Records from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) show that the helicopter company whose pilot died Wednesday in a Maplewood crash has had 17 accidents dating back to 1989, including two previous fatalities.
Many of the company’s crashes involved pilot error, from not refueling the aircraft to carrying an overly heavy load. Pilots flew into power lines on three occasions.
But the low flying and tight maneuvering associated with agricultural work performed by Scott’s Helicopter Services Inc. carry inherent risks, said the owner.
“When you consider we’re operating less than 50 feet from the ground … that’s not abnormal,” said Scott Churchill. “And with the size of the fleet, no, that’s not abnormal. Sometimes, things happen.”
Churchill’s fleet, based in Le Sueur, Minn., with a satellite office in Iowa, includes 26 helicopters and 25 pilots. It’s easily one of the largest operations of its kind in the Midwest and, possibly, the country. The average agricultural aviation outfit consists of about two aircraft, said Kenneth Degg, director of education and safety at the National Agricultural Aviation Association.
Churchill’s large fleet makes it difficult to gauge how serious the 17 accidents are in the scope of his company’s safety record, industry experts said. Scott’s Helicopter Services is a member of the NAAA.
“To me, that’s a fairly large number [of accidents], but that’s also a large number of aircraft, too,” Degg said.
Scott’s pilot, Michael P. Kramer, 44, died Wednesday when his helicopter crashed into a garage while treating mosquito larvae for the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District. The cause is under investigation.
NTSB reports show that in July 2010, one of Scott’s pilots was killed when a helicopter crashed while flying at low altitude near Rochester. No final report has been issued in the case. In 2001, one of his pilots flew into a power line at 42 feet in Wisconsin, crashed and died.
In August 2011, the company had two accidents on consecutive days while spraying crops in Iowa.
“The operator reported that prior to the accident flight, the pilot was distracted during his intended refueling operation,” the NTSB report said of one of the Iowa crashes. The pilot forgot to refuel and on his next spraying operation, the engine lost power.
“It’s no different than sometimes people forget to put gas in their car,” Churchill said of the Iowa incident. “That was a busy year.
“You would want to have zero accidents ... a perfect record. But because of the environment we work in, there are some things that are going to happen.”
Churchill said that after an accident, his staff debriefs and reviews safety procedures. The Federal Aviation Administration may also require the pilot to undergo other reviews, he said.
NTSB officials Wednesday said it would be reviewing pilot experience and training, the autopsy report, aircraft records and environmental conditions that day.
Scott’s Helicopter Services, founded in 1981, operates in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Illinois. The pilots also fight fires with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, examine power lines and pipelines for problems and also service three local television stations.
At any given time, there could be two to 25 pilots in the air, Churchill said. Two pilots, including Kramer, were treating mosquitoes Wednesday.
Kramer took off from Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie at 7:15 a.m., landed in the northeast metro to pick up maps and larvicide from a support crew and was airborne for about 10 minutes when he crashed into a garage in Maplewood about 8:13 a.m., Churchill said.
There were no distress calls from the helicopter.
“Everything seemed normal,” Churchill said.
The Metropolitan Mosquito Control District started treating for mosquitoes on Monday and planned to finish Wednesday, but the crash suspended treatments. Stephen Manweiler, operations director for the district, said they would finish treating about 600 hundred acres Friday.
Manweiler said the district is satisfied with Scott’s safety record: “We’ve been satisfied that given the number of hours his pilots fly for us and compared to the number of problems we’ve had, that his safety record is as good as can be.”