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Probe Into Helicopter Crash to Take Time
Patrick Gannon
Wilmington Star-News

The investigation into the helicopter crash that killed an off-duty Wilmington firefighter began to take shape Friday, and initial speculation surfaced about the cause.

But investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, who scoured the scene off Carolina Beach Road on Friday morning, said it would be months before a cause is officially determined in the crash and resulting death of 51-year-old John C. Miller.

"We're not drawing any conclusions at this point," said Jill Andrews, an NTSB air safety investigator based in Ashburn, Va., who arrived Thursday night in Wilmington. "We're just in the fact-finding stage of the investigation."

Thursday morning, a two-seat Robinson R22 Beta helicopter crashed behind Strickland's Surplus on Carolina Beach Road and burned. Miller, a 17-year veteran of the Wilmington Fire Department who had recently begun a small helicopter rental and training business out of Wilmington International Airport, was killed. Miller took off about 9:40 a.m. Thursday from an airport hangar and headed south toward Carolina Beach, then crashed. He was alone in the aircraft.

Miller's funeral will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the First Baptist Church, 411 Market St., Wilmington. Visitation will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday at the Andrews Mortuary Valley Chapel, 4108 S. College Road, Wilmington, funeral home officials said.

By Friday morning, representatives from the NTSB, Federal Aviation Administration, Robinson Helicopter Co., engine manufacturer Lycoming and the N.C. State Highway Patrol investigated the area behind Strickland's. While most of the chopper remained in a small location where it landed, some parts were found scattered over an area covering a couple hundred yards, said First Sgt. J.O. Holmes of the N.C. State Highway Patrol.

"We've accounted for the entire helicopter," Andrews said Friday morning. "It's all at the scene."

Andrews said it isn't unusual for helicopter and engine manufacturers to contribute technical information to crash investigations. Robinson Helicopter officials didn't return a phone call Friday afternoon.

Investigators weren't focusing on any particular helicopter part, although they did document where each part came to rest, Andrews said.

Friday afternoon, the helicopter parts were lifted onto a flatbed truck and taken to an undisclosed location for further study. A preliminary crash report should be available within about a week on the NTSB's Web site,, Andrews said. It will include facts about the crash, such as weather conditions and air-traffic control and radar data. A more thorough factual report will take six to nine months.

That report will be submitted to a five-member NTSB board in Washington, D.C., which draws conclusions and votes on the probable cause. The entire process could take 12 to 18 months, NTSB officials said.

Meanwhile, Miller's remains were removed from the wreckage shortly after the crash and taken to Jacksonville for an autopsy. Autopsy results weren't available Friday.

But just a day after the crash, speculation about possible causes had begun.

Gary Robb, a Kansas City-based attorney who specializes in aviation accidents, said the NTSB investigation will focus on three main areas - "the man, the machine and the environment."

Robb, who has 27 years of experience in aviation crash litigation, said eyewitness accounts point to a "clear, in-flight malfunction of some nature" that led to a loss of pilot control of the helicopter.

In other words, it appears the investigation is likely to focus on the helicopter, rather than the pilot or weather conditions, he said.

He speculated from published witness reports that the cause was a problem with the tail rotor, which prevents the helicopter from moving side to side against the inertia of the main rotor.

"In my judgment, a tail rotor malfunction resulted in a spinning and loss of control," Robb said. "Even the most experienced pilots have difficulty controlling the aircraft without tail-rotor operation."

Robb also said results of an autopsy would be telling. Robinson Helicopters, he said, have been more prone than other types of helicopters to burning after impact. It will be important to see whether Miller died from burns or heat-related exposure as opposed to broken bones or other internal injuries, Robb said.

"This may well have been a survivable impact," Robb said. Robb's law firm, Robb & Robb, claims the two highest jury verdicts ever in helicopter crash trials: a $350 million verdict for a pilot killed in a Life Flight helicopter crash, and a $70 million verdict for a passenger killed in that same crash.

On Thursday, Chuck Ohnmacht, a friend of Miller's who often rented the helicopter from him, said he was told by an FAA investigator that engine failure was a possible cause, a claim the FAA didn't confirm.

When an engine fails in an R22, the pilot has about 1 to 2 seconds to push a lever that drops the pitch of the blades or the helicopter would drop like a rock from the sky, he and other pilots said.

Paul Cantrell, a Boston-area pilot who has flown and instructed pilots in R22s for more than two decades, said they are very popular models used mainly for private use and pilot training. It is less expensive to operate than many other models and requires little maintenance compared to other helicopters.

Cantrell said pilots train extensively in what to do during an engine failure. For experienced pilots, as Miller apparently was, landing safely during an engine failure shouldn't be a problem, he said.

"It becomes an instinctive response," Cantrell said. "It's not that hard. ...I feel extremely safe flying Robinsons. They are very good, reliable machines."

Neither the FAA nor the NTSB would comment on speculation about the cause.  

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