Two pilots escaped injury while a third was transported to Custer Regional Hospital with minor injuries after a training flight being conducted by the three pilots—all employees of Black Hills Aerial Adventures—went awry around 9:20 a.m last Thursday.
Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley said at around that time the three pilots, aboard a 1962 Bell 47 helicopter, were attempting to land at Black Hills Aerial Adventures’ Custer location just east off Hwy. 16/385 seven miles north of Custer.
The helicopter, being piloted by 32-year-old Chelsea Atwater of Arizona, reportedly began to lose engine RPMs, which the crew was unable to regain, causing the helicopter to subsequently lose power, Mechaley said.
The helicopter came up short of Black Hills Aerial Adventures’ helicopter pad and made a hard landing on the southbound lane of the highway. Mechaley said the tail of the helicopter struck a van driving down the highway and subsequently broke off, but Black Hills Aerial Adventures owner Mike Jacob said he believes part of the tail might have broken off when the tail rotor hit the ground. In either case, the helicopter then turned over into the ditch on the west side of the highway.
One of the men aboard the helicopter, Eric Bell, 30, of Utah, was uninjured in the accident, as was Atwater. Another 30-year-old crew member, Marco Bohren, of Florida, was transported to the hospital. The occupants of the van, who were from Illinois, were uninjured in the accident although their van did sustain damage.
Jacob said the official cause of the incident would be for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to determine. He commended Atwater for dealing with the situation the way she did and avoiding more catastrophic damage on the busy highway.
“She did a very good job of getting it down and out of the way,” she said.
Custer County Sheriff’s Office deputies, the Custer Volunteer Fire Department, Custer Ambulance Service, Custer County Search and Rescue and Custer County Emergency Management all responded to the accident.
The incident is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the The National Transportation Safety Board, the former of which OK’d moving the downed helicopter from the side the road prior to its investigation.
Jacob, who has owned the company since 1992, emphasized such a helicopter incident is a rarity and safety is of utmost concern.
“The pilots are highly-trained,” he said. “These occurrences are very rare.”