Home News First Houston PD helicopter crash in 50 years caught on video

First Houston PD helicopter crash in 50 years caught on video

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St. John Barned-Smith

Houston Chronicle

The Houston Police Department’s air support division — one of the oldest and largest units of its type in the nation — will be temporarily grounded as it recovers from the first fatality in its history, Chief Art Acevedo said.

Tactical Flight Officer Jason Knox’s death Saturday marks the first in the history of the department’s Marine and Air Division, which was established in 1970 and prides itself on its safety record.

“It’s never happened before,” said Ray Hunt, former president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

At one point, the 50-year-old division had 16 helicopters and one fixed wing aircraft in its fleet, making it one of the largest such units of any municipal police department in the U.S. It now fields 11 aircraft: six patrol helicopters, three for training, one for search and rescue, and one airplane.

“Their operations are an extremely valuable tool that we need to keep this community safe,” Acevedo said Saturday. “Especially one so sprawled out.”

Helicopter fatalities are extremely rare.

There were 122 accidents involving helicopters in 2019, with 24 fatal accidents and 51 fatalities, according to the United States Helicopter Safety Team, a national organization that tracks such statistics. This year, there have been 19 helicopter crashes across the country, three of which were fatal and claimed 13 lives, according to the organization’s data — though its not clear if that included Saturday’s crash in Houston.

At a news conference detailing Knox’s death and pilot Chase Cormier’s condition, Acevedo said he would be temporarily grounding the fleet to process the recent events.

“We’re going to stand them down for a little bit just to get everybody’s emotions together,” he said. Officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office have offered to step in to patrol by air during that time, he said.

“There is a great tactical advantage to the aerial perspective, whether the tactical advantage is from a fixed wing platform, at a higher advantage, moving a little faster, or a helicopter that can slow down, or even stop and over and give you that aerial perspective,” said Daniel Schwarzbach, who spent 38 years at the Houston Police Department, including 30 years in the air support division. He now serves as executive director of the Airborne Public Safety Association.

While this is HPD’s first fatal crash, a minor crash just happened in 2019 — raising concerns for Schwarzbach.

“Having two crashes like that is not normal within the same agency in that short amount of time,” he said. “There’s something going on that needs to be looked at.”

Acevedo’s predecessor, Charles McClelland, said that during his tenure with the department, helicopter pilots repeatedly proved their value.

“Those pilots out there are incredibly skilled pilots, incredibly skilled,” McClelland said. “Helicopters are expensive to maintain and operate. But when you need one, you need one. They’ve assisted in capturing hundreds and hundreds of suspects and saved officers’ lives.”

HPD’s helicopter division has experienced just a few crashes over the last 25 years, according to data from the National Transportation and Safety Board and other records.

One came in 1996, during a training flight, when the department’s helicopter suffered a hard landing. The chopper was traveling about 20  when it pitched forward and to the right. The flight instructor “felt at least three severe impacts to the aircraft and then the aircraft was stopped,” the records show.

An inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration found a mechanic failed to follow proper inspection procedures and that the bottom of the right aircraft’s right skid tube was “worn beyond the manufacturers tolerances.”

In other cases, officers have faced serious dangers and hair-raising situations, according to records. Chopper engines have failed or come under fire from criminal suspects. And at least 10 times in the last decade, HPD’s helicopter pilots have had to land after running low on fuel, or experienced other mechanical mishaps, according to internal police records, disciplinary paperwork and news reports.

A 2009 Houston Chronicle article detailed one officer’s emergency landing after his chopper’s engine failed. The officer was flying 600 feet above ground level and made an emergency landing in a Midtown parking lot. The pilot performed a maneuver called an autorotation landing, to make a safe landing in an empty lot in the 2800 block of Brazos near Dennis, saving his life and that of two passengers.

One helicopter ran low on fuel and had to land at a police station in southwest Houston in 2010, records show. That same month, an internal review at the air support division noted that on another flight, a helicopter experienced a “loss of tail rotor effectiveness” and plunged about 200 feet.

Records credited the officer for responding and recovering the aircraft without damage to the chopper or injury to its passengers but noted it was flown on at least one patrol flight after that without being inspected.

“Numerous days passed without the submission of the required incident report, which delayed the inspection and diagnoses of the ship,” supervisors wrote in their review.

In October of that same year, supervisors conducted another review, after a pilot ran low on fuel and made an emergency landing. Two similar incidents occurred the following year. In one, the pilot assisting officers chasing a suspect burned through too much fuel and had to land at Bush Intercontinental Airport to refuel before flying back to Hobby Airport. Then on Dec. 30, 2011, a pilot flew in worsening weather and had to land at the Houston municipal courts building after seeing that a wall of fog had enshrouded their regular landing spot at Hobby.

“The (pilot-in-charge)’s decision making and judgment to launch the flight put the aircrew in a situation that caused the offsite landing and may have been avoided,” supervisors noted.

In 2016, pilots who responded to a mass shooting in Memorial ended up getting shot at five times. An Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan experiencing a mental health crisis went on a shooting spree that killed one person and wounded several others. During the incident, the man fired 212 rounds and hit one of the police department’s copters five times.

In 2017, one pilot took two of his relatives on ride-alongs. During the second flight, he ran low on fuel and had to land in a parking lot. The officer received a five-day suspension and his supervisor received a nine-day suspension, records show.

The most significant recent crash came in July 2019, as Sgt. Stephen Howard and Knox — the flight officer — were preparing to land. Records with the NTSB show the pilot was just a few feet above the ground when the helicopter had a sudden uncontrollable yaw and bank to the right. The pilot felt the left skid hit the ground before the helicopter rolled on its right side. Both Howard and Knox were able to extricate themselves from the helicopter when it came to a rest.

Neither was seriously injured. The pilot, Howard, retired soon after.

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