Police Helicopter Pilot

Helicopter Aviation & Beyond:

We take you inside the cockpit of law enforcement helicopters around the world while sharing knowledge and insight on how to become a police or sheriff helicopter pilot.

Air Crash of Columbia 400 on Combs Peak

October 17th 2005 was cold and rainy day with cloud layers covering much of the county at various elevations.  It was the Monday following the annual Miramar Marine Corps Air Station- air show in which the Navy Blue Angels had performed, and it was my day off.  As a fairly new member of my departments aviation unit and not yet a pilot, I was much more in tuned to the weather and how it affected our operations.  I noted that many of the mountain tops in my part of the county were obscured by cloud layers.

On the evening news I learned that a small airplane, with three people on board, en-route from San Diego to Scottsdale Arizona had been reported missing.  Few details were available at this time.  I was off the following day and returned to work on Wednesday morning.  I was assigned to fly with one of our senior pilots, Gene.  I was informed right away that we had a mission to search the north eastern part of the county for a missing aircraft. 

Apparently the FAA had spent the better part of Tuesday locating the radar track of the missing aircraft as it made it's was from Gillespie Field, our home airport, toward Arizona.  The radar track ended in a mountainous region of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  We were also advised that the Civil Air Patrol had a fixed wing aircraft in the air and was actively searching for the crash.

We loaded up and departed the base, handling one quick radio call while en-route to the search area.  Prior to arriving we received an update from our communications center advising that the CAP aircraft had located what they believed to be the crash, on a mountain peak.  We were provided an air frequency with which to talk to CAP upon our arrival. 

The search area was several miles north of the Warner Springs Glider Port.  Gene quickly made contact with the CAP aircraft whose pilot began to guide us in to the crash site.  The moving map in my helicopter identified the peak as Combs Peak, elevation 6150', on Bucksnort Mountain.  By this time the weather was clear and we had no problem getting up to the peak.  There was no question that the aircrash had been located.

The CAP aircraft stayed high while Gene positioned our helicopter in a low slow orbit over the crash site.  I began using our stabilized binoculars to survey the crash site and look for any possible survivors.  One large piece of the hull remained relatively intact and was identifiable as an aircraft.  I visually located one victim still inside the hull.  I could not detect any signs of life.  I located a second victim in the brush 20-30 yards out in front of the aircraft.  This victim was obviously deceased.  I then located a dog, possibly a German Shepard, also obviously deceased,  (the third victim was located a few hours later by a deputy who opted for the 2 hour hike up to the crash site.) 

We coordinated with ground deputies out of the Warner Springs station, who were now responding to the area.  One deputy sheriff would be responsible for completing an incident report on the crash.  Though the cause of the crash is investigated by NTSB, the Sheriff's Department documents all deaths within it's jurisdiction that is not from natural causes.  By this time fuel was an issue and we had to depart the area.  Now that the crash had been located, the task of coordinating the insertion of investigators and the medical examiner, along with recovery of the victims would begin.  Due to the remote location, this was not something that could be accomplished in one day. 

For the remainder of Wednesday phone calls were made between the NTSB and the ASTREA Unit sergeant, the FAA and the sergeant, the medical examiners officer and the sergeant, etc.  All involved investigators would meet on the remote dirt road at the base of Bucksnort Mountain early the following morning. 

Thursday morning Gene and I were partnered up again.  Three MD500 ASTREA helicopters launched for the crash site around 0800.  Gene and I were the day crew helicopter, the sergeant responded with one Cal-Fire fireman and a chainsaw, and a third senior pilot responded alone in his helicopter.  Ground deputies were back on scene and the various investigators had started to arrive.  The ground units had picked out a fairly nice LZ for us.  We landed and shut the helicopter engine down and I quickly set about improving the LZ, removing additional obstacles, brush, etc. 

The sergeant and his Cal-Fire partner responded to the top of the mountain to pick out and improve a LZ near the crash site.  The fireman stayed behind working on the LZ while the sergeant returned to the staging area at the base of the mountain.  Once all investigators and all helicopters were on scene we set about coordinating and inserting everyone who needed to go to the crash site.  My memory tells me that we moved a total of 9 people to the crash site that morning, 3 NTSB investigators, 2 FAA investigators, 3 people from the medical examiners office and 1 investigator from the engine manufacturer (standard for aircrash investigations).  Even though our helicopters are 4 seat aircraft, we rarely if ever put 4 people at a time in them unless one is a small child, due to weight and balance issues.  So you can see that it took about 5 ferry flights to get everyone up to the top of the mountain.

I initially stayed behind and coordinated to loading of passengers into all the helicopters on the lower LZ.  Once everyone had been moved to the top, Gene picked me up we landed and shut down at the upper LZ.  On board our helicopter we had the necessary equipment we would need to fly the victims off the mountain.  This included a 75 foot cable and a large net.  However, it would be a couple of hours before we would be needed for this mission. 

Now I had been an aviation enthusiast for many years prior to being assinged to our air unit, and I had been an avid reader of both Kit-Plane Magazine and AOPA's monthly magazine for many years as well.  Anyone who loves aviation also has a strong interest in learning why accidents occur, and how to prevent them.  My empathy for the victims was met with an equal amount of interest in how and why the accident occurred.  I watched and listened as the investigators went about their work, occasionally slipping a question in to satisfy my desire to learn more. 

columbia 400 crash.jpg

This is a previously published photo of the aircrash on Combs Peak. Subject appears to be unidentified patrol deputy.I was standing next to part of the wreckage when the lead NTSB investigator identified the aircraft as a new Columbia 400.  From my years of reading aviation magazines I knew the the Columbia 400 was the fastest, most modern, and probably the most expensive single enginge-piston engine, certified production plane in the world.  It came from a long line of Lancair Kit-built aircraft which was the fastest piston kit-plane you could build.  I also knew that the Columbia 400 had the most modern-up to date instrumentation and navigation equipment known as a "glass cockpit" of just about any single engine plane manufactured.  Someone commented that this particular aircraft had onboad real time weather data, as well as a graphical moving map display.  I was astounded that such an aircraft could be flown into the side of a mountain.  What I didn't know is that this crash would also astound many other pilots in the aviation community.  We would later learn that of the two pilots on board the aircraft one held an ATP rating, wich is Airline Transport Pilot.  One of the highest ratings a pilot can achieve. 

Virtually all of the wreckage including the main hull of the aircraft, engine, and all victims ended up just on the north/west side of the actual Combs Peak, approximately 50' below the peak.  However, it had become clear to investigators that the initial impact was on the south/east side of the peak.  I just climbed over the top of the peak when I heard an investigator on the east side state that he had located the first point of contact between the airplane and the ground.  I heard the investigator say that he had located the broken red lense from the position light which would have been on the airplane's left wing tip, (the right position light is green).  I could also see a moderate amount of small wreckage, parts of the aircraft and ground disturbance on the east side of the peak.  It was apparent to any observer that the aircraft had initially impacted the east side of the peak, catapulted over the top of the peak and came to rest on the west side.  Another 50' to 75' and they would have cleared the peak. 

The medical examiners investigator and assistants prepared all of the victims for transport off the mountain, including the family dog.  Gene had prepared our helicopter by connecting the 75' cable to the belly hook.  The victims were each placed in a net which would subsequently be connected to the cable under the hovering helicopter.  This type of flying is simply referred to as "long line."  This is the quickest and safest way to get the victims off of the mountain and back to their families where they belong.  I stayed on the mountain to handle the ground duties of connecting each net to the cable for the trip to the bottom.  Three to four flights and this mission was accomplished.  We then shuttled the M.E. personnel off of the mountain. 

All of the remaining investigators stayed on the mountain working non-stop throughout the rest of the day.  As afternoon turned to evening we began to shuttle the remaining investigators off of the mountain.  One of our ASTREA fire pilots arrived in his Bell 205 (Huey) helicopter and assisted.  One trip in the Huey and everyone was back at the lower LZ.   

The aircraft wreckage is eventually removed from the mountain top by a private contractor.  The full investigation and final report would not be completed for well over a year.  Factors contributing to the crash was the weather, and the possibility that the pilots improperly used navigation equipment on the aircraft.  Click here for the NTSB's probably cause statement on this crash.