Friday, May 2, 2008

Report renews questions about helicopter crash

Accident claimed the life of former valley resident, pilot Quin R. Stone

Express Staff Writer

A report released in March calls into question a prior conclusion citing pilot error as the cause of a August 2006 helicopter crash that claimed the life of a former Hulen Meadows man.

Quin R. Stone, 42, most recently of Emmett, was the pilot of the Eurocopter A Star 350 B-3 helicopter that went down Aug. 13, 2006, in the Payette National Forest during a fire-fighting mission. Stone, who grew up in the Hulen Meadows subdivision north of Ketchum, was killed along with firefighters Lillian Patten, 34, of Olympia, Wash.; Michael Gene Lewis, 37, of Cascade; and Monica Lee Zajanc, 27, of Boise.

An earlier report, questioned by Stone's friends and family, was released in June 2007 by the National Transportation Safety Board and claimed that intentional low-altitude flight was the cause of the helicopter crash that killed the crew.

The accident occurred about 18 miles west of the remote hamlet of Yellow Pine. Stone was flying the firefighters to the Krassel Guard Station in support of fire-fighting activities.

But in the new report released by David Rupert of R.J. Waldron & Co., a company based in British Columbia that investigates aircraft accidents, investigators claim the accident was actually caused by the loss of 5-gallon water containers and refuse from the right side of the helicopter's cargo basket.

"In all probability the loss of the cargo from the basket was a result of inadequate securing of the cargo in the basket," the R.J. Waldron & Co. report states. Stone's father, Bryan Stone, said the report was prepared for Boise corporate law and litigation firm Moffat Thomas, which was hired by Oregon-based Evergreen Helicopters Inc., the company for which Stone worked.

The report goes on to say that water containers that fell out of the right side cargo basket were struck by the helicopter's tail rotor blades, which caused separation of one blade and lead to partial separation of the tail rotor gearbox and separation of the vertical stabilizer assembly.

"Separation of the vertical stabilizer assembly would have made the helicopter extremely difficult if not impossible to control," the report states.

This assessment differs considerably with the National Transportation Safety Board report that cited "intentional low-altitude flight" and a "failure to maintain an adequate altitude" to clear treetops along a ridge as the probable causes for the helicopter crash that killed Stone and the three other firefighters.

Stone's parents, Dr. Bryan Stone and Ann Stone, left the valley in the early 1990s to work in Africa before eventually settling in Emmett. Dr. Stone secured something of a legacy as a longtime family doctor who delivered several decades worth of babies in the Wood River Valley.

Quin Stone and his brother, Greg Stone, were well-known members of the Sun Valley Nordic Ski Team.

The original 2007 report stated that just prior to the crash, Stone flew a firefighter to a fire lookout on Williams Peak, which is about 4.6 miles from the Payette National Forest's Krassel Helibase, where Stone was assigned. At the time, there were several forest fires in the area and visibility in the lower valley was just over a mile, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The lookout person said that after he was dropped off, the visibility got much better as Stone flew away up the ridge. The return flight would have been flown directly into the late afternoon sun, the original report stated.

There were no witnesses to the accident.

In the most controversial part of the original crash investigation report, it stated that the four helitack crew members assigned to the helicopter Stone was flying said he was known for his sometimes "showy" flying. However, the report didn't directly blame Stone's flying for the crash.

The crewmembers said Stone "would always ask the passengers if they were comfortable" prior to doing any showy maneuvers.

Stone "would 'buzz' a ridge every now and then, and perform a maneuver he called the 'sleigh ride,'" the report stated.

A "sleigh ride" was when the pilot would top a ridge, "then drop the collective, drop the nose a bit," a crewmember told investigators. It was reported to be a common maneuver for Stone.

At the accident site, "thirteen cubitainers (five-gallon plastic containers for potable water), two large plastic refuse bags, yellow crepe paper and several chips of green helicopter paint were found near a freshly downed and uprooted snag (a dead, defoliated conifer) located on the ridgetop," the report stated.

The snag was estimated to have been 90 feet tall. In its report, National Transportation Safety Board officials stated that the burned-out wreckage of the helicopter was found on a Forest Service road about 2,000 feet down the mountain and 1,230 vertical feet below the initial downed snag.

But the new report by R.J. Waldron & Co. finds fault with the original assessment.

It states there was no evidence found at the wreckage site of a main rotor strike on a tree or trees as the initial event triggering the accident.

Scraps of paper and paint chips found near fallen trees at the site do not justify the claim that the helicopter's coming into contact with a tree led to the accident, the report claims.

"If a main rotor blade(s) had struck either or both of the fallen trees indicated in the NTSB factual report, pieces of the fiberglass main rotor blade skin should have been found at the start of the wreckage debris trail near the fallen trees," it states.

For the two years prior to the accident, Stone had been working for Evergreen, which is headquartered in McMinnville, Ore.

In an email to the Idaho Mountain Express this week, Dr. Stone wrote that Evergreen retained the Moffat Thomas law firm soon after the accident because there were some legal probes made by one of the victim's families. He said the law firm then requested the services of R.J. Waldron & Co. for an independent investigation, knowing Evergreen disagreed with the original 2007 report.

"The NTSB report gave short shrift to the debris aspect and its impact on the tail rotor and tail section," Dr. Stone said. "If Quin didn't hit a tree then the NTSB can't say that it was the pilot's 'intentional' low flying that caused the accident."

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