoke trail behind the helicopter while it was in flight. Most of these reports are consistent, describing the smoke as “dark” or “heavy.” One witness described a “popping noise” before the helicopter began descending while yawing left and right. That witness said the rotors were still turning before he lost sight of the helicopter.
The initial examination of the wreckage revealed that the major components of the helicopter were present at the accident site. There was a post-crash fire that partially consumed the cabin. It was noted that all the main and tail rotor blades were still attached to the rotor hubs, with no signs of leading edge damage, scratches or other evidence of rotation. The transmission was unable to be rotated by hand, nor was the number two engine gas generator. That number two engine rear turbine shaft bearing did exhibit discoloration consistent with overheating and lack of lubrication. The helicopter did have an onboard audio and video recording system that was thermally damaged, but the memory device was still intact. The information on that device has not been released at the time of this writing.
The helicopter, which was a 2011 manufacture BK117 C2, had just received a 30-hour engine inspection on August 15. During that time the airframe and engines had accrued 2,673 total hours of operation. There had been several additional inspections completed during scheduled maintenance that was conducted on September 1. The pilot, Jeff Burke, had a commercial certificate with ratings for rotorcraft-helicopter and instrument-helicopter with 4,362 total flight hours and 1,027 hours flight time in the BK117.
The memorial service for the crew and patient is set for Wednesday, September 20th at 1:00 pm.
You can read the preliminary report in its entirety at: