‘Loud noise’ preceded fatal chopper crash

posted on:
February 6, 2009

author:
Michael Kunzelman

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A voice recorder captured a “loud noise” in the cockpit of a helicopter shortly before it plunged into a Louisiana swamp last month, killing eight people, federal investigators said in a report released Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s report doesn’t elaborate on the nature of the noise nor identify a possible cause of the crash Jan. 4 that left a lone survivor critically injured.

The NTSB reported the helicopter began to slow and descend several seconds after a cockpit voice device recorded the loud noise. “About one second after the loud noise, the torque of both engines drops simultaneously to near zero,” the report added.

The Sikorsky S-76C’s flight data recorder showed the chopper had been flying about 700 feet above the ground when the noise occurred, according to the NTSB.

The helicopter was carrying workers to a Shell Oil Co. platform in the Gulf of Mexico when it crashed about 100 miles southwest of New Orleans.

The NTSB said investigators haven’t found any evidence of engine failure, a bird strike, “fuel starvation” or a mid-air collision. They also said the engine apparently had power at the time of impact.

“No anomalies (in the engines) were noted that would have prevented normal operation,” the report said.

NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said it may be months before a transcript of the recording is released.

A lawsuit filed last month on behalf of Ann Ballenger, the wife of a pilot who died, blames the accident on the “defective condition” of the chopper.

Greg Allen, a lawyer for Ballenger, said the noise reported by investigators points to “some form of catastrophic failure” before the crash, even if the engines didn’t fail. He said “other components” that could have caused the noise and the crash still haven’t been ruled out.

A Sikorsky spokesman has said the company wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.

PHI Inc. owned the helicopter. Two of the company’s pilots were killed in the crash: Thomas Ballenger of Eufaula, Ala., and Vyarl W. Martin of Hurst, Texas.

PHI identified the other victims as Andrew Moricio and Ezequiel Cantu of Morgan City, La.; Randy Tarpley of Jonesville, La.; Charles W. Nelson of Pensacola, Fla.; Allen Boudreaux, Jr. of Ama, La.; and Jorey A. Rivero of Bridge City, La.

The survivor was identified as Steven Yeltin of Floresville, Texas.

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