The deadly midair collision between a helicopter and an airplane Oct. 23 near the Frederick Municipal Airport happened as the helicopter was hovering just minutes after taking off, according to a preliminary report released early Saturday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Neither of the two aircraft, a Robinson R44 helicopter and a Cirrus SR22 fixed-wing airplane, appeared to change altitude immediately before the collision at 3:37 p.m., according to witness testimony obtained in the preliminary report. The airplane, inbound from Cleveland, Tennessee, was cleared to land at the airport at 3:34 p.m. as it was approaching the airport from the west at an altitude of 3,000 feet, the report states.
The helicopter was cleared for takeoff exactly 2 seconds after 3:35 p.m., and the pilot of the airplane reported his position as on a 45-degree descent approach from about 3 miles west of the airfield at 3:36 p.m. and 49 seconds, the report indicates.
According to the report, a local controller told the airplane pilot at 3:37 p.m., “I have three helicopters below ya in the, uh, traffic pattern." Eight seconds later, the pilot acknowledged that and said he had two helicopters in sight.
Another helicopter pilot reported both aircraft were “down” 15 seconds after the controller instructed the airplane to maintain its altitude “until turning base, cleared to land.”
It was reported that the airplane "flew through the rotor system" of the helicopter. The helicopter broke into pieces upon striking the ground, and all three occupants, identified by state police as training instructor Christopher D. Parsons, 29, of Westminster, licensed pilot William Jenkins, 47, of Colorado, and passenger Breandan MacFawn, 35, of Cumberland, were killed in the collision.
The plane’s pilot, Scott V. Graeves, 55, of Brookeville, and his passenger, Sandy Spring resident Gilbert L. Porter, 75, were taken to a hospital and released later that evening.
Saturday's preliminary report did not reveal a cause for the collision or who, if anyone, was at fault. Also unknown was who was piloting the helicopter at the time of the collision. Brian Rayner, the senior air safety investigator put in charge of the investigation by the NTSB, said a full report could take several months to a year to complete.
Advanced Helicopter Concepts, the flight school and company that employed Parsons, was leasing the helicopter at the time of the collision. Jenkins was on board training to rent the aircraft on his own, said Chris Hollingshead, a company spokesman.
The flight school shut down all its operations to assist full time with the NTSB's investigation into the crash, Hollingshead said at an emotional news conference Oct. 24.
“We will provide them all of the available information that we have, and hopefully, this investigation will help prevent this type of horrible accident again in the future,” Hollingshead said.
Other details outlined in the report include:
n A flight plan for the plane was filed from an airport in Cleveland, Tennessee, less than three hours before the crash, at about 12:47 p.m.
n The pilot of the airplane, Graeves, was not immediately available to be interviewed for the report. Graeves has reported 1,080 hours of flight experience, of which 1,000 hours were in the plane, or one similar to the plane being flown at the time of the crash.
n Parsons reported 832 total hours of flight experience, including 116 hours in the "accident helicopter make and model."
n The pilot receiving instruction, Jenkins, held commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates. He reported 2,850 hours of flight experience, including 1,538 hours of helicopter experience.
The cause of the collision is still unclear, Rayner said.
There were five other aircraft handled when the airplane first contacted the local controller at 3:34 p.m., including two helicopters, two airplanes and a business jet.
The airport averaged 260 aircraft operations per day between April 22, 2013, and April 22, 2014. The airport tower was built in May 2012 with $5.3 million of federal funds.