A helicopter crash that killed two people in Scottsdale last year likely was due to an engine failure — as well as the pilot’s history of problems coping in emergency situations, according to a federal report released Wednesday.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board haven’t determined what type of engine failure occurred. However, they still are preparing a probable cause report.
Around 11:35 a.m. on Feb. 22, 2006, the Robinson R22 helicopter piloted by Carl Smith of Mesa crashed between two houses in a north Scottsdale neighborhood near North Pima and Jomax roads. About five minutes before the crash, Smith had left the Scottsdale Airport and placed a Mayday call to the airport’s control tower.
Smith, 39, was taking Sandra Daley, 44, of Scottsdale, on an introductory flight because she had expressed interest in learning to fly a helicopter, according to the federal agency. Both died in the crash. The aircraft was heavily damaged and struck the ground less than 20 feet away from one of the homes.
Clint Johnson, a spokesman for the federal agency, said of Smith’s piloting history: “I truly think that it played a part in this crash. If you look at the information from his past employers and the evidence from the wreckage, it kind of fits. There’s definitely a pattern there.”
Drugs or alcohol were not a factor in the crash, and Smith held valid pilot’s certificates with more than 1,200 flying hours under his belt, according to the report. Smith was working as a contract pilot or on an “as-needed basis” with All Out Aerial, a Scottsdale Airpark company that specializes in aerial photography, helicopter tours and flight instruction.
However, the nature of the crash raised questions among investigators about Smith’s flight training experience and employment, Johnson said. Their inquiry revealed that Smith’s past instructors had raised concerns about Smith’s flying ability because he failed various phases of training dating back to 2004, had to retake tests and was described as over-confident, the report stated.
After failing an initial check ride at a flight training school in Long Beach, Calif., in 2004, the president of the school said Smith was not offered a flight instructor’s job — an opportunity traditionally given to pilots who demonstrate an accomplished ability to operate the aircraft and make sound decisions.
In an interoffice memo dated Oct. 4, 2004, the president described Smith as “Over confident. Thinks he is much better than he is. RED FLAG. Gets overloaded and freezes. Unable to recover from overload. Dangerous in this situation because he isn’t able to collect himself and figure out what to do next.”
Smith also had been terminated from flight instructor jobs at flight training schools, including one in 2004 “due to a series of unheeded warnings” relating to safety after a hard landing with a student the day he was fired, according to the report.
Prior to working for All Out Aerial, Smith flew helicopters for Louisiana-based Petroleum Helicopters.
Crystal Powell, owner of All Out Aerial, defended Smith’s piloting ability and said he came highly recommended through a friend who was a test pilot for The Boeing Co. The February 2006 crash was a terrible accident, she said after looking at the crash report.
“I’m not liking what I’m reading,” Powell said. “It doesn’t look like they tried to dig up anything positive. I liked Carl. I flew with him a few times, and I had confidence in his ability. I knew he did everything he could to safely land that helicopter. Before he flew, everything checked out, and there was no reason not to fly.”
On the day of the crash, a witness who saw the aircraft flying about 1,000 feet overhead told authorities its engine sounded normal at first. Seconds later, he heard a series of popping sounds and then it started spiraling downward in a counter-clockwise position.
If there’s a problem with the engine, Johnson said, the pilot’s reaction is critical. The pilot must immediately respond with a series of emergency maneuvers called an autorotation, which will position the aircraft for a landing.
“The pilot has to get the plane down immediately,” Johnson said.
The aircraft was so damaged that investigators were unable to examine its carburetor, which supplies a mixture of air and fuel to the engine. Also destroyed were the helicopter’s magneto leads — lines that spark the engine from a pair of generators. They were torn in the crash.
Johnson said a probable cause report, which follows Wednesday’s fact findings on the crash, will be released by the federal agency in about a month.