A Virginia State Police Airbus Helicopter EC145, which was not the aircraft that crashed, during a training mission in 2010. File photo
Accident investigators are assessing whether a Virginia State Police Bell Helicopter 407's tail boom departed the aircraft before it crashed just west of violent protests in the city of Charlottesville Aug. 12.
The crash killed the commander of the State Police Aviation Unit, Lt. H. Jay Cullen, and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, who the agency said had transferred to that unit in July, from the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said in an update today that the aircraft's tail boom was lodged in a tree about 100 yards from the main wreckage, which was damaged in a post-crash fire. Both troopers were reported to have died at the scene. Initial indications were that the crash was not survivable.
News photos of the site, about 7 miles southwest of the flight's origin point and Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, appear to show the tail boom resting in the tree in an inverted position.
The NTSB said the 407, manufactured in 2000 and bearing the registration N31A, descended at about 45 degrees into trees. It said no distress call was heard from the aircraft before the crash. It was one of four 407s operated by the state police.
“The helicopter was not equipped with a flight data recorder or a cockpit voice recorder, nor was it required to be,” the safety board said.
N31 was in Charlottesville with other aircraft to monitor protests by opposing groups that became violent early in the day. News reports said Cullen and Bates had transported Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “Jay has flown us across the commonwealth for more than three and a half years,” the governor said in a statement issued with his wife, Dorothy, Aug. 12. “Berke was devoted to our entire family as part of our Executive Protective Unit team for the past three years.”
The NTSB said Cullen and Bates departed the airport at 3:54 p.m. local time and was engaged, with other aircraft, in providing continuous video feed of protests in the downtown area from 4:04 p.m. until 4:42 p.m., when it left to provide support for McAuliffe’s motorcade.
The last observed radar coverage indicates that the helicopter was flying north-northeast at about 30 knots at 2,300 feet, according to the NTSB. A 911 call at 4:44 p.m. reported a crash.
The state police said the aviation unit is staffed by trooper-pilots, all of whom are sworn members of the agency, are qualified “police pilots” and have private pilots’ licenses. They are trained in house on Virginia State Police aircraft, which include the 407s, two Airbus Helicopters EC145s and three Cessna 182s. In 2015, the agency said, the Aviation Unit fielded 3,008 flight requests and flew 2,784 flight hours and assisted with 26 criminal arrests, 36 missing persons located and three escapee apprehensions.
NTSB investigators today were working with local authorities to recover the wreckage to a secure location for additional examination and documentation.