A romantic twilight helicopter tour over the glittery Las Vegas strip and surrounding attractions turned deadly Wednesday after the aircraft plunged to the bottom of a canyon, killing all five people aboard.
Pilot Landon Nield, 31, worked for Sundance Helicopters, a Las Vegas-based tour operator for approximately 3 years. Aboard the helicopter with him were Delwin and Tamara Chapman, both 49, of Utica, Kansas, who went to Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows after 25 years of marriage; and newlyweds Anupama Bhola, 26, and Lovish Bhanot, 28, residents of New Delhi, India.
The Clark County Coroner’s Office said that all of the victims died from blunt force trauma and fire-related injuries. Debris from the crash was reportedly scattered across the River Mountains bordering Lake Mead. Respondents to the crash scene had to lower ladders to the bottom of a 150-foot canyon to access much of the wreckage.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators continue to investigate the crash, but have not yet determined what went wrong. Mr. Nield, who had about seven years of flying experience, worked for Sundance Helicopters for about three years. He had no accidents or violations on his record, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
NTSB told the Associated Press that the helicopter made a sudden climb and a series of sharp turns before crashing into the canyon, but refused to draw conclusions about the erratic flight pattern at this stage. The agency also said that the helicopter underwent maintenance the day before the crash to replace engine and mechanical actuators in the tail and main rotor. The helicopter was on its fourth flight since that work was performed.
Investigators also said that the helicopter’s engine continued to produce power up until it crashed. Mr. Nield gave no distress call before the helicopter went down.
Sundance Helicopters offers daily tours to the Grand Canyon and other Vegas-area landmarks with its 22-helicopter fleet. According to the Associated Press, the company has had at least five accidents and 10 federal enforcement actions since 1994. Sundance CEO Larry Pietropaolo defended his company’s safety record, saying that it had safely flown nearly 17,000 people per month for the first 10 months of 2011 – more than 167,000 passengers.
Critics of the company and the wider “flightseeing” business say that such helicopter tours are dangerous because the pilot must fly the aircraft while entertaining and thrilling passengers at the same time. According to USA Today, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), has been pushing the FAA to address public complaints about helicopter safety. In October, she wrote to FAA Administrator Randolph Babbit, calling helicopter traffic “the wild west of aviation” because “helicopters are subject to much less scrutiny than other types of aircraft.”
A “flightseeing” helicopter crashed in New York City’s East River in October, killing 3 vacationing Australians. Last month, another helicopter flying sightseers suddenly lost altitude and flew into a mountain ridge on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, killing a newlywed couple from Pennsylvania and a vacationing Canadian couple in addition to the pilot.