Inadequate planning likely led to fatal helicopter crash
A fatal helicopter crash near Silt in 2014 could have potentially been avoided had the pilot, a well-known and respected helicopter pilot in the region, conducted more preflight planning, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report released earlier this month.
The pilot, Doug Sheffer, was conducting low-level aerial surveillance of power transmission lines for Holy Cross Energy on Jan. 27, 2014. Sheffer, who was the owner and chief pilot for DBS Helicopters based out of the Rifle-Garfield County Regional Airport, and two passengers were patrolling a set of power lines in a north-south direction 3.2 miles east of the airport when the Bell model 206L-3 helicopter struck an Xcel Energy line that crossed above the Holy Cross energy lines in an east-west direction.
The collision sent the helicopter to the ground 170 feet below, killing all three. Shortly after the accident, the Garfield County coroner identified the passengers as Larry Shaffer, a Holy Cross employee and Rifle resident, and Christopher Gaskill of Aurora. Gaskill was an employee with HotShot Infrared Inspections — a Lakewood business that Holy Cross contracted with for the inspections. The contract between Holy Cross and HotShot required video filming the entire flight.
Several examinations after the crash led to the conclusion citing inadequate preflight planning as the probable cause. A post-crash examination of the helicopter did not reveal any pre-crash mechanical anomalies, and a toxicology test by the Federal Aviation Administration Civil Aerospace Medical Institute came back negative.
The NTSB report did note that at the time of the accident the sun was directly in front of the helicopter and 30 degrees above the horizon, which likely made it difficult to see the crossing wire. The Xcel power line that the helicopter struck was not required to be marked with high-visibility balls, and it was not.
Still, Sheffer may have been able to avoid the collision had he done more pre-flight planning, according to the report.
“Given that this was a low-level surveillance flight of power transmission lines, the pilot should have familiarized himself with the power lines he was going to patrol and any other wires or obstructions in the area before the flight,” the report concludes. “It is likely that he did not adequately plan for the flight and that, if he had, he might have been aware of the power line and been able to avoid it.”
A phone number listed online for DBS led to a voice mail for Lisa Balcomb, who is identified as the office manager on the DBS website. The message states that DBS is not currently operating flights, but callers are encouraged to leave a message for either Balcomb or DBS.
A message left Monday afternoon was not returned.
The crew had already completed one surveillance flight and returned to the Rifle airport for fuel prior to the fatal crash. Video and audio from the flight gathered during the investigation started after the helicopter was airborne.
The helicopter followed a series of power lines through various terrain for most of the flight, during which conversation between the two passengers can be heard. At 11:15 a.m. the helicopter turned right to follow a perpendicular set of power lines.
A little more than a minute later, intersecting power lines came into view of an infrared camera mounted on the helicopter. As soon as the lines passed, the video started shaking and expletives could be heard until the recording ended seven seconds later, according to the report.
Immediately following the crash, Sheffer was heralded as an experienced pilot known throughout the region. He flew many operations for the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and Garfield Search and Rescue, said Walt Stowe, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.
According to the NTSB report, Sheffer reported a total of 8,010 flight hours in his most recent medical examination prior to the crash.
“Because of Doug we were able to rescue many people that we might not otherwise have been able to,” Sheriff Lou Vallario told the Post Independent the day of the crash. “He is definitely going to be missed.”
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