Seattle crash underscores NTSB's urgent concerns over helicopter safety

Just this January, the National Transportation Safety Board outlined helicopter safety as a major advocacy priority, citing 'an unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents.'

Elaine Thompson/AP Photo
Cindy Quiring (L.) and her husband Roger place flowers at a memorial outside Fisher Plaza, home to KOMO-TV, following a helicopter crash outside the building earlier Tuesday in Seattle. The news helicopter crashed into a city street near Seattle's Space Needle, killing two people and critically injuring a person in a car on the ground.

The crash Tuesday of a news helicopter into a busy Seattle intersection, killing two men and injuring a third, is highlighting concerns about helicopter safety expressed just this January by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The NTSB outlined helicopter safety as a major advocacy priority, citing “an unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents,” in an NTSB Most Wanted List report. Since 2004, more than 1,600 accidents have claimed more than 500 lives.

“The NTSB is concerned that these types of accidents will continue to occur if a concerted effort is not made to improve the safety of helicopter operations,” the NTSB report states.

This year alone, there have been 10 other helicopter crashes in the United States, two of them fatal, according to NTSB data.

Hundreds of helicopters take to the sky every day. Some flights bear journalists monitoring traffic and breaking news. Others support law enforcement. Many transport medical patients and supplies. The US civil helicopter industry is growing, and safety management systems need to be updated to accommodate the increasingly diverse number of uses, the NTSB says.

The agency called on helicopter operators, manufacturers, and regulatory agencies to revise safety management practices, including inspection and maintenance procedures. Specific recommendations called on operators to ensure that pilots receive adequate training in maneuvering during compromising conditions and to restrict the schedules of maintenance personnel to ensure alertness.

The NTSB uses information gathered in the investigations of crashes like the one in Seattle to inform new safety recommendations.

NTSB acting deputy Dennis Hogenson said Wednesday that investigators are examining pilot, maintenance, and company records. While it could be a full year before the agency is prepared to release a full report, Mr. Hogenson said that a preliminary report could come in several days.

At a televised news conference Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray told reporters that the incident could have been “a much larger tragedy” if it had not taken place so early in the morning. The site of the crash was very near several tourist attractions, including the Space Needle, the monorail, and a music museum. Mayor Murray has ordered a review of helipads in the city. He said regulations have not been updated in more than 20 years.

"We need to look at it," Murray said of the regulations. "In consultation with the council, we will decide if we need to adjust our policies."

An online list of public and private airports suggests that Seattle has a dozen such helipads at TV stations, universities, hospitals, and private corporate sites.

Helicopter pilot Gary Pfitzner of Issaquah, Wash. and former KOMO photographer Bill Strothman were killed in the crash. Both men worked for Cahokia, Ill.-based Helicopters Inc.

Another man, Richard Newman of Seattle, was seriously injured when the just-fueled helicopter crashed, setting several cars ablaze. Two other drivers escaped their burning cars unharmed.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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