Helicopter pilot in 2017 crash had used his cell phone in flight

The news helicopter pilot who was killed in a crash in New Mexico in 2017 had placed a cell phone call to his car rental company during the accident flight, according to a final report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Helicopter wreckage with fire damage
The accident helicopter impacted terrain in open ranchland, leaving a wreckage path approximately 300 feet long. NTSB Photo
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Bob Martin was the only person on board the KRQE-TV helicopter — identified in the NTSB report as belonging to WQRE, a station that does not appear to exist — when it impacted terrain near Ancho, New Mexico, on Sept. 16, 2017. He was returning to Albuquerque from Roswell, New Mexico, following an assignment in the area.

According to the NTSB report, Martin departed from Roswell in the Bell 206L-3 LongRanger at around 3:54 p.m. local time. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed, with a partly cloudy sky, good visibility, and light winds. (The NTSB report incorrectly refers to an “altimeter setting” at the Roswell airport of 26.30 inches of mercury; while this was the barometric pressure, the altimeter setting was around 29.94, according to historical data from Weather Underground.)

A review of cell phone records indicated that Martin placed a three-second phone call to a car rental agency at 4:07 p.m. Five minutes later, he repeated the call, and spoke with an employee there for one minute and 47 seconds before the call was disconnected. The employee later told investigators that Martin sounded “busy or distracted,” and that there was a strange “skipping” or “radio noise” before the call dropped as they were ending the conversation.

According to the NTSB report, the accident occurred at around 4:35 p.m., based on the last recorded GPS data. That data showed that for about the last five minutes of the flight track, the helicopter’s GPS altitude varied between 6,200 and 6,456 feet above sea level, while the surrounding terrain ranged in elevation from 6,000 to 6,400 feet. The helicopter impacted the ground at an elevation of 6,330 feet.

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The wreckage was discovered after a person near the accident site saw smoke and drove over to investigate. The NTSB determined that ground scars and signatures were consistent with a slight, nose-low impact with terrain. “Although the airframe and engine examinations were limited by impact and fire damage, they did not reveal evidence of any pre-impact mechanical malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operation,” the report states.

Despite the fact that, according to the report’s timeframe, approximately 20 minutes passed between the time of Martin’s phone call and the collision, the NTSB concluded that, “based on the available information, the pilot was likely using his cell phone during the low-altitude flight and became distracted, which resulted in controlled flight into terrain.”

The complete report is available on the NTSB’s website.

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