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Cal Fire helicopter blades may have struck tire of 2nd copter in deadly collision, NTSB report suggests

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A new report from the National Transportation Safety Board suggests that the Cal Fire spotting helicopter that crashed on Aug. 6, killing three people, possibly clipped a landing gear tire of the Skycrane helicopter above it, causing the rotor blades to sever and sending the fuselage plummeting 1,000 feet to a Cabazon hillside.

Like the typical NTSB preliminary report, the one released Friday, Sept. 1, was mostly a recitation of known facts and did not specifically say how the collision happened or why. But the revelations about the rotor blades and the tire were new.

The crash killed Assistant Chief Josh Bischof, 46, Capt. Tim Rodriguez, 44, and Air Shasta pilot Tony Sousa, 55. The Skycrane landed safely and the two occupants were not injured.

That day, at 6:34 p.m., the Bell 407 left Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base, followed three minutes later by the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane. The Bell circled for a time on the nine-mile trip, and they continued on flight paths that would lead them to cross, the NTSB said. They collided at about 2,400 feet, some two miles west of the Broadway fire that burned three acres.

The Bell landed on a steep, rocky hillside and caught fire. The main rotor blades, mast and transmission were found 285 feet — about the length of a football field — uphill from the fuselage, the NTSB said.

The Skycrane landed with damage to the tire in the right main landing gear. A 12-inch portion of the tire has not been found, the NTSB said.

“That indicates to me that the Bell was under the S-64 and the main rotor blades sliced off a portion of the tire of the Skycrane,” said Robert Katz, a pilot with 40 years in the aviation industry who frequently reviews accident reports.

Katz said the fact that the rotor blades were found 285 feet uphill from where the fuselage crashed indicates to him that they landed separately.

“I believe they became detached when the impact occurred with the tire,” Katz said.

NTSB issues its preliminary report for the ongoing investigation of the Aug. 6 crash of a Bell 407 helicopter near Cabazon, California:

— NTSB Newsroom (@NTSB_Newsroom) September 1, 2023

Spotter helicopters and airplanes circle above the aircraft that drop water and retardant, directing their actions. It wasn’t clear Friday why the Bell was below the Skycrane or what sort of communication took place before they collided.

“These two aircraft should never be operating in close proximity to each other,” Katz said.

Cal Fire did not own either helicopter; they were provided to the state firefighting agency under a contract.

The final NTSB report that will attempt to answer all the questions about the collision is likely to take more than a year to research and write.

Cal Fire is also investigating the collision.

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