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By: Jim Erickson
A state trooper killed Oct. 15, 2010, when the highway patrol helicopter he was piloting crashed in Clarkson Valley had traces of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications in his system, but the aircraft also was dangerously low on fuel when the fatal mishap occurred.
Those findings are in a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigative report issued early this month. However, the report draws no conclusions about whether the presence of the drugs had any effect on the pilot and his reaction to what likely happened when the helicopter ran low or out of fuel.
Killed in the crash was Sgt. Joseph G. Schuengel, 47, a pilot for Troop C at Weldon Spring. The victim was returning to the highway patrol’s aircraft base at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield after a traffic enforcement operation in Jefferson County when the Bell Jet Ranger crashed on Horseshoe Ridge Road just off Kehrs Mill Road and west of Clarkson Road in Clarkson Valley.
An NTSB spokesperson said the just-released report contains only the facts gathered in the agency’s investigation and that a probable cause report likely will be issued in three to six months.
According to the report, there was no evidence of fuel spillage at the crash site. The fuel system valves, controls and lines were operating properly and intact. However, investigators found the fuel tank bladder contained only about three quarts of fuel and the line leading to the inlet of the engine-driven fuel pump contained just two drops.
A witness near the accident site said he heard the helicopter’s engine “sputter” and then “stop” just before the crash.
The report notes that Schuengel had accumulated more than 2,600 hours of flight time in single- and multi-engine aircraft and helicopters, including 820 in the make and model of chopper in the accident.
An experienced local helicopter pilot who asked not to be identified said the helicopter Schuengel was flying usually can be landed safely when the engine quits due to a malfunction or running out of fuel, as long as the terrain in the area is suitable for a landing and the aircraft has some altitude to work with when the problem occurs.
The key is to change the pitch of the helicopter’s blades rapidly to enable them to “auto-rotate” as the air rushes by them, thereby enabling the pilot to descend at a managed rate and land safely.
In fixed-wing aircraft, the automatic reaction when the engine quits is to lower the nose of the plane to maintain airspeed. That is done by moving the control yoke forward.
The NTSB report notes that in a helicopter, moving the control known as the cyclic forward abruptly from either a straight-and-level flight or after a climb can lead to severe damage to the aircraft’s rotor mast, to the point where the main rotor system can separate from the helicopter.
The earlier-mentioned witness told investigators the rotor had separated from the helicopter as both plunged to the ground. The report states the main rotor was found 50 feet from the craft’s fuselage.
According to the NTSB, toxicology tests showed traces of alprazolam, an anti-anxiety medication; venlafaxine, an antidepressant; and naproxen, an over-the-counter pain reliever, in Schuengel’s system. In a medical exam taken about five months before the crash, Schuengel answered “no” to questions about whether he was taking any medications and whether he had any mental disorders such as depression or anxiety, the report says.
Capt. Tim Hull, a Missouri State Highway Patrol spokesman, said a committee formed soon after the fatal crash examined and changed a number of policies dealing with aircraft operations. Among other things, the MSHP increased requirements for recurring training, including helicopter training, and for maintaining an instrument proficiency rating. The minimum fuel reserve for helicopters also was increased from 20 minutes to 30.
Hull noted the MSHP has a random drug testing program that applies to all officers.
The patrol’s policies are under regular review, he said, and more changes could be made at any time.