Two years after a Virginia State Police helicopter crashed, killing two troopers, near the Aug. 12, 2017, white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, federal transportation investigators still are not close to rendering a final verdict on why the aircraft fell out of the sky.
The helicopter, known as Trooper One, went down after flying over the city to relay video of the rally to officers on the ground. Soon after, the National Transportation Safety Board estimated the agency’s final report would be complete within 12 to 18 months. It’s now 24 months and counting.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said 12 to 24 months is now considered a better range for completion of investigations, “but this investigation will not be one of those.”
The investigation into the state police helicopter crash is an “outlier,” Knudson said, because it has turned out to be more complex than many and involves numerous parties.
“I did talk to the investigator briefly, and he indicated that they were still actively working on the investigation and had not yet written the report,” said Knudson, noting that a final decision is now not expected until next year.
“Some are completed in six months, some in three years. So there’s a huge variability,” he said.
The preliminary NTSB report, released just under a month after the crash, suggests mechanical failure of the aircraft’s main rotor system or tail rotor likely caused it to spin out of control and crash, according to an aviation expert who reviewed the report in September 2017 for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The victims were state police Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, who was piloting the helicopter, and trooper-pilot Berke M.M. Bates, 40, who was filming the rally and violence.
Robert Haddow, the 20-year certified flight instructor who reviewed the preliminary report, said the troopers “weren’t doing anything unusual,” such as landing or taking off, when the Bell 407 began to continuously spin and descend into trees, according to his review of the report.
The helicopter began to spin or rotate on its vertical axis and then descend nose down, continuously spinning, before it was no longer visible before the tops of surrounding trees, according to the report, which cited a “preponderance of witness statements.”
The preliminary report said that airworthiness records from the Federal Aviation Administration, along with the aircraft’s maintenance records, showed that the helicopter’s most recent 100-hour inspection was completed Aug. 3, nine days before the crash. At the time, the helicopter had accrued approximately 6,000 total hours of operation.
The same aircraft was heavily damaged in 2010 when it lost power shortly after taking off in Abingdon and made an emergency hard landing, but neither the pilot nor the co-pilot was injured. State police have said the helicopter “was fully repaired by Bell Helicopter” afterward, and the incident was not mentioned in NTSB’s preliminary report.
State police last year secured money to replace the helicopter when the General Assembly appropriated $1.9 million in fiscal 2020 as the first-year debt payment for a new $6 million Bell 407 similar to the one that crashed. It also allocated money for a new medical evacuation helicopter that will replace a 2010 model. But delivery of the new helicopters will be delayed until 2020.
Legislators also approved funding to hire an additional mechanic to help maintain state police aircraft. In addition, two new trooper-pilots—senior trooper Andy Wood and trooper John Blaine—began training last summer to replenish the aviation ranks after the deaths of Cullen and Bates.
“They are flying and working towards their full qualifications,” said Lt. Shawn Rivard, who succeeded Cullen as the aviation unit’s commander, in an email.
Rivard previously said that strong demand for Bell 407s created a manufacturing back order, and there could be a long wait until the aviation unit received one. Once the order is filled, the aircraft is sent to a “completion center” to add the extra equipment to perform various tasks, he added.
“With the Bell 407, there is ... at least a year and a half to get that completely mission ready, maybe longer,” he said.
Rivard said the Bell 407 that will replace the one that crashed will be delivered in mid-2020, and the new medical helicopter will be delivered in late 2020.