- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A federal investigation has concluded that a helicopter pilot flying two state biologists on a low-altitude fish counting survey in Southern Oregon last fall was making a turn and didn’t see a power line that the main rotor blades hit.

All three people survived, but one of the biologists hasn’t been able to return to duty.

A National Transportation Safety Board report dated May 5 said the pilot and biologists had seen two power lines during the trip Oct. 28 along the South Umpqua River southeast of Roseburg.

It said they had finished surveying a channel and decided to circle back, but then they decided they didn’t need to. It said the pilot made a left turn “and immediately observed blue sparks and a wire contact on the upper windscreen bubble.”

The chopper fell 50 feet into the river. Rescue workers got the three out of the water, the Roseburg News-Review (https://bit.ly/1lJ7b7A) reported.

Biologist Holly Huchko suffered a broken back and remains off work on disability. There is no estimate when she might return, department spokeswoman Meghan Dugan said.

Her colleague, Eric Himmelreich, returned to work in mid-March and is working in the field to design fish habitat restoration projects, Dugan said.

Mark Gibson, owner of the Ashland-based helicopter company, said pilot Fred Wittlake is “doing well. He’s recovered for the most part.” He suffered a broken arm and ribs. Wittlake did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The department still contracts with the helicopter company for aerial surveys of wildlife surveys, primarily elk.

Surveys of spawning fish are conducted in the fall. Dugan said the agency is looking into alternatives to having biologists fly.

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