Records show APD helicopter maintenance was up-to-date

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through the state’s Open Records Act, has obtained and reviewed hundreds of service and maintenance records to provide insight into the officers who died in the Atlanta Police Department helicopter crash last month and the fitness of the aircraft they were piloting. The AJC enlisted the help of three industry professionals to review the helicopter’s maintenance records.

The Atlanta Police Department ordered a complete overhaul of its Hughes OH-6 just a few years ago and has been meticulous about maintaining the helicopter, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Records show that service of the aircraft, which crashed last month, killing two APD officers, was in line with Federal Aviation Administration recommendations for civilian aircraft and manufacturers’ recommendations.

“The police department did not skimp,” said Matthew Lykins, an aviation and mechanical expert who reviewed some of records the Atlanta Police Department provided The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Some of these things are extremely expensive to replace, hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace an engine. They weren’t putting budget over safety. Safety was definitely driving their operation.”

Still, the APD helicopter maintenance records do not resolve the central question, said Lykins, who works with Robson Forensic, based in Lancaster, Penn. And that question, he said, is, “Did the aircraft do the pilot wrong or did the pilot do the aircraft wrong?”

That answer apparently won’t come for about a year, until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation.

The OH-6 was donated to APD in 1996, but over time was being used less and less, especially this year.

APD has said officer Richard Halford was one of the department’s most experienced pilots, and he had many hours in that particular aircraft.

According to documents, dated Nov. 5, the OH-6 was out of service from late July until mid-September for annual servicing and had been flying only a few weeks when it hit a utility pole at a busy west Atlanta intersection, crashed and killed the officers on board. Halford and spotter Shawn Smiley were searching for a missing child when they died.

It was little more than a decade ago that APD asked for funds to replace the Vietnam-era OH-6 and a second helicopter, a Bell Jet Ranger, because both had “outlived their useful lives of 25 years.” When the money didn’t come, the OH-6, built in 1967, was taken out of service in April 2004, rebuilt and returned full-time use almost three years later.

Since then, APD has spent $250,000 to $300,000 a year to maintain the OH-6 and the rest of its helicopter fleet, now down to three.

APD records show the OH-6 had been flown about 1,160 hours since it was rebuilt six years ago.

Records show that in the year after the OH-6 was returned to service, the helicopter was flown often that first year; more than 405 hours total.

In 2008, the total time in the air that year was 220 hours, which includes the month it was down for annual service. It flew 151 hours in 2009 and 148 hours in 2010.

In 2011, the OH-6 flew fewer than 60 hours.The helicopter had flown 108 hours in 2012.

Most of repairs made in the annual maintenance last summer were seemingly insignificant. Rubber trim on various parts of the aircraft had rotted and had to be replaced. Seat backs and bottoms were “worn out.” Paint was delaminating from the stabilizer, which would allow corrosive water to make contact with metal. A window was cracked.

“We considered these to be minor, cosmetic issues that affected neither the safety nor flight of the helicopter,” said APD spokesman Carlos Campos.

At the same time, there was one significant repair that could affect how the OH-6 flew, Lykins said. The forward looking infrared radar, which tracks people on the ground using their body heat, was moved to the nose, changing the distribution of weight which is critical with a helicopter. But the records don’t note where it had been positioned previously or how much the move affected the weight distribution.

APD, at the request of NTSB, did not release documents concerning maintenance since the annual inspection last summer, which included “weight and balance” records, so it was not known if moving the FLIR changed how the aircraft handled.

“It was quite a trusted aircraft, so much so that the air unit commander referred to it as ‘Old Faithful,’” Campos said. “Our pilots were always comfortable flying this aircraft, and we are confident they wouldn’t have done so if there were concerns about its airworthiness.”