A helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon that killed a group of British tourists, including a couple on their honeymoon, was probably caused by the pilot losing control due to tailwind conditions, a report has concluded.
The pilot told investigators he was not able to control the aircraft after a “violent gust of wind” sent it spinning, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, released in the United States Thursday. The Airbus EC130 B4 crashed just before sunset in February 2018 in a section of the Grand Canyon where air tours are not as highly regulated as in the national park.
Three of the Britons on board, veterinary receptionist Becky Dobson, 27, her boyfriend and car salesman Stuart Hill, 30, and his brother, lawyer Jason Hill, 32, were pronounced dead at the scene. Jennifer Dorricott, the girlfriend of Jason Hill, survived but with life-changing injuries after the aircraft burst into flames on impact. The group was on holiday in the United States to celebrate Hill’s 30th birthday.
Two others in the aircraft, newlyweds Jonathan Udall, 31, and Ellie Milward-Udall 29, later died from burn injuries. They were celebrating their honeymoon at the time. Pilot Scott Booth, who survived but had both his legs amputated, told the NTSB inquiry he was attempting to land next to the Colorado River on the Hualapai reservation when the “violent gust” hit. “It just took the aircraft from me,” he told investigators in an interview months after the crash. “It just spun it, and I couldn’t fly it. It just took it so quickly.”
The NTSB’s final report concluded that tailwinds, potential downdrafts and turbulence were the probable cause of the loss of control of the aircraft. Investigators found no evidence of mechanical problems with the helicopter and the report did not include any safety recommendations.
Witnesses saw the helicopter make at least two 360-degree turns before hitting the ground and bursting into flames, the report said. They also described seeing two women emerge from the flaming wreckage, screaming for their loved ones, other pilots at the Canyon said.
Investigators said that the remote location of the accident site and communication difficulties meant victims were not taken to a hospital until around six hours later. Witnesses revealed they struggled to get a signal on a satellite phone at the scene and a box containing medical supplies had to be smashed open because no one knew the combination to the lock, according to the NTSB report.
The “most significant factor” affecting the survival of those on board the helicopter was the post-crash fire, the report said. The helicopter was “not equipped, nor was it required to be equipped, with a crash-resistant fuel system”, investigators found.
Gary Robb, a lawyer for the Udalls, called the NTSB investigation thorough and well-researched. He told the Associated Press: “The Udall family from the beginning has wanted to find out what happened so this can prevent other helicopter victims from literally being burned alive.”
Air tour company Papillon has since retrofitted all its helicopters with fuel tanks that expand and seal upon impact instead of rupturing. The company has also placed new satellite phones with better coverage, trauma kits, and a collapsible metal stretcher in unlocked metal containers in the canyon for emergencies.
Udall’s parents sued the helicopter company and aircraft manufacturer Airbus Helicopters over failing to equip the helicopter with the crash-resistant system, in a case that is ongoing.
Newsweek has contacted Papillon and Airbus Helicopters for comment.