Three Killed in N.M. Medical Chopper Crash

July 17--Three people were killed when a Santa Fe-based medical helicopter crashed at 2:48 a.m. Thursday in rugged, isolated terrain in Eastern New Mexico, state police said.

Lynn Lunsford, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the helicopter registered to Arizona-based TriState Care Flight was carrying a pilot and two crew members when it went down near Newkirk.

Identities of the victims have not been released. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

The flight crew did not issue any sort of mayday or emergency call suggesting the aircraft was in trouble, Lunsford said.

The helicopter, which left the Santa Fe Municipal Airport around midnight, was headed to Tucumcari to pick up a patient when it slammed into the side of what is known as Mesa Rica.

Damyan Brown, a spokesman for state police, said the crash scene is about 3 miles north of Interstate 40 and a mile and a half east of N.M. 129 in Guadalupe County.

"The burning wreckage was located by a rancher on private property," Lunsford said. "The aircraft was destroyed in the accident."

The rancher, Phil Bidegain, told The New Mexican that a Quay County Central Dispatch staffer called him around 3 a.m. to see if he heard or knew anything about a crash. He said he and his foreman drove out to the scene, where they saw no survivors. He said the crash site is about 12 miles from his home.

Members of both the Newkirk Volunteer Fire Department and Santa Rosa Volunteer Fire Department arrived on the scene around 3:20 a.m. Newkirk fire chief Robert Hall said the crash site is about 150 feet above the base of the mesa.

When his crew arrived on the scene, flames from the wreckage were about 4 feet high, he said. "We had no way of getting water up there," he said. "We weren't sure if there was still anyone on board."

Although there were patches of clouds in the sky, he said, it was not raining, and the moon was "visible on and off."

David Craft, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the cloud ceiling in that area around that time might have been in the 1,000- to 1,500-foot range, with winds blowing 10 to 15 knots -- with possible higher gusts -- from the east/northeast.

He said rain did hit Tucumcari around 3:20 a.m.

ME Sprengelmeyer, reporter and publisher of the Guadalupe County Communicator, located in nearby Santa Rosa, said the terrain is difficult to travel, even for four-wheel drive vehicles. When he arrived at the scene around 4 a.m., he noticed fire trucks parked more than a mile away from the crash. He hitched a ride with a rancher.

He said fire crews were "helpless to rescue anybody. It was clear ... that there was nothing that they could do."

John Cole, marketing director for TriState Care Flight, said that while the helicopter was based in Santa Fe he didn't know where the crew members had their homes. He said TriState has a total of 25 bases in four states -- 12 in New Mexico, including Santa Fe.

Cole said the pilot had more than 10 years of experience flying both private and military aircraft. He said medical emergency pilots usually do not file flight plans -- nor does the Federal Aviation Administration require them to -- but all of TriState's pilots are familiar with the regions in which they fly.

Lunsford said Albuquerque air traffic control staffers were in contact with the helicopter until 2:48 a.m. Therefore, he said, "We had as much or better data than we would have gotten from a flight plan anyway."

He said the FAA issues Airworthiness Directives if it finds any problems with specific aircraft. He said there is no record of any problems with this helicopter, an Agusta A109E Rotorcraft.

Gary Robb, a Kansas-based attorney and author of a book on helicopter crashes, said by phone that there are an average of two to three helicopter crashes a week in the United States. He said it is "safe to say that a substantial number are medical helicopter crashes."

He said one explanation is that medical and emergency helicopter pilots are called into dangerous environments -- "mountain rescue, water rescue" -- and don't always know the specifics of every region. "They just go, there's no time," he said. Night flights can be a particular hazard for such pilots and crew members, he said.

He did not want to speculate on what caused the crash but said the fact that the helicopter apparently exploded into flames might rule out fuel problems.

Lunsford said it can take anywhere from several months to a year for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing the crash investigation, to file a full accident report on the incident.

Arturo Delgado, spokesman for Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, issued a statement that said, "These crew members were our colleagues, our friends and our neighbors. Our hearts and our prayers go out to the loved ones of these extraordinary individuals who were committed to saving lives every single day."

He said Care Flight partnered with St. Vincent to transport patients to and from the Santa Fe hospital.

Reporter Uriel Garcia contributed to this report.

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

Copyright 2014 - The Santa Fe New Mexican

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