The Atlanta police helicopter that crashed Saturday night, killing two officers, was a Vietnam War-era chopper that city officials 11 years ago said had outlived its useful life.
Officers Richard J. Halford, 48, and Shawn A. Smiley, 40, were using the helicopter to search for a missing 9-year-old boy when they crashed near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Hamilton E. Holmes drives. The boy was later found safe.
According to Atlanta City Council records from September 2001, the Hughes OH-6 helicopter that crashed was built in 1967 and was used by the U.S. Army until it was donated to the APD in 1996 to assist with the Olympic Games.
Eleven years ago, the APD requested $2.8 million from the City Council to replace the Hughes OH-6 that crashed Saturday night, as well as a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter also operated by the department, saying they “have outlived their useful lives of 25 years.”
The council approved $1,360,425 to replace one of the helicopters, but current FAA records show both aircraft still being used by APD.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the N-number of the helicopter that crashed was changed from N13PD to N368PD at the APD’s request in October, 2006.
It is not uncommon for an aircraft’s N-number to be changed, an FAA spokeswoman said, adding that FAA records show no accidents or incidents for the aircraft under either N-number.
The AJC is attempting to contact APD officials to find out whether the $1.36 million was used to purchase another helicopter.
The National Transportation Safety Board is working to determine what caused Saturday night’s fatal crash.
Jerry Kidrick , chairman of the flight department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus, said a 45-year-old helicopter is “pretty old.”
Kidrick said the main reason helicopters and other aircraft are normally retired before reaching that age “is the technology changes.”
“What happens is, over time, you try to upgrade aircraft to new technology, new avionics, new types of systems, and eventually, that becomes a waste of time,” Kidrick said. “You upgrade to a newer helicopter where those are standard.”
Kidrick said, however, that “a lot of police departments don’t have a lot of money to do that with.”
“It’s a tough call,” he said. “They are great, the use of helicopters by municipalities for all of the full range of things that they do, and yet, they are an expensive item to keep around.”
There are “many components” in a helicopter that are “time-based replacement – at 2,000 hours, replace the tail rotor blades, that kind of thing,” Kidrick said. “The component could look perfectly fine, but by mandatory replacement time, you have to replace those components, and that becomes very expensive.”
Kidrick, a retired Army colonel and aviator who recently returned from serving in Iraq, said that age “is not a sole predictor of a higher accident rate for any type of aircraft. There are no statistics that back up that anything over 40 years, they have more accidents with them. However, things like corrosion and cracking of airframe components, you have to increase inspection criteria for older aircraft.”
Saturday’s crash happened at about 10:30 p.m., and Kidrick said that flying a helicopter at night “does add a difficulty factor.”
“I don’t know if they were using night-vision goggles,” he said. “If they were using night-vision goggles, that would lessen the hazard associated with it.
“If you are concentrating on searching, the focus on the search can be distracting,” he said.
“The primary consideration when flying a helicopter is control of the helicopter, and that is rule number one,” he continued. “There are many who have gotten distracted and paid for it.”
Kidrick said that flying at a low altitude searching for a missing person would “add a fairly significant difficulty factor.”
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