ROWLETT, Texas — Graphic warning: This article may contain images that are disturbing.
Two people have died, including the pilot, after a helicopter crashed and caught fire in Rowlett on Friday morning, officials said.
The crash happened near the 2200 block of Lakeview Parkway, near Dexham Road, in an open lot surrounded by businesses. Rowlett is just east of Garland in northeast Dallas County.
Initially, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said the pilot was the only person onboard the aircraft. On Friday afternoon, Rowlett police tweeted that a second person was confirmed dead. The FAA later clarified that two people were on board the helicopter.
The FAA said the crash happened around 11:30 a.m. and involved a Robinson R44 helicopter. The FAA and the NTSB will investigate the crash, with the NTSB taking the lead.
In an update on Saturday, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the two people killed were a student pilot and a flight instructor. The NTSB said the two were on a training flight. The pilot and passenger who died have not been identified at this time. Rowlett PD told WFAA Saturday both victims were at the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office for autopsy and identification.
The NTSB said Saturday that the investigation would take another day or two and would go back if the agency has any follow up examinations to do on the wreckage. NTSB officials said Saturday they were trying to collect all the pieces that could be on the rooftops.
Sky Helicopters, a North Texas-based helicopter company that provides various services, confirmed it was their helicopter involved in the crash. WFAA contracts with Sky to provide aerial coverage of news events across North Texas. Our thoughts are with their organization.
Footage from the scene showed a badly damaged and burned helicopter. Responding crews had placed a tent around one side of the helicopter, which had crashed in an open field near surrounding businesses.
A witness, Joseph Kasper, told WFAA that he was working at a nearby mechanic shop when the helicopter crashed about 40 feet away.
Kasper said he saw the helicopter hovering, and then the tail rotor appeared to break in mid-air. The helicopter kept hovering, then went straight down and caught fire.
Kasper and other witnesses tried to put out the fire but couldn't. Firefighters then arrived and put the fire out.
Another witness, Fabio Sanches Jelezoglo, said he also saw the tail come off of the helicopter.
"I saw the helicopter coming down," Jelezoglo told WFAA. "I heard a noise and when I looked up the helicopter was coming down and the tail was off."
A photo from the scene, shared with WFAA, showed the helicopter burning in the empty lot after it crashed.
The helicopter that crashed is a Robinson R44 and it has a dubious reputation.
According to Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, a law firm based in Los Angeles, there have been more than 1,600 accidents or incidents involving Robinson Helicopter aircraft, more than 425 of them fatal accidents resulting in more than 700 deaths worldwide.
An LA Times analysis of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports in 2018 found that "R44s were involved in 42 fatal crashes in the U.S. from 2006 to 2016, more than any other civilian helicopter."
Per the LA Times, "that translates to 1.6 deadly accidents per 100,000 hours flown — a rate nearly 50% higher than any other of the dozen most common civilian models whose flight hours are tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration."
Robinson Helicopter Co., which is based in California, "disputed The Times’ analysis, contending that the FAA undercounts the flight hours for the R44, leading to an inflated accident rate. The company vigorously defended its record, maintaining that its aircraft are safe and reliable when flown within their operating limits."
Attorneys Jon Kettles and Mike Lyons are based in Dallas and have represented several families involved in R44 crashes.
Kettles, a former military helicopter pilot of 8 years, told WFAA that the main rotor for the helicopter teeters back and forth and that the main rotor blade can flex down too far and hit the tail if a pilot doesn't know how to maneuver the aircraft.
"There's a special FAA regulation for training to fly this model aircraft based on a long history of the stability of the aircraft in certain flight modes," Kettles said. "I don't think it's ever a good sign when there's a regulation specifically requiring more training in this model helicopter."
Kettles added that if something goes wrong mid-air, a pilot must know what they're doing.
"If you're at high altitude and at low airspeed--it's less stable. Your timing has to be perfect if something goes wrong in order to survive," Kettles said.
Kettles believes the main rotor hit the tail of the aircraft after watching an eyewitness video of the helicopter falling from the sky.
In the video--you see the tail rotor falling from the sky separate from the fuselage. The main rotor can then be seen hitting the cone of the tail.
"This is the most likely scenario," Kettles said. "Radar data shows the aircraft doing a lot of maneuvers and getting very slow at several points."
"The question now is what caused the main rotor blades to flex down that far?"
Lyons said it's too early to determine if the crash was caused by pilot error or product failure.
"The conditions that this horrible crash occurred in would tell me that it tends to gravitate more towards a product issue versus pilot error," Lyons said.
"There were very favorable conditions Friday, Clear skies and no high winds."
Lyons said the NTSB will ultimately determine what the issue was.
"They will figure out precisely what happened--and I hope that they take swift action if it is, in fact, something related to the design or some type of product failure," Lyons said.