- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Maryland State Police helicopter that crashed and killed four people was not equipped with a warning system to tell the pilot that he was flying too close to trees, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Monday.

Agency spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said the equipment might have helped the pilot increase elevation and avoid crashing into a grove of trees Saturday night inside the 470-acre Walker Mill Regional Park, in District Heights.

Officials also said the pilot reported trouble with his landing instruments just minutes before the craft crashed in dense fog and rain just before midnight. However, they cautioned that the investigators still have plenty of work remaining before determining what caused the medevac helicopter to crash and kill the three-member crew and a car-accident victim being taken to a hospital. A second car-crash victim survived.

“We are collecting all pieces of the puzzle as we currently do not know the circumstances of the accident,” said Miss Hersman. The investigation is expected to take weeks or months.

NTSB officials said pilot Stephen Bunker, 54, of Waldorf, Md., contacted Andrews Air Force Base at 11:55 p.m. to say he was having difficulty capturing the glide scope on his landing instrument panel while on approach to land at the base, about three miles from the park.

Mr. Bunker then asked for assistance with the landing. It was the last time the crew made radio contact with police. The aircraft crashed at 11:58 p.m.

The lone survivor of the crash, Jordan Wells, 17, was taken to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center in critical condition.

Her father, Scott Wells, said Monday that his daughter cannot talk but can squeeze his hand.

Miss Wells was trapped inside the helicopter for about two hours as searchers used Global Positioning System and cell phone pulses to find her and the others.

The helicopter was on a roughly 25-mile trip from Charles County to Prince George’s Hospital with Miss Wells and Ashley Youngler, 17, of Waldorf, who were injured in a two-vehicle accident about 10:30 p.m. on Smallwood Road.

However, the pilot radioed to say he would land the craft, Trooper 2, at its hangar at the base instead because conditions were “not favorable” at the hospital.

The victims were identified as Mr. Bunker; Miss Youngler; Trooper 1st Class Mickey C. Lippy, 34, a flight paramedic from Westminster; and Tanya Mallard, 39, an emergency medical technician from Waldorf.

NTSB officials also made four recommendations Monday to reduce accidents, including better communication between pilots and air-traffic controllers and improved safety standards for all medevac helicopter operations.

Another recommendation was to install the advanced warning system - called TAWS or Terrain Acquisition and Warning System - on all state medevac programs.

Only three of the state police’s 12 medevac helicopter have the system, NTSB officials said. All turbine-powered aircraft with more than five seats are required to use the system.

“If TAWS had been installed, the pilot would have gotten a warning of terrain problems surrounding the location of his aircraft,” Miss Hersman said. However, she also said the NTSB is not sure whether the equipment could have prevented the crash Saturday night.

The crash was the deadliest emergency-helicopter accident in Maryland since the state police began flying those missions nearly 40 years ago, and the eighth fatal medical helicopter crash in the past 12 months nationwide.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the manufacturers of the helicopter are assisting in the investigation. The state police have suspended medevac flights.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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