4 dead after Lake County helicopter crash

All four people aboard a Black Hawk helicopter that crashed Tuesday in Lake County, Florida are now confirmed to be dead.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating.

The 1981 modified military aircraft took off for its last flight Tuesday around 5:12 p.m. from Leesburg International Airport. According to FlightAware, an aviation intelligence agency, the helicopter was in the air for around 35 minutes before the helicopter lost signal to the tower.

In FlightAware’s live tracking map, the helicopter, tail number N9FH, circled around the conservation area behind the airport and Lake Harris.

RELATED: Embry-Riddle professor offers analysis on Lake County helicopter crash

People living behind the airport tell FOX 35 News the heavy-duty helicopters are often flying and practicing nearby their homes, just like the crew was doing Tuesday afternoon.

"Over the house and back around and they make ya know practice landings and approaches all the time," Rick Collier, a Leesburg resident said.

Just a block away, neighbors said this flight was different. 

Retired Army Veteran, Gordon Roglin, said he’s never seen a helicopter with its tail at such an angle.

"I don’t know what they were doing. They had a big tube or a cable something hanging down 20-30 feet below it."

Roglin said standing outside on the sidewalk. 

"It was over the conservation pond but it was hanging tail down and I mean way down like a 45-degree angle," he said, demonstrating the dramatic angle with his palm flat and pointing downward.

Former Black Hawk pilot Philip "Chip" Washington said this had to be a catastrophic failure.  Washington, who flew the same type of helicopters for the past 51 years, also helped design, modify and test the Fire Hawk aircraft, which is transformed for civilian use during firefighting and medical use.

"If people were dying on it, something really catastrophic happened." 

Washington called the helicopters "crushable." Washington explained that the military aircraft are built so tough, the landing gear can take a downward impact force of up to 20Gs. Black Hawks, or Fire Hawks, are also made to resist fire, using a ballon-type bladder fuselage that rarely breaks.

"Black Hawks do not normally catch fire when they crash," Washington added.

In this case, this helicopter did. Preliminary reports by the Federal Aviation Administration reveal that the aircraft lost control of the bucket causing the rotor section to separate. Moments later, it crashed in a wooded area and caught fire.

A former Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor tells FOX 35 News that the cables attaching the water bucket to the helicopter may have snapped.

"If, for some reason, one of those breaks, the one carrying the heavy load of the bucket, on occasion those have snapped back up into the rotor system. So potentially, the wires may have come back up, hit the tail rotor, and caused that sequence," said Jerry Kidrick, who is also a certified flight accident investigator. "The NTSB is looking for any signs that would indicate what would happen, they're taking witness statements, looking at components, going piece-by-piece through that helicopter to see if there's some kind of smoking gun to indicate what might have happened to cause this accident." 

FOX 35 News discovered the aircraft is registered to Brainerd Helicopters Inc./Firehawk Helicopters, which is operated is a company owned by a Florida family. Reporters reached out to the helicopter’s parent company but the administration said they are not commenting on the accident.

Online, the company describes its business as innovative. Brainerd Helicopters Inc. claims to be the first commercial company to obtain and operate the Sikorsky Black Hawk, modifying the military aircraft into what is known as a Firehawk, which today is widely used for fighting wildfires across the country.

"Those guys are trying to do a real hard job they have to fight a lot of forest fires so they have to do a lot of dangerous work," Collier said, looking out over the thick line of woods separating him from the marsh where the helicopter crashed.

N9FH’s flight abruptly ended at 5:47 p.m. on Tuesday according to FlightAware’s mapping technology, showing the end of the flight path southeast of the conservation between the pond and Lake Harris. Records show the altitude shot up 100 feet and the speed plummeted as it crashed.  Air Traffic Control records show the conversation with the pilot who was calm and collected the entire flight before the line dropped to static, without warning. 

A pilot and Black Hawk expert, Washington, said the occupants were most likely Firehawk employees, contracted to get ready for this year’s fire season. 

The NTSB is not releasing the names of the four victims at this time. 

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