A 56-year-old Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters pilot searching for Columbia space shuttle debris was killed in a March 27 crash in eastern Texas.
Jules F. ‘Buzz’ Mier died March 27 in a helicopter crash in Texas. Mier was flying a copter aiding in the search for Columbia space shuttle debris. (courtesy photo)
Jules F. "Buzz" Mier Jr., and four others were flying over Angelina National Forest near Broaddus, Texas, when the copter went down. Mier, a seven-year Papillon employee, and Texas Forest Service employee Charles Krenek of Lufkin, Texas, were killed. Mier and Krenek, 48, were pronounced dead at the scene.
Matt Tschacher of the U.S. Forest Service, Richard Lange of the United Space Alliance and Ronnie Dale of NASA survived the crash. Tschacher suffered a spinal injury, Lange had hip and shoulder injuries and Dale had a punctured lung.
The Papillon 1997 Bell 407 helicopter crashed at about 4:30 p.m., on that Thursday afternoon. The copter was performing a grid search and flying about 20 feet above treetops. A source told the Lufkin Daily News that there was radio contact with the copter, but she didn’t know whether the pilot had indicated any problems.
"Reports were that it lost power to the rotors," FAA spokesman John Clabes told the Associated Press. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe told AP two witnesses said the helicopter’s "engine just stopped" and it "took a nose dive."
The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the remote site. The helicopter crashed into a slough of one-foot-deep water a mile from the nearest road.
All shuttle search aircraft were grounded after the accident. Searchers on the ground and in water were cleared to continue. According to the Lufkin Daily News, searchers had a moment of silence and the camp’s American flag was lowered to half-mast.
In a statement, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board offered condolences to the victims and their families.
"The CAIB is enormously grateful for the ongoing professional work of the thousands of searchers who play a vital role in the helping the board find the cause of the Columbia accident," the board said. "The people who were lost were part of an important safety mission."
Papillon was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to help in the search. The company has contracts with various agencies and has done search-and-rescue work for Grand Canyon National Park.
Mier had lived at Grand Canyon since 1996. He came to work as lead pilot for Papillon after a 19-year career as an Army flight instructor at Fort Rucker, Ala. A Vietnam War veteran, Mier had 10,000 hours of piloting experience before taking the Army flight instructor job.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this accident and their families at this time," Papillon president Brenda Halvorson said in a written statement. "Our first focus is on the people that have been affected by this tragic event and dealing with their needs."
A memorial service was held Saturday at the Thunderbird Lodge. The American flag flew at half-mast and representatives from National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency were reportedly in attendance at the service.