Fatal helicopter crash south of Philip

Limited evidence ... Timothy LeBaron led the team investigating a fatal helicopter crash, October 1, south of Philip. His report involves “man, machine, environment,” he said. He added, “The wreckage pattern was consistant with an in-flight break-up.” Note that the wreckage no longer contains seats, much of the helicopter body or anything else that could have been destroyed in the crash and fire. The tail fins are in the far background.

by Del Bartels

At approximately 1:00 p.m., Saturday, October 1, a Robinson R-66 helicopter crashed south of Philip.

The pilot, 64-year-old James Hladkey, Gillette, Wyo., was the only person on board during the fatal crash. Hladky was the president of Cyclone Drilling Inc. He was flying from Gillette to visit a friend in Winner.

The helicopter was flying from west to east when it crashed on land owned by Gene and Sheryl Michael. The thick, black smoke mushrooming upward could be seen from Philip. The Philip Volunteer Fire Department, Philip Ambulance Service, Haakon County Sheriff's Department, South Dakota Highway Patrol and the Jackson County Sheriff's Department responded to the call. The vehicle was destroyed and an estimated one acre of pasture land was burned.

Monday morning, Timothy LeBaron, senior air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, led three others in gathering evidence to determine the causes of the crash. With him were an agent for the Federal Aviation Administration, a representative from the helicopter manu- facturer and a representative from the engine manufacturer.

"First of all, my condolences to the family," said LeBaron. "The sheriff and fire department support was outstanding, and they provided us anything we needed."

LeBaron explained that the NTSB is mandated by Congress. "Our only mission is safety. Only through accidents like this one do we find ways to make flying safer for the public," he said.

LeBaron noted that this is the first fatality in the United States involving a craft of this make and model. One previous fatal crash was in Columbia, South America. For this incident, LeBaron's preliminary report will be on record by the middle of next week. He said, "The wreckage pattern was consistant with an in-flight break-up." Some parts of the helicopter were many yards before the burned area, while the main rotor blades were hundreds of yards beyond.

In approximately six months, a factual report will go to a five-member board in Washington, D.C. "What we are looking for: the man, machine and environment," said LeBaron. "Pilot - experience, health, anything to do with his aviation background. Machine, the helicopter - we rule out what it was not. We go through the flight controls, all hooked up? Fuel? We methodically work through the systems and rule out possibilities. Environment - weather, where, other planes in the area at the time?"

The factual report will include an autopsy of the victim and maintenance records of the vehicle. The wreckage will be removed to Greeley, Colo., to be looked at again with more people. The process could take up to a year before the board will officially determine the cause of the crash.

The Robinson R66 was a five-seat turbine-powered helicopter designed and built by the Robinson Helicopter Company. Its turboshaft engine was a Rolls-Royce RR300 and could do over 135 miles per hour. Deliveries for this $805,000 model started in November of 2010. According to FAA registry, this specific helicopter's serial number was 10, was manufacturered in 2011 and had a corporation registration.