“Our state police and law enforcement family at-large are mourning this tragic outcome to an already challenging day, “ State Police Superintendent Colonel W. Steven Flaherty said in a statement released by the Virginia State Police.
“Lieutenant Cullen was a highly-respected professional aviator and Trooper-Pilot Bates was a welcome addition to the Aviation Unit, after a distinguished assignment as a special agent with our Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Their deaths are a tremendous loss to our agency and the Commonwealth.”
Trooper Pilot Berke Bates was a very recent addition to the Virginia State Police Aviation Unit, having received a fixed-wing rating earlier this year as he financed his own flight training in the hopes of realizing his lifelong dream of becoming a pilot with the State Police. Although obtaining a pilots license alone does not guarantee a spot on the aviation unit, Trooper Bates, who would have turned 41 the day after the crash, was offered his dream job just three weeks ago when he was permanently assigned to the aviation unit as a pilot on July 25th. Trooper Bates was a native of Northern Virginia who attended the University of Tennessee who after graduating joined the Florida Highway Patrol where he would later meet his wife while assigned to Palm Beach County. Trooper Bates moved back to Virginia and joined the Virginia State Police in 2004. Bates is survived by his wife and three children.
Troopers Cullen and Bates departed Charlottesville airport in Virginia around 4 pm on Saturday afternoon and were in the air for approximately fifty minutes before disaster struck. At 4:50 PM witnesses reported seeing the helicopter spiral out of control, with one witness stating that he heard the aircraft having trouble and looked up to witness the helicopter spinning out of control before going inverted and disappearing from view behind trees. Images from the scene showed the Bell 407 helicopters tail wedged into a tree almost upside down, potentially supporting eyewitness accounts of the moments before the crash. The tail was found without fire damage, separated from the body of the helicopter, which impacted the ground a short distance away, bursting into flames.
“I was close to both of those state troopers,” Virginia Governor McAuliffe (D) said at a memorial service in Charlottesville on Sunday morning. “Jay Cullen had been flying me around for three-and-a-half years. Berke was part of my executive protection unit. He was part of my family. The man lived with me 24-7.”
The National Transportation Safety Board also is currently investigating the crash and will likely be on scene for several days gathering evidence from the crash before releasing a preliminary report into the cause of the accident. An NTSB spokesman stating that there were no distress calls received from the helicopter prior to the crash.
Late Saturday evening, first responders from around Virginia lined the interstate with red and blue lights blazing on emergency vehicles that lined the interstate and overpasses in a silent tribute to the fallen troopers as they were escorted from the scene.