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Medevac firm suspends AZ service after Tucson copter crash that killed 3

Medevac firm suspends AZ service after Tucson copter crash that killed 3

  • Updated

Flights by LifeNet helicopters in Arizona have been halted temporarily following Wednesday's crash that killed three people in a north-side neighborhood.

Colorado-based Air Methods Corp. has put its six LifeNet Arizona bases and seven helicopter crews on a safety stand-down, said Craig Yale, vice president of corporate development.

Flight crews will return to service after they go through a "critical stress debriefing" and it's deemed appropriate to fly again, though no timetable has been given for when that will occur, Yale said.

In the meantime, any emergency calls LifeNet would have taken will be handled by other area helicopter outfits, Yale said.

Killed Wednesday were pilot Alex Kelley, 61; paramedic Brenda French, 28; and flight nurse Parker Summons, 41.

They were aboard the AS350 B3 Eurocopter that crashed about 1:45 p.m. into a fence and a shed just outside an occupied home on North Park Avenue near East Glenn Street.

French, who began working for LifeNet Arizona in March, died at the scene. Kelley, an employee since 2002, and Summons, who had worked for LifeNet since 2007, died at University Medical Center, company officials said.

"We're deeply saddened by this tragic event," Yale said Thursday.

A memorial service is being planned for the three.

Marana-douglas flight

The helicopter, known within the company as LifeNet 12, was traveling from Marana to Douglas, Yale said. The $2.5 million aircraft was put into service in September 2009 and had logged about 350 hours of flight time, he said.

LifeNet 12 had been at the company's base at Marana Regional Airport for routine maintenance and was in the process of being returned to its home base, Yale said.

Company officials have declined to say what work was done on the aircraft, but Chris Meinhardt, Air Methods director of maintenance, said the helicopter had been at Marana for "a few days."

Though investigators won't know for some time what caused the crash, Meinhardt said it likely was not tied to a possible defect that had been identified in some engines installed in AS350 B3 Eurocopters.

Federal Aviation Administration documents indicate the engine defect, first discovered in 2009 in helicopters operating outside the U.S., could lead to limitation of engine power or, at worst, a sudden power loss.

Engine manufacturer Turbomeca had addressed the issue before turning the helicopter over to Air Methods, Meinhardt said.

This was not the first time an AS350 B3 helicopter was involved in an incident in Tucson, federal records show.

Another Eurocopter operated by Air Methods was forced to make a hard landing at St. Mary's Hospital in September after it swerved to the left, according to National Transportation Safety Board documents.

The helicopter was just a few feet from the landing pad when it began to swerve, the documents stated.

The landing caused substantial damage to the helicopter, the report said. When tested later, the helicopter checked out as normal, the NTSB said. The cause of "loss of directional control" was undetermined, it said.

The three crew members and one patient were not injured, the report said.

Pilot known as reliable

Kelley, a Vietnam veteran who flew helicopters overseas as well as for the U.S. Border Patrol's air operations unit, was known as a reliable and dependable pilot.

"The troops on the ground thought the world of him because air support is those guys' lifeline," said Clyde Benzenhoefer, a retired Border Patrol agent who worked with Kelley. "He was very well-liked by everyone."

Benzenhoefer said he wasn't surprised to hear witness accounts that Kelley appeared to steer the helicopter away from homes before crashing.

"Knowing Alex, that's typical of him," he said. "I flew with him several times, and I've always felt safe with him."

Summons, a Tucson native and Catalina High School graduate, was supposed to have been off work on Wednesday, according to friends who were at University Medical Center Wednesday evening.

The father of a 2-year-old son was described as an outgoing and caring man, who loved golf and bicycling as well as his work.

French graduated from Winslow High School in 2000, according to her Facebook page. Her family declined to comment.

On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/video for video of the crash aftermath. See a gallery of photos at azstarnet.com/gallery

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Tucson late Wednesday to begin their investigation into the LifeNet helicopter crash that killed three people.

That investigation could take as long as a year to complete and for a report to be released, NTSB lead investigator Van McKenny said Thursday.

A preliminary crash report is expected to be posted to NTSB's Web site, www.ntsb.gov, within the next few days, but it won't include any information on possible causes for the crash, McKenny said.

"It's too early to narrow down possibilities," he said.

Investigators visited the crash site most of Thursday, then a professional aircraft-recovery service hauled the helicopter to Phoenix, where NTSB investigators will take a more detailed look at the wreckage, McKenny said.

Investigation timeline

Reporter Jamar Younger contributed to this story. Contact reporter Brian J. Pedersen at bjp@azstarnet.com or 573-4224.


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