Arlington Heights, IL Helicopter Crashes Into Home, May 1998

Arlington Heights IL Helicopter Crash 5 18 1998.jpg

SEARCHING FOR WHY IT HAPPENED.

OFFICIALS NARROW PROBE FOR CAUSE OF FATAL CRASH AS VICTIMS' FAMILIES AND FRIENDS MOURN.

Arlington Heights, Ill. -- Federal investigators faced what appeared to be a chaotic scene on Tuesday; dozens upon dozens of parts that once formed a helicopter strewn across a Waukegan airport hangar.
But after methodically sifting through that wreckage, investigators narrowed their search for what caused the deadly crash a day earlier in Arlington Heights.
Steering and other flight controls on the 19-year-old chopper apparently were working when the Bell 206L-1 plunged into the attached garage of a home at 311 S. Fernandez Ave., killing all four aboard, said David Bowling, the National Transportation Safety Board's lead investigator.
But Bowling said it is "troubling" that an engine shaft would not turn freely when investigators tested it. The engine will be packaged and sent to its Indianapolis manufacturer, where it will be taken apart and examined for problems.
Although the cause of the crash still isn't known, Bowling said he is confident his team will find the answers. "My boss tells me every day the answer is in the wreckage," he said. "I am very confident we will get to the bottom of this."
Investigators are also looking at the possibility the pilot might have played a role in the crash.
The seven-seat aircraft, which had been chartered by the Chicago Futabakai Japanese School in Arlington Heights to take aerial photographs of the village where the school recently moved, took off from Waukegan Regional Airport around 12:45 p.m. Monday.
Bowling said witnesses saw the chopper, after buzzing about town for a while, head southwest from downtown at 300 to 350 feet above the ground. When it turned south, it banked unnaturally so the blades were perpendicular to the ground. At that point it dropped from the sky.
Although earlier he said the helicopter probably hit the garage "fairly level," Bowling said evidence and witness accounts now indicate the aircraft descended nose down at a 70-degree angle. When it hit the garage it flipped upside down. The air speed gauge stuck at 145 mph.
Eyewitnesses flooded Northwest Central Dispatch with 11 emergency 911 calls within only 78 seconds starting around 1:51 p.m.
The first caller a man from Our Lady of the Wayside School, told the dispatcher "a helicopter crashed ... a helicopter crashed into houses."
A woman caller at one point also pleads with a dispatcher to "hurry" and send emergency equipment.
Killed were pilot SCOTT MARAS of Lake Geneva; Wilmette photographer YASUO SATO; Arlington Heights resident SHINOBU SADA, the vice principal of Futabakai; and Arlington Heights resident KAZUYA YAMAGUCHI, a teacher at the school. Autopsies performed Tuesday indicated all died of multiple injuries.
Grace Stearns, who was home when the helicopter hit her house, escaped injury.
Bowling said the NTSB has ruled out maintenance problems with the aircraft; records show the 1979 chopper had its annual inspection in February and has been properly maintained. It has never been in an accident, officials said.
Although one witness told a police officer he heard the chopper make sounds like a car backfiring before the accident, Bowling said no one has told him that. But he plans to question that witness. He added no problems were found with the tail section. The rear rotors were largely intact, but one of the top blades was broken off.
Still undetermined is whether a fire in the engine started before or after impact, or whether strong winds played a part in the crash.
MARAS had a clean history as a pilot, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Roland Herwig. He had no known health problems.
David Borrows, president of ProCopter International Inc., based at Palwaukee Municipal Airport, knew MARAS for a few years and flew past him about 30 minutes before the crash. "His reputation is as a very safe, steady pilot," said Borrows, who trains helicopter pilots for a living. "He just wasn't a hot dog."
Borrows speculated the helicopter could have suffered some catastrophic mechanical failure.
While pilots call the Bell 206L-1 an excellent helicopter, there have been fatalities associated with it. Since 1996, the NTSB has reports of four fatal accidents involving the chopper.
Also Tuesday, police catalogued items found on the victims and in the helicopter. Many items showed the purpose of the trip; to photograph the area for a school brochure. Police found a Sony digital camera and a Minolta 35mm camera, numerous rolls of film, as well as a PrimeCo cell phone and five floppy discs, said Arlington Heights police Sgt. Kenneth Galinski.
Investigators will try to develop the film, Bowling said.
The NTSB may revisit the site today, as well as re-interview some witnesses and pore over the tapes of air traffic communications.
The agency expects to wrap up the field investigation by Friday.

Daily Herald Chicago Illinois 1998-05-20