Witnesses point to mechanical problem before helicopter crash

04/04/2013 10:51 AM

04/05/2013 3:30 AM

The investigation into what caused a helicopter crash that killed two men will not be completed for months, but witnesses described a series of events that suggest the aircraft experienced mechanical problems shortly before plummeting to the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the helicopter crash, recovered the wreckage Thursday — with agents documenting the scene of the impact at Southwest 128th Street and 122nd Avenue, and removing the charred fuselage, broken tail and other parts.

A preliminary report will be issued within 10 days, but the final report could take months, said Peter Knudson, an agency spokesman.

Also Thursday, Miami-Dade police confirmed the identities of the men who died. The pilot was Mark Palmieri, who owned Bravo Helicopters charter and flight school service based at the Kendall Tamiami Executive Airport near the site of the crash. The co-pilot was Ross Allan, a former aircraft technician for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

Both were 53 years old. They sustained severe injuries and died at the scene.

No one on the ground was injured at the industrial park - a commercial area with gyms, auto shops and other businesses near the Kendall Breeze development.

Yoldany Jacomino said he was working on a car outside his mechanic shop at the industrial par Wednesday when he heard the helicopter overhead.

“It was flying fine,’’ said Jacomino, who also works as a line attendant fueling private planes.

But moments later, he heard a boom, as if an explosion had occurred. The loud boom suggests the helicopter’s engine locked, jamming the attached rear rotor and causing the tail to break while the aircraft was still in the air, Jacomino said.

He then saw a plume of smoke coming from the copter.

“That happened in like three seconds,’’ he said. “Then I saw the tail break. Then I saw a lot of papers in the air.’’

Jacomino said helicopter pilots often carry flight plans and other documents on their laps, explaining why sheets of paper would have billowed from the fuselage as “it dropped to the ground like a lead ball,’’ he said.

The tail fell about 500 feet away from where the helicopter’s fuselage landed.

Immediately after the crash, Jacomino and his father rushed to the scene where witnesses had already rushed out with fire extinguishers to put out the flames, and to pull the victims out of the burning four-seat aircraft. Every time someone extinguished the flames, they would re-ignite.

Jacomino said he knew right away that the men were dead, but he wanted to help pull their bodies from the wreckage.

He recognized Palmieri because Bravo Helicopters is located behind Jacomino’s auto shop.

He had to cut the pilot’s seatbelt off.

“I tried to save the body so it wouldn’t burn,’’ Jacomino said. “He was dead, but maybe he has family and they want to see the body.’’

Palmieri’s family could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Allan’s family declined to comment, but the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue department issued a statement about his death.

Ross was hired by Miami-Dade Fire as an aircraft technician in September 1996. He became a helicopter co-pilot in March 2007.

“He will be sorely missed by all MDFR members, especially those at the Air Rescue Bureau who remain shocked by this tragic and unexpected loss,’’ read the statement signed by Dave Downey, fire chief.

Though it is too soon to know what caused the crash, the helicopter model that Palmieri and Allan were flying on Wednesday has been linked to deadly accidents before.

The men were flying a Robinson R-44 helicopter, one of the most popular aircraft in the world. In 2010, the Torrance, Calif.-based manufacturer issued a safety bulletin requiring R-44 helicopters with all-aluminum fuel tanks to be retrofitted with bladder-type tanks to reduce the chance of a post-accident fuel leak.

Focus fell on the R-44 choppers in the fall of 2008, two years after a deadly crash in the Dominican Republic that left four people dead.

In the past, aviation attorneys have sued Robinson claiming the choppers’ gas tanks are improperly designed and will burst and catch fire even in low impact crashes.

The helicopter model has developed such a bad reputation that one attorney representing victims of a 2006 crash in Texas said: “The R-44 is the Ford Pinto of aviation,’’ according to the Santa Barbara (California) Independent newspaper.

It is not known if the helicopter involved in Wednesday’s crash had its fuel tank retrofitted.

The helicopter was registered to Bravo Helicopters, which offers sightseeing tours and rides, flight lessons and aerial photography, according to the company website. The aircraft was built in 2006, according to its FAA registry.

A flight plan for the helicopter was last filed in August 2012, according to the website flightaware.com, which tracks flights. That flight from Albany, New York to Linden, New Jersey lasted about one hour, and no problems were reported.

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