NTSB: Mechanical failure likely cause of deadly helicopter crash
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LONGMONT, Colo. (AP) - Federal investigators say mechanical
failure likely caused the helicopter crash that killed the pilot
during the Big Elk Fire near Estes Park in 2002.
A report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety
Board indicates turbine problems with the French-made Lama in the
July 30, 2002, crash that killed Gordon Knight, 52, of Boulder.
"The turbine was destroyed and had a 'corn cob' appearance,"
NTSB investigators concluded. They said there was "evidence of
extreme heat stress."
According to witnesses cited in the report, the helicopter was
emitting grinding noises with 3-foot flames shooting from the
exhaust stack when it crashed.
Knight was flying the helicopter on behalf of Fort Collins-based
Geo-Seis, which had been hired by Boulder County fire departments
to fight wildfires. The sole occupant, Knight had been dropping
water all day on the 4,413-acre fire when his helicopter crashed.
He had more than 8,000 hours experience flying helicopters.
The report's findings still must be accepted by NTSB officials.
"What the report says is what we know: The turbine overheated.
We don't know why. The investigators don't know why. Even the
people who made the helicopter don't know why," said Marc
Mullenix, wildland fire division chief for Boulder Fire-Rescue.
Geo-Seis officials declined to comment, saying they had not yet
read the complete report.
Mullenix, who helped compile the report, said it appears too
much fuel was entering the engine. It's a problem the manufacturer
has seen once or twice before during heavy lifting at high altitude
in Europe, he said.
He said it's considered unlikely that Knight accidentally gave
the engine too much fuel. He said the helicopter's systems are
supposed to automatically decide how much is needed to accomplish
the kind of maneuvers the pilot performs.
The Aerospatiale Lama SA315B helicopter, built in 1978, is
renowned for its ability to carry heavy loads at high altitude.
In addition to carrying a bucket for dropping 144 gallons of
water, the 858-horsepower Lama can deliver firefighters or goods to
the fire line and pluck injured hikers from mountainsides.
Two other pilots fighting the Big Elk Fire - Rick Lee Schwartz,
39, of Ulm, Mont., and Milt Stollack, 56, of Cathedral City, Calif.
- died July 18, 2002, when the wing of their World War II vintage
aircraft broke off. The report on that crash is still not public.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)