Witnesses Reported Seeing Smoke From Life Flight Helicopter Before Fatal Crash

A preliminary NTSB report was released Tuesday on a fatal Duke Life Flight helicopter crash on Sept. 8th. The report said several witnesses saw smoke coming from the helicopter moments before it crashed in a remote field near Herford, NC killing all four on board. ABC 11 Photo

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report on Tuesday into the cause of a fatal Duke Life Flight helicopter crash on September 8th near Hertford in Perquimans County.  The crash killed the pilot, two flight nurses and a patient. The helicopter was based out of Johnston Regional Airport in Smithfield.

The helicopter flew from Johnston Regional Airport to Elizabeth City Regional Airport arriving at 9:24am to refuel. The helicopter was loaded with 70 gallons of fuel.  The crew then flew to the Sentara Albemarle Regional Medical Center Heliport.  At 11:08am the crew radioed their operations center they were departing the hospital and were headed to Duke Medical Center in Durham.  There were no further radio communications with the crew on board.

The helicopter crashed in a field about 11:40am killing everyone on board including the pilot Jeff Burke, flight nurses Kris Harrison and Crystal Sollinger and the patient Mary Bartlett..

Preliminary data transmitted from the helicopter showed that it departed from the hospital to the northwest and climbed to about 1,000 feet before turning west. The helicopter climbed to about 2,500 feet and continued on a westerly track at a groundspeed of about 120 knots. About 8 minutes after takeoff, the helicopter began a turn toward the south. About 1 minute later, the transmitted data ended at an altitude of about 1,200 feet and a groundspeed of 75 knots, while the helicopter was on a southeasterly track.


The NTSB report revealed that several witnesses reported observing smoke trailing behind the helicopter while it was in flight. The smoke was described by some witnesses as “heavy” or “dark”, while others reported the color as “black”, “dark blue” or “blue.” One witness reported that the helicopter was “hovering” and “not travelling forward” while it was a “couple of hundred feet” above the wind turbine farm. Another witness reported hearing a “popping noise,” and then observed the helicopter turn left, then right. It then descended quickly and appeared “in control” with the rotors turning before he lost sight of it.

The helicopter impacted a field near a wind turbine farm.

The NTSB said all major components of the helicopter were present at the accident site. The cabin had collapsed downward and was partially consumed by a post-crash fire.  The helicopter was equipped with an on-board audio and video recording system. The unit was damaged, however the memory device remained intact. The unit was sent to the NTSB laboratory for examination.

The report highlight damaged to the number 2 engine rear turbine shaft.  “The No. 2 engine rear turbine shaft bearing exhibited discoloration consistent with overheating and lack of lubrication. The bearing roller pins were worn down to the surface of the bearing race. The end of the turbine shaft aft of the nut exhibited rotational nonuniform damage.”

According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) records the Life Flight helicopter was manufactured in 2011 and had undergone a 30-hour engine inspection on August 15, 2017. At that time, the helicopter and both engines had accrued 2,673 total hours of operation. Several additional inspections were completed during scheduled maintenance on September 1, 2017. At that time, the helicopter had accrued 2,710 total hours of operation. An airworthiness check was reportedly performed by a mechanic on the helicopter daily.

The NTSB took possession of the helicopter for further examination. It could take a year before the cause of the crash is determined.