By Dennis Webb
THE DAILY SENTINEL
SILT — Judi Tagg of Denver peered down from a road Tuesday at the wreckage of a helicopter her son, Chris Gaskill, was in when it crashed Monday.
“This is the toughest day a mother can ever have,” she said.
Gaskill, of Hot/Shot Infrared Inspections, died along with pilot Doug Sheffer of Basalt and Holy Cross Energy employee Larry Shaffer of Rifle as the three were doing aerial powerline inspection work south of Silt on Monday.
Federal investigators arrived on the scene Tuesday. Meanwhile, an attorney who specializes in helicopter crash litigation says accidents like Monday’s occur far too often and many times can be avoided.
“It’s something we’ve been trying to work on for years. It just keeps happening again and again and again,” said Gary Robb of Kansas City.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash cause will take months, while as of Tuesday families and co-workers were mostly just absorbing the loss of the three men.
Sheffer owned and was the chief pilot for DBS Helicopters, based out of Rifle. As word got out about his death Monday, observers mourned the passing of a pilot who showed great expertise, including on difficult search-and-rescue missions in mountainous terrain, and of a Roaring Fork Valley resident who contributed to the community in many non-aviation ways as well.
The names of the other two victims weren’t released until Tuesday, as other details also emerged about them from coworkers and family.
According to a Holy Cross news release, Shaffer was employed by the utility for more than 28 years, working his way up in the Operations Department to become a crew foreman. He worked on everything from system improvements and new construction to service, maintenance and responding to outages.
He was described as being a hard worker with an infectious grin and positive attitude, and a love of storytelling. Shaffer also was heavily involved with his church. He leaves behind his wife, Jo, and three children and two grandchildren. One of his children, Dane, also works in operations for Holy Cross.
A fund to support Shaffer’s family has been set up at Alpine Bank.
Gaskill’s family says he was a loving, and much-loved, person, and a snappy dresser with never a hair out of place.
“He was the best big brother ever, the best person you ever knew,” said his sister, Brandy Muñoz, who accompanied her mother to the accident scene Tuesday.
“… He had a million-watt smile.”
Gaskill, 40, had served in the Navy until becoming injured. The Aurora resident was completing an associateÂ’s degree at Red Rocks Community College and planned to study engineering at Colorado School of Mines.
He worked in his current job for nine years and it suited him well.
“He loved to fly and he loved adventure,” Muñoz said.
Kim Lewis, Hot/Shot’s general manager, said he had an eye for doing the infrared video work that’s designed to identify hot spots and problems with lines.
Tagg said while some of the work is done from the ground, her son preferred the aerial work, and had just told her of his excitement about doing the Holy Cross project planned for this week.
“He was so looking forward to this trip because it’s so beautiful up here,” she said.
But Gaskill’s family always worried about his safety, and he always contacted his mom to let her know when an aerial job was done — a call or text that she never received this time.
“He loved to fly. He died doing what he loved,” Tagg said.
Said Muñoz, “His theory was, if it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go, I’ve had a good ride.”
Lewis said nothing like Monday’s accident has happened in the 29-year history of her family-owned company. Likewise, Holy Cross has been employing aerial inspections for decades.
“This process was kind of a routine aerial inspection process that had been done for many years,” said Holy Cross spokesman Steve Casey. “I don’t know where (use of the practice) will go from here as a result of the unfortunate events that happened.”
Dan Baker, deputy chief of air safety operations for the NTSB’s central region, said an agency investigator from Chicago went to the scene Tuesday, and he believed a Federal Aviation Administration investigator from Salt Lake City also was to arrive there.
Representatives from Bell, the helicopter manufacturer, and of the engine manufacturer also were to be involved.
Investigators routinely look for evidence of things such as mechanical and structural failure, and also will be doing interviews and probably collecting pilot and maintenance records, he said.
A preliminary NTSB report is expected to be available next week, but it can take three to six months for a full factual report to be completed. A report analyzing the crash and naming a probable cause would probably take another month or two after that, he said.
Robb, the Missouri attorney, said the powerline survey work being done during Monday’s crash is dangerous due to how close pilots fly to the lines. According to a news release Holy Cross Energy sent to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent last week, crews planned to fly 30 feet above lines.
“You just cannot come 25 to 30 feet from a powerline. It just can’t be cut that close,” Robb said.
Robb runs an aviation law firm, having won verdicts as high as $350 million in helicopter accident cases. He has co-chaired the Aviation Litigation Committee of the American Bar Association, and wrote the book, “Helicopter Crash Litigation.”
Robb said the problem with flying so close to lines is that all it takes is a sudden gust of wind or a mechanical problem such as a surge in a hydraulic system to drive a helicopter into lines.
And when that happens, “it is catastrophic, as you know from this incident,” he said.
Initial indications from Monday’s accident are that the helicopter actually struck an Xcel Energy line perpendicularly crossing lower Holy Cross lines.
Robb said a number of measures have been recommended over the years to improve safety in the inspection process, including staying at least 50 or 60 feet from lines, rather than 25 or 30.
“That’s 10 yards, that’s a first down, that’s nothing, that’s woefully close,” he said.
Using magnification can enable adequate inspections from twice the distance away, Robb said. Better yet is to do the work using truck-based aerial equipment whenever possible, he said.
He said the three who died this week “gave their lives for absolutely nothing. It was totally preventable and needless.”
Robb said the aerial inspection work can’t be undertaken in windy conditions. Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said Sheffer was a top-notch pilot who wouldn’t have flown in poor weather conditions. Vallario didn’t believe conditions were windy Monday.
Robb said no regulations apply to powerline-inspection flights. While he had no estimate of how many deaths occur in connection with the activity, he said it’s a significant number, and his firm alone has handled many cases.
“Unless and until we’re going to address these multiple deaths that occur from this, nothing will be done,” he said.
Casey, of Holy Cross, said he’s not familiar enough with the details of the aerial work to respond to Robb’s specific concerns.
Nick Braden, spokesman for the American Public Power Association, said helicopter-based inspections are an industry practice when lines aren’t accessible by trucks. He couldn’t speak to Robb’s concerns about how close helicopters fly to the lines.
Lewis said flying near the lines is pretty standard practice, but that her company also uses a zoom lens in its work.
Baker said it’s premature to discuss Robb’s concerns in relation to this week’s crash when the cause hasn’t yet been identified. He said one reason the NTSB works with the FAA on crash investigations is so that if things such as regulatory or aircraft deficiencies are identified, changes can be made to try to prevent other accidents from happening.