The sole survivor of a fatal helicopter crash has given federal investigators their first insight into the event that killed three people Sept. 28.
In a preliminary report issued Wednesday, investigator Joshua Lindberg wrote that the 14-year-old passenger said the pilot “reached down and rolled the throttle off” before the accident and that the helicopter entered a free fall from about 500 feet up. The passenger said the pilot increased throttle before the accident, but that the helicopter still hit the beach near Lituya Bay. The passenger remembers the impact and water splashing into the wreck, but he then fell unconscious.
It was not clear which of the helicopter’s two pilots adjusted the throttle.
The passenger doesn’t know what the pilot’s actions mean, Lindberg said, and “at this point, neither do we.”
According to information initially provided to the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Park Service (then subsequently confirmed by the NTSB), the crashed helicopter was an Airbus AS350-B3e en route from the factory in Grand Prairie Texas to Anchorage. It had taken off from Juneau and was headed to Yakutat as part of its ferry flight when it crashed on a beach in Glacier Bay National Park.
Fifty-three-year-old Palmer resident David King, 42-year-old Anchorage resident Joshua Pepperd and 11-year-old Andrew Pepperd were killed in the crash. Fourteen-year-old Aiden Pepperd was found injured but alive by the U.S. Coast Guard after the accident.
While Alaska has the highest aviation accident rate in the country, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics, this crash is somewhat unusual in that it involves a new aircraft with two pilots aboard, Lindberg said. For insurance purposes, King had been hired as a safety pilot to accompany the flight.
According to the NTSB report, which was based on GPS recordings, the helicopter left Juneau and traveled over Glacier Bay at 3,000-4,000 feet before following the coastline about 500 to 700 feet above the ground. The last GPS reading had the helicopter at 500 feet.
Investigators arrived at the wreckage two days after the accident, but the tide had washed away some of the debris, Lindberg said. While part of the instrument panel was among the pieces washed away, the NTSB did recover the engine data recorder, engine control unit and a camera that monitored the instruments and the pilot’s actions.
All of the recorders were taken to Washington, D.C. for analysis.
Lindberg said finding the cause of the crash will take time. How much time depends on the course of the investigation, but a ballpark figure is 12 to 18 months.
“The reason that those take so long is that there’s a lot of information to process,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes into an accident like this.”
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2258.