BRAINERD – A North Memorial Health helicopter on approach to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport crashed early Friday, killing the pilot and a nurse and injuring a crew member.
The pilot and nurse died at the scene. The crew member was taken to St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, according to a statement released by North Memorial. The condition of the crew member has not been disclosed.
No patients were being transported at the time of the crash.
Gary Schott of Lester Prairie, Minn., confirmed that his wife, Deb Schott, 58, was the nurse who died. Authorities have not identified the others on board.
Schott’s daughter, Air Force Tech Sgt. Kristie Collins, said her mother was returning from a medical call at the time of the crash. She had worked with the air ambulance service for 15 years and “absolutely loved it. ... She’s always been about helping people.”
Collins said her mother, who also has worked as an emergency room nurse for 30 years, never expressed any fear about helicopter flight, but that because she’s in the Air Force, Collins has heard of such crashes and “I’ve always feared one day it would be my mom — but I never thought it would be my mom.”
Conditions were foggy when the AgustaWestland A109 helicopter went down inside a fenced area at the airport just northeast of this central Minnesota city about 1 a.m., said airport director Steve Wright. He said he did not know what caused the crash and was awaiting results of a pending investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The National Weather Service in Duluth said dense fog cloaked the Brainerd area when the crash occurred, reducing visibility to about a quarter-mile.
Though the crash was next to the runway, the airport was operating Friday. Another medical helicopter based at the airport will continue to respond to emergencies in the region, Wright said.
Ninety employees work at 13 businesses based at the airport, including two medical helicopter emergency management crews, he said.
“And we’re a really close-knit community,” Wright said. “So these people that fly in the helicopters, people that are flying on the airplanes, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends. So it does really hit hard.
“And so just please share thoughts and prayers with the friends and families of the crews that lost their lives.”
According to scanner audio, a dispatcher reported that they “just got a call from Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, not really sure what’s going on, it was from North, somebody out there, North called for a mayday there, requesting squads Code 3.”
Fire crews were then called to the airport for a possible plane crash. Shortly afterward, a rescuer called in: “Three people on the site. Pilot’s still talking.”
First responders, which included the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office, Brainerd police and fire departments and the Baxter Police Department, “did a stellar job. Hats off to them,” Wright said.
The NTSB is in charge of the investigation, said Elizabeth Isham Cory, an FAA spokeswoman.
Other A109 series crashes
In 2016, three people were seriously injured when a North Memorial helicopter crashed near Alexandria, Minn., under similar conditions. In that case, the pilot and two medical crew members were flying cross-country to pick up a patient.
The NTSB investigation showed that weather conditions deteriorated during an instrument approach to the airport. The pilot was unable to see the airport and initiated a go-round maneuver. The helicopter banked right and sped up until it hit treetops and crashed into the ground on its right side. The NTSB attributed the crash to pilot error.
The Alexandria crash is one of 46 crashes and incidents reported to the FAA from 1987 through this month involving Agusta helicopters in the A109 series. Of those, 48 people were killed in 19 crashes. There were 22 nonfatal crashes and four relatively minor incidents. Information on one report in Greece was unavailable.
The most recent A109 helicopter crash in the database took place June 10, when a corporate helicopter crashed on top of a building on E. 34th Street in New York City in foggy weather, killing the pilot. That crash remains under investigation. The FAA reported that the pilot was not licensed to fly in poor weather. A law enforcement source said the pilot had radioed that he was lost, according to the New York Times.
North Memorial Air Care has bases in Brainerd, Bemidji, Eveleth-Virginia, Princeton, Redwood Falls and Faribault in Minnesota and in Siren, Wis. It owns and operates nine AgustaWestland A109 helicopters, the fastest civilian helicopter on the market, which can reach speeds of up to 180 miles per hour, according to information on the company’s website.
4,500 flights a year
Air Care teams respond to about 4,500 medical flight transportation service calls a year throughout Minnesota and areas of Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, according to the North Memorial website.
AgustaWestland is a subsidiary of Leonardo S.p.A., based in Rome. The company did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
North Memorial is based in Robbinsdale, where it has a hospital. It also has a hospital in Maple Grove as well as clinics in the north and northwest suburbs of the Twin Cities, including in Buffalo, Monticello and Elk River.
Between 2009 and this year, U.S. civil helicopters flew more than 31 million flight hours and experienced 1,298 crashes, including 209 fatal crashes.
Air ambulances accounted for 7% of crashes, the lowest percentage in a ranking of industries with the best and worst records for total helicopter crashes and fatal crashes conducted by the FAA’s U.S. Helicopter Safety Team.
Collins said her mother loved her colleagues and felt confident flying because so many of them were former military personnel, with deep experience.
Deb Schott grew up on a farm in Minnesota and met Gary Schott when they were both working as EMTs in Winsted, Minn.
“She was always caring,” Collins said of her mother.
In addition to her husband and daughter, Schott is survived by a son, Craig Hatlestad of Winsted, and a brother, Tim Olson of Sunburg, Minn. Funeral services are pending.
A prayer vigil for the crash victims will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at Whipple Beach Recreational Area in Baxter, Minn. In case of inclement weather, the vigil will be held under the shelter at the park.