Investigation blames helicopter crash on wind gust

CLEVELAND (AP) - Wind gusts contributed to last year's fatal crash of a medical helicopter at University Hospitals of Cleveland, a federal investigation concluded.
The National Transportation Safety Board's final report on the Jan. 18, 2002, crash says pilot William Spence failed to maintain directional control of the University MedEvac chopper while taking off from a 12th-floor helipad.
A tight area in which to maneuver also contributed to the crash, the report said.
Spence, 51, of Marshallville, and nurse Kelly Conti, 38, of Wickliffe, were killed. Medic Joe Paoletta of Brecksville, now 30, suffered a broken arm and burns over 30 percent of his body.
The NTSB document quotes Paoletta as saying he felt a sudden gust of wind push the chopper from behind as it hovered over the pad. Spence tried to steer the chopper away from the building, but ran out of room.
An official with the company that hired Spence to fly the helicopter did not endorse the NTSB's findings.
"We are still investigating, as we will continue until we find what we think is the cause of the crash," said Jay Heffernan, director of safety for CJ Systems Aviation Group, of suburban Pittsburgh. "The NTSB is welcome to their opinion through their own investigation."
He said two wind socks on the roof and National Weather Service reports from Burke Lakefront Airport, three miles away, gave Spence plenty of information about wind conditions. The airport reported winds of about 12 mph around the time of the crash.
A police helicopter pilot and a Federal Aviation Administration investigator reported gusts of 25 to 35 mph before and after the crash.
Heffernan said no one has established that there was a gust when Spence lifted the helicopter off the pad at 12:24 a.m.
The hospital has added a third wind sock and hooked up a mechanical wind-speed indicator on the helipad. A hospital spokeswoman had no comment on the NTSB's findings.
The NTSB report found no evidence of mechanical failure.
Paoletta recently returned to his job with STAT MedEvac, the company based in suburban Pittsburgh that manages University MedEvac flights.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)