Site ‘dangerous’ for unfamiliar pilot
By Mike Prager
and Theresa Goffredo
The television station landing site where two men died in a fiery helicopter crash Sunday is dangerous for a pilot who has never flown out of it before, a federal investigator said today.
Pilot Clifford D. Richey, 49, owner of Spokane Helicopter Service Inc, and KREM-TV photographer Gary Brown, 28, were killed when Richey’s helicopter struck a guy wire above the parking lot at KREM-TV, S4103 Regal.
Officials said the 8:27 a.m. accident occurred on takeoff as the two were departing for the start of Sunday’s Bloomsday race.
Wallace Stripling, investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the takeoff was Richey’s first flight out of the obstacle-studded landing site.
KREM’s regular helicopter pilot, Dale McCormick, was grounded Friday for medical reasons, so the station hired Richey for its Bloomsday coverage, McCormick said Sunday.
“It just seemed like it was a little hairy of an operation for somebody who had never been in there before,” Stripling said today in a phone interview from Seattle after investigating the crash scene Sunday.
“It is a dangerous place for somebody who hasn’t been there on the ground to look at what he’s going to do.”
Stripling declined to label the cause of the accident until he has completed his formal investigation.
Station officials acknowledged that Richey was unfamiliar with the landing area, but KREM’s regular pilot has made hundreds of safe takeoffs there.
Stripling said it appeared that Richey was making a 180-degree turn to leave the landing area when the rotor hit the guy wire. Richey had lifted the helicopter high enough to clear parking lot light poles, but that action placed the aircraft too close to the guy wire, he said.
“He was trying to crawl out, climb out of that mess when he ran into it (the guy wire),” Stripling said.
“If he would have kept it low, he would have been OK,” the NTSB investigator said. He said it is the pilot’s responsibility to decide whether he will take off or land at any location.
Both victims were burned beyond recognition. Deputy Coroner Floyd Courtwright said he was reasonably sure Richey’s body was the one lying about 15 feet southwest of the charred helicopter and Brown was trapped inside the wreckage. An autopsy is pending, he said.
“The whole parking lot was enveloped in flames and there was a man on the ground still moving,” said witness Paul Lauritzen, one of the first people on the scene. “Me and another guy tried to get to him, but we couldn’t.”
Spokane firefighters arrived within three minutes of the crash, but the fire was out by the time they arrived.
“We did lay water to it,” said Lt. Jay Brodrick. “But as far as being able to do anything for the people inside, there wasn’t a lot we could do.”
Debris from the helicopter was blown over a 100-foot radius and pieces of the craft were scattered across the parking lot.
Police speculated Richey was momentarily blinded by the sun glaring off a large metal insulator on the wire.
“When he took off, he clipped (the wire) somehow,” said Sgt. Ron Scholz.
The 3-inch wire showed slack where it was hit, but did not break upon impact.
McCormick, reached by phone Sunday, said he was taking medication and was grounded by a physician. The pilot of KREM’s Chopper 2 said he had called the station Friday so that managers could get a replacement pilot.
This was the first time the station had used Spokane Helicopter and station manager Dennis Williamson said Richey might have been unfamiliar with the surroundings.
“Chopper 2 takes off from there all the time and there’s been no problem,” Williamson said of the parking lot.
However, McCormick said he routinely landed Chopper 2 – a Jet Ranger II – in the extreme northeast corner of the parking lot, where there aren’t as many wires as where Richey landed.
Witnesses said they heard an explosion and recalled that the parking lot was engulfed in flames.
“I was just a block and a half away when I heard what sounded like a big tire blow,” Lauritzen said.
He said he and another man from a nearby apartment complex tried to get to the helicopter but could not because of the flames.
Lauritzen said he often watches KREM’s chopper take off, but when he heard the noise – “like a big wump” – and the explosion, he ran toward the station.
He tried to call for help but could not get into the building.
Another passerby said he didn’t hear an explosion but knew what had happened.
“I heard a sound like a rock hitting a lawn mower,” said Bob Auvil, E1629 35th, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who was less than a mile away from KREM when the accident occurred. “It might have been hovering for a while and I immediately knew what it was – a helicopter had hit something.”
Stripling said the final NTSB report on the cause of the crash will be issued in six months to one year.
Monday, May 6, 1985