$40 Million Settlement in Seattle Newscopter Crash

The drivers of two vehicles who were injured when a Seattle newscopter crashed into a street in 2014 reached a $40 million settlement during a five-week trial earlier this month. Guillermo Sanchez and Richard Newman were stopped in their vehicles at a red light on Broad Street near the Space Needle when a 2003 Airbus Helicopters AS350B2 owned by Helicopters, Inc. of Cahokia, Illinois, and being operated for KOMO-TV, crashed onto their vehicles after attempting to lift off from a nearby elevated helipad. The two men suffered blast, traumatic brain, burn, and PTSD injuries and are continuing medical treatment. The settlement was reached with the television station’s parent company, Sinclair Broadcasting, the operator, and the estate of the helicopter pilot. 

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The accident killed pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59, and cameraman Bill Strothman, 62, who were working for Helicopters, Inc. The helicopter was lifting off from KOMO-TV’s sixth-floor heliport (WN16), where it had taken on a full fuel load of 143 gallons, and was en route to Renton Municipal Airport (RNT) at 7:40 a.m. on March 18, 2014 when it crashed into Broad Street below, sending ignited fuel running downslope. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) determined the probable cause of the crash to be loss of helicopter control “due to a loss of hydraulic boost to the tail rotor pedal controls at takeoff, followed by a loss of hydraulic boost to the main rotor controls after takeoff.” Fire damage and an absence of a flight recording device precluded determining the reason for the loss of hydraulic boost. 

During its investigation, the NTSB noted that the operator could not document whether the accident helicopter had been equipped with an updated checklist that incorporated changes to the second-most-recent revision (revision 3, 2006) of the rotorcraft flight manual governing hydraulic system test procedure. The procedure had been changed by the manufacturer following reports of helicopters becoming unintentionally airborne during hydraulic system checks when the collective becomes unlocked. The new procedure called for the fuel flow control lever (FFCL) to be set to a position between the "off" and "flight" detents to achieve a gas generator (Ng) speed of 67 to 70 percent before checks were performed. Under the old procedure, the FFCL was set to the flight detent, about 82 percent Ng. 

The pilot was a helicopter CFI-I with a commercial rating, held a second-class medical, and had logged 6,538.8 hours of rotorcraft time; 1,047 in the AS350D and 5.5 hours in the AS350B2. He completed a flight review in the accident helicopter on February 8, 2014, his last flight in it before the accident flight. The pilot would typically fly every morning, Monday through Friday, before reporting to his full-time job as a technical analyst for Boeing.  

The NTSB noted that security-camera footage showed that the helicopter "lifted off and simultaneously began to rotate counter-clockwise in a near-level attitude. The helicopter continued to rotate counter-clockwise for about 180 degrees while it ascended slightly above the elevated helipad, after which it began to ascend further while moving slightly away from the elevated helipad. After the helicopter completed about a 360-degree rotation, the helicopter transitioned to a nose-low (tail-high) attitude while it continued to rotate counter-clockwise. The helicopter rotated counter-clockwise another 180 degrees and then began to lose altitude while moving rapidly away from the elevated helipad. The helicopter then descended until ground impact.” 

KOMO-TV has not used WN16 since the accident and has removed the fuel tank.