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Seattle helicopter crash adds to concern about chopper safety

Troubled by an "unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents" during the last decade, the National Transportation Safety Board in recent weeks has asked the helicopter industry to take extra care when inspecting and fixing helicopters. Officials have also suggested that pilots spend more time training on simulators.

The deaths of a pilot and a photojournalist in a fiery helicopter crash in downtown Seattle on Tuesday are likely to bring more urgency to that safety campaign. Already, Seattle's mayor has said he wants to reexamine the city’s regulations about helipads.

The KOMO-TV news chopper had just taken off from its helipad atop a downtown building when witnesses described hearing unusual noises, including the sound of a "whining" engine, the NTSB said. The aircraft starting spinning and sputtered into the ground, where it exploded and damaged three cars. One of the drivers was hospitalized for serious burn injuries.

More than 500 people have died in at least 1,600 helicopter crashes since 2004, the NTSB said in January. The agency attributed part of what it described as an alarming upward trend to the growing demand for helicopters to serve as ambulances, help with searches, cover news events and serve in private tours.  

Helicopter crashes have been a cause for concern worldwide. In just the last week, four men died in a crash in England and a radio journalist died in El Salvador while covering a bike race from a helicopter that smashed into the ground shortly after takeoff.

The 11-year-old Eurocopter AS350 B2 that went down in Seattle was owned by Helicopters Inc., which says on its website that it operates choppers for more than 50 news organizations. KOMO-TV and KING-TV had been jointly leasing a helicopter from the company. But the one that crashed was a temporary replacement while the usual one received upgrades,  KOMO-TV said.

A Boston television station, WBZ-TV, reported that it and another local station, WFXT-TV, had been using the same helicopter for a decade before switching it out last fall.

Investigators trying to determine what caused the fiery crash will examine the pilot's background and the remains of the aircraft. They will also consider environmental factors such as the weather, said Dennis Hogenson, the NTSB's acting deputy for the Western Pacific region.

The agency's weeks-old safety campaign has spurred action from helicopter manufacturers and helicopter operators. At a helicopter trade conference last month, industry leaders said pilots should make precautionary landings and ground their helicopters if they feel something is amiss. Pilots shouldn't worry about ridicule from colleagues or punishment from the FAA, they said.

"If we are so good at landing anywhere, how come we don't use that feature when we need it the most -- to prevent an accident?" Matt Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Assn. International reportedly said of the "Land and Live" message. "If the weather is closing in, if you are unsure of your ability to reach your fueling point, if there is a maintenance sound or an indication on the panel or if the pilot is not feeling well physically, why not just stop that sequence of events?"

In Seattle, Mayor Ed Murray said a review of helipad regulations was necessary because the crash could have been "much worse." The crash site was across from popular tourist attractions, including the Space Needle, a monorail and a music museum. But the area was quiet about 7:40 a.m. when the crash occurred, he said at a televised news conference.

Emmy Award-winning photojournalist Bill Strothman and the helicopter pilot, Gary Pfitzner, died. Richard Newman, 38, escaped from one of three cars damaged by the crash and was hospitalized in serious condition with burns on up to 20% of his body.

The wreckage was taken to a hangar at Auburn Municipal Airport about 30 miles away. A preliminary report on the crash should be available within five days, the NTSB said, though investigators may not have determined a cause by then.

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