Copter tried multiple landings before crash

Posted at 6:41 AM, Dec 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-02 09:41:09-05

CARLSBAD -- A helicopter that crashed at McLellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad last month attempted to land several times before it spun out and burst into flames, killing the two men aboard.

According to the NTSB's preliminary report released Tuesday, on the afternoon of Nov. 18, 65-year-old pilot Bruce Allen Erickson of Rancho Santa Fe made at least four landing attempts with his Eurocopter AS350. The fifth attempt is when the chopper crashed, killing him and his passenger, 60-year-old Wayne Frank Lewis of Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

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The first time Erickson approached, he landed the helicopter short of the helipad. The chopper’s skids made contact with the pad’s front edge and it "immediately rocked back and its tailskid struck the ground." After oscillating and spinning, it climbed up and then landed on the tarmac, the NTSB said.

The crew re-secured the helipad and the chopper repositioned itself for another approach. It made three landing attempts, coming within about 5 to 20 feet of the pad. On the final attempt, it landed short of the pad and "rocked back and forth twice onto its tailskid. After the final strike, the helicopter pitched violently forward and out of view behind the hangar."

That is when the helicopter lost control, bounced, landed on its left side and eventually caught fire. The crash was captured on airport security cameras and the smartphones of multiple eyewitnesses.

"The G-forces were so great," commercial helicopter pilot Thomas Ricotta said. "He was spinning so fast, I would think that's enough to make him unconscious."

Both Erickson and Lewis were pronounced dead at the scene.

The NTSB says white smoke seen for miles came from the engine's exhaust, and not from a fire.

Erickson purchased the helicopter on Oct. 29, but had flown it since Sept. 20 a total of 8.5 hours. During all those flights, a certified flight instructor was present. The crashed flight was the first he flew in the AS350 without a professional pilot present, the NTSB reported.

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Erickson was known to have about 22,000 hours as a fixed-wing aircraft pilot.

"Helicopters are unforgiving compared to fixed-wing. You have five controls you control at all times. You have to be almost ambidextrous to fly them," Ricotta said.

Ricotta said the rotor blades on these two very different helicopters go in opposite direction, and that can be confusing to inexperienced pilots. The report didn't reveal if that was the case in this crash. It also didn't confirm whether or not the pilot had landed short of the helipad because of pilot error or because the helipad's wheels weren't chocked properly.

That will likely be revealed in the NTSB's final accident report.

Family and friends said Erickson had previously owned a Bell 407.

Erickson was the CEO of American Bank in Montana. Lewis was a realtor. According to a piece in the Robb Report, Erickson had been flying aircrafts since he was 12 years old.

Here is the full NTSB preliminary report:

This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

On November 18, 2015, about 1624 Pacific standard time, an Airbus Helicopters AS350B3E, N711BE, departed controlled flight while landing on a moveable helipad at Mc Clellan-Palomar Airport, Carlsbad, California. The pilot, who was the owner, was operating the helicopter under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The private pilot and private pilot-rated passenger were fatally injured; the helicopter sustained substantial damage. The local personal flight departed Carlsbad at 1411. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan had been filed.

The entire accident sequence was captured on airport security cameras and the mobile phone cameras of multiple witnesses.

The helicopter departed earlier in the day from the east end of the Premier Jet fixed base operator (FBO) ramp, which was located midfield on the south side of runway 6/24. After departure, line crew moved the helipad to the west end of the ramp.

Upon returning, the helicopter approached the airport from the northeast and was cleared to land on runway 24. It descended to midfield, turned left, and approached the ramp in a low hover via taxiway A3. The helicopter then followed taxiway A and began an approach to the helipad from the east and into the direction of the sun. The helicopter then landed short of the helipad, with the center of its skids making contact with the pad's front edge. The helicopter immediately rocked back and its tailskid struck the ground. The helicopter then began a series of back and forth oscillations, and the helipad broke free from the rear left chock, rotated to the right, and pivoted around its front right wheel. The helicopter spun with the helipad for the first quarter of the turn, and then rapidly climbed and rotated 270 degrees to the right. The helipad came to rest to the north, having revolved 180 degrees, and about 50 seconds later the helicopter landed on the tarmac east of the helipad, while partially straddling taxiway A and the ramp at a 45-degree angle.

For the next 2 1/2 minutes line crew re-secured the helipad, installing chocks on three of the four wheels. The helicopter then repositioned for an approach to the helipad from the west. During the next 4 1/2 minutes the helicopter made three landing attempts, getting to within 5 to 20 ft of the helipad. A video of the final landing attempt was captured by a witness, who was located about 130 ft south. He had observed the other landing attempts and was concerned that the helicopter may crash, so positioned himself behind a car at the corner of the FBO's hangar.

The video revealed that the helicopter again landed short of the pad, similar to the first landing attempt, rocking back and forth twice onto its tailskid. After the final strike, the helicopter pitched violently forward and out of view behind the hangar. Security cameras revealed that from here the helicopter spun 180 degrees to the left, and after reaching a 45-degree nose up attitude, the aft tailrotor and vertical stabilizer assembly struck the ground and separated. The helicopter bounced and rotated another 360 degrees before landing hard on its left side. Once on the ground, the main rotor blades and cabin continued to spin with the engine still running. The helicopter continued spinning for the next 5 minutes and 10 seconds while slowly sliding about 530 ft east along the ramp. The tailboom and horizontal stabilizer then separated and the helicopter rolled onto its side, shedding the main rotor blades. The engine continued operating for another 30 seconds while fire crew doused the helicopter. White smoke billowed from the engine's exhaust after the helicopter came to rest, but there was no indication of fire.

The pilot purchased the helicopter on October 29, 2015, but had flown demonstration and familiarization flights in it since September 20. According to the helicopter's maintenance records, those flights totaled about 8.8 hours, and were all conducted with a certified flight instructor present. He received an additional 2 hours of flight training on November 13.

According to friends and flight instructors who had flown with the pilot, he had previously owned a Bell 407, and the accident flight was the first he had flown in the AS350 series without a professional pilot present.