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The Nose

Fear of Flying

Posted 10/13/1999

More than two years after the July 17, 1997, crash of a Baltimore City police helicopter onto The Alameda that permanently disabled one officer and injured another, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has finally issued its report on the cause. In its Sept. 27 ruling, NTSB blamed shoddy maintenance by a subcontractor hired by Helicopter Transport Services Inc. (HTSI), the private company that took over ownership and operation of the helicopters in the so-called Foxtrot unit in 1996.

The report does not specifically name T.W. Smith, the Cincinnati-based company hired by HTSI to overhaul the chopper's engine, but does blame the crash on engine-repair work. The "probable cause" of the accident was a "total loss of engine power which was a result of incomplete and improper maintenance and inspection practices," NTSB reported. The federal agency found that the company's records of its Foxtrot work noted repairs to parts that weren't even placed in the city police helicopter's engine. Consequently, a connecting rod tore loose during the July 1997 flight, which sent the helicopter crashing into a tree, according to NTSB.

Police officer John Smith, the "observer" on the flight, was forced to retire on a medical disability due to injuries suffered in the crash; he was recently diagnosed with two shattered vertebrae that doctors had missed for nearly two years. Smith and pilot Bobby Lawson, who was also injured, are suing HTSI and T.W. Smith's insurance carrier.

Foxtrot has not flown since a Nov. 4, 1998, crash in Southwest Baltimore in which pilot Barry Wood was killed, but HTSI remains under contract to operate the police helicopters. NTSB has yet to issue a ruling on what caused that crash. Asked whether the federal agency's report on the 1997 incident would have any effect on the department's relationship with the contractors, spokesperson Robert Weinhold said through a member of his staff that the department "hasn't had a chance to review the report and we will know more later on this week." HTSI officials did not return calls for comment.

The police department's decision to turn over ownership of Foxtrot to an outside firm was met with criticism from some pilots in the unit, who raised concerns that a private company motivated by the need to maximize profits could cut corners on safety.

"This continues to affirm our greatest fears when we urged the department not to go down this path of privatization," says city police Sgt. Robert Richards, a former Foxtrot pilot who was transferred out of the unit just before HTSI took over operation of the helicopters. (Richards, who is African-American, is suing the city, claiming that his transfer was racially motivated.) "That's what happens when non-aviators make aviation decisions."

"I never did have faith in the maintenance with Helicopter Transport Services," Smith says, "and this just proves it."

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