Sheriff: SCSO helicopter crash lands due to catastrophic engine failure

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

STAR, the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, experienced catastrophic engine failure resulting in a crash landing while on a training flight in Spalding County.
According to a press release issued by Sheriff Darrell Dix, SCSO Chief Pilot Dr. Phillip Smith and Chief Deputy Tony Thomason were in flight at approximately 5:30 p.m. Jan. 29, when the helicopter experienced engine failure.
While recovering from a training scenario at an altitude of approximately 200 feet, STAR lost its engine, the release reported. Due to the engine loss, the lift created by the rotor blades began rapidly decaying causing STAR to descend straight down.
Smith, who is identified as a highly decorated helicopter pilot with tours of duty in Vietnam, and is now a flight instructor, nosed the helicopter down to increase the speed of the main rotor in an effort to create more lift. As they neared the ground, Smith was able to level out, and just before STAR hit the ground, Smith raised the nose to slow the fall, the tail boom struck the ground, the main rotor struck the tail boom and they came to a stop in a field behind a residence on Ga. Highway 19 in Pike County.
Neither Smith or Thomason were injured.
Pike County deputies responded to the scene, as did Pike County Sheriff Jimmy Thomas.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were notified, and an NTSB investigator responded to the scene Tuesday morning.
“It appears that the incident was unavoidable and was attributed to a mechanical failure. There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Smith’s experience, actions and quick response to the crisis saved his life and the life of Chief Thomason. Chief Thomason told me that Dr. Smith remained calm, worked the problem all the way to the ground and he without a doubt saved our lives,” Dix said. “There are very few instances where that type of catastrophic failure, that close to the ground ends as well as this one did. It is a miracle that they walked away unharmed. 100 yards to the right or 100 yards to the left and they would have been in a wood line or a lake. 20 yards shorter and they would have been in a large pile of cut timber. 50 yards further and they would have also been in the woods. The Lord was with them and sat them down in about the only area they could and still be ok. Even though the helicopter is damaged, we are more thankful that they were not harmed.”
Dix said his office will evaluate to determine whether it is feasible to resume the agency’s helicopter program.
“STAR was the second helicopter received by the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office from GEMA’s excess property program. The helicopter program started in Spalding County in 1998 and has been a valuable asset to law enforcement jurisdictions from all across the state. We have always responded to calls for assistance from outside of Spalding County whenever asked,” Dix said. “The equipping, maintenance, upkeep, fuel, insurance and inspections for STAR are all funded by seized drug funds. STAR went through its last annual maintenance and inspection in August of 2017. At this point we are going to examine if it would even be feasible to continue the program. While the damage to STAR may not look extensive, it is substantial. We will get repair costs, check on the availability of another helicopter through the GEMA program and work out the costs of refitting a new helicopter before a decision is made.”
Dix said he extends his appreciation to Thomas and the deputies of the Pike County Sheriff’s Office for their quick response, and to Atlanta Air Salvage for assistance provided.
Dix reiterated that Smith’s actions, based on decades of experience, were responsible for the successful outcome of the crash landing.
“Doc was one of those pilots in Vietnam who was sent out to rescue people who were under fire. He was already a hero, but before this happened, Doc was an unsung hero,” Dix said. “A lot of people didn’t know his story. If it had not been for his experience, I have no doubt they probably both would have died. Doc is a hero.”

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