The bodies of six passengers and a pilot have been recovered from the site of a tour helicopter crash, which occurred Sept. 20 after taking off from the Grand Canyon West airport near Peach Springs.
National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration investigators were on scene at Descent Canyon and early evidence suggests the copter’s main rotor hit a cliff face as it was descending into the canyon.
The aircraft, operated by Sundance Helicopters out of Las Vegas, went down on that Saturday afternoon as it transported tourists to a helipad near the Colorado River. The passengers were scheduled to board a pontoon boat as part of their tour. They had arrived from Las Vegas via plane before boarding the helicopter at Grand Canyon West on the Hualapai Indian reservation outside the park boundary.
The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office said the helicopter burst into flames on impact. All seven on board were killed.
Wayne Pollack, NTSB investigator, said in a news conference that the main rotor was found about 250 yards from the crash scene. Pollack added there were no witnesses, although one person who saw the helicopter take off saw nothing out of the ordinary. The weather was clear.
Volunteers and sheriff’s deputies had to hike to the crash site the following day to recover the bodies. The rough terrain allowed access only by foot.
The victims were identified as Dr. Joseph Hanna, 52, and his wife, Nouhad, of Huntington, W.Va.; Masami Kato, 24, and Makiko Hatano, 23, both of Japan; and Julia Hueyng, 33, and Wolf-Dieter Mueller, 46, both of Germany. The pilot was identified as Takashi Mezaki, 45, a native of Japan who lived in California.
According to a company spokesman, it was the first fatal accident for Sundance Helicopters, which has been in business since 1985.
According to FAA records, the AS-350 helicopter made by Aerospatiale was involved in two minor incidents in 2000, the Associated Press reported. No serious injuries or damage was reported. Both incidents involved pilot error.
The crash victims were taken to a medical examiner’s office in Kingman. An autopsy on the pilot was expected.
Pollack said the investigation would take several months.
It was the second deadliest Canyon-related tour accident since 1995. That year, eight people died in a plane crash near Grand Canyon National Park Airport.
There have been a few other incidents since, including six killed in 2001 at Grand Wash Cliffs, but helicopters are no more likely to crash at Grand Canyon than anywhere else, statistics show.
Copter crashes near Grand Canyon receive more press because of the location. Also, accidents may seen to be more frequent but there is a much higher volume of flights in and around the Canyon when compared to other places.