Commercial, Personal/Corporate, Safety

Witness Reports “Blue and White Lights Spinning” Before Fatal AW139 Crash in Bahamas

By Frank Wolfe | July 25, 2019
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Wreckage of the AW139 that crashed in the Bahamas on July 4, killing seven passengers, is recovered from the Atlantic Ocean. (Bahamas Air Accident Investigation Department Photo)

A witness to the July 4 crash of an AW139 helicopter that killed coal billionaire Chris Cline and six others, including his daughter, reported seeing "blue and white lights spinning" before the aircraft fell into the sea near Grand Cay, Bahamas.

The witness, who was nearly two miles from the crash site, "reported seeing the helicopter lift off and climb to between 40 and 50 feet above ground level; then shortly thereafter, he noted blue and white lights spinning to the left at a rate of about 1 to 2 seconds between rotations while descending," according to a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report issued this week. "He estimated that the helicopter rotated to the left three to four times. He then heard a 'whoosh whoosh whoosh' sound, and lost sight of the helicopter, which was followed by the sound of an impact."

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The pilot of the helicopter, operated by Florida-based Challenger Management LLC, had filed an IFR plan because of the night flight and was taking Cline's daughter and another passenger to Fort Lauderdale for medical treatment. The AW139 originally lifted off from Palm Beach International Airport just before 1 a.m. and had picked up the passengers on Grand Cay about a minute before the helicopter crashed at 1:54 a.m., the report said.

About 15 hours later, local residents in the Bahamas found the aircraft inverted about 1.5 miles from the crash site in 16 feet of water.

"The tailboom was separated from the aft fuselage and was recovered in multiple pieces," according to the report. "All five main rotor blades were separated but recovered. The tail rotor assembly, which was also separated was subsequently recovered. All four tail rotor blades were separated, and one tail rotor blade was not recovered. The recovered wreckage was retained for further examination, to include examination of the airframe, engines, flight controls, seats and restraints."

Geoffrey Painter, the pilot of the aircraft was a retired Royal Air Forces pilot and had more than 13,000 flight hours of experience in helicopters, according to his LinkedIn page. The AW139 that crashed came off the assembly line more than a decade ago and between 2008 and 2017 was in the fleet of British Columbia-based London Air Services until being sold in September, 2017 to the Cline-owned Challenger Management LLC.

Leonardo Helicopters builds the AW139 and is aiding the NTSB in the investigation, along with Canadian officials — where the Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines are built, according to the Bahamas Air Accident Investigation Department. The AW139 has been the subject of EASA and FAA airworthiness directives, including one a decade ago, which mandated periodic inspections and repairs of the aircraft after reports of de-laminations of tail boom assemblies.

Leonardo declined to comment on whether the AW139 in the Bahamas crash had met all FAA ADs, as the company said that the NTSB is "the sole source of official information concerning the accident investigation."

Leonardo said that it "continues to work closely with the investigating authorities" and that "the company does not envisage the need to take any airworthiness actions as a result of the present investigation."

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