An investigation concluded that a Stanislaus County sheriff’s helicopter ran out of fuel before the pilot made a hard landing at Modesto Airport in July, causing substantial damage to a workhorse of the sheriff’s Air Support Unit.
The July 30 accident was attributed to pilot error and a low fuel level in the Bell 206 helicopter, according to the accident report of the National Transportation Safety Board. The federal agency, which determines the causes of civil aviation accidents, investigated the Modesto incident.
The sheriff’s helicopter sustained $400,000 in damage and has been out of service for the past four months. The hard landing damaged the tail boom, skids, main rotor and tail rotor system, Sheriff Adam Christianson said. The aircraft is being repaired. The two crew members in the helicopter were not injured.
The pilot, Sgt. Robert Latapie, 48, took an early retirement Oct. 29 after 21 years with the Sheriff’s Department. Christianson said that running out of fuel is considered pilot error, but he would not discuss if any disciplinary action was taken. He said Latapie’s previous service record was exemplary.
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“It’s inappropriate for me to discuss personnel issues,” the sheriff wrote in an email. Latapie did not return a phone message left with a family member.
According to the NTSB’s final report, the helicopter was heading back to Modesto Airport, following a mission in Tuolumne County, when the “low fuel” light came on in the cockpit, a signal that about 10 minutes of fuel remained.
As the helicopter approached the airport to land, the pilot made a right turn and the engine lost power. The pilot performed an emergency maneuver called an “autorotation,” causing the aircraft to land hard on the ground, the NTSB report says. Along with the damage to the tail boom and landing skids, serious damage was caused when the helicopter’s main rotor made contact with the tail boom, the report indicates.
The investigation concluded that Latapie failed to maintain pitch control during the emergency maneuver. The low fuel level, which resulted in “loss of engine power,” was a factor in the accident, the NTSB said.
Kathryn Benhoff, air safety investigator for the NTSB, said the agency sometimes issues safety recommendations to prevent future accidents. No safety recommendations were issued for the Modesto incident.
“It’s the pilot’s responsibility to monitor the fuel level, and if it gets low, to refuel,” Benhoff said. “Sometimes running out of fuel can’t be avoided.”
According to the Sheriff’s Department, the helicopter was returning from a search-and-rescue mission in Tuolumne County. The Air Support Unit crew assisted with finding a lost hiker in the Red Hills area and transported the man and search team members back to their vehicles, Christianson said.
The helicopter had been involved with an unsuccessful search for a 71-year-old woman in Alpine County and refueled in Modesto before responding for the Tuolumne County search, Christianson stated.
Stanislaus County has $841,500 of insurance coverage on the Bell helicopter. Assistant County Executive Officer Jody Hayes said it was premature to know if repairs to the aircraft would have a fiscal impact on the county.
The damaged Long Ranger aircraft is the larger of two helicopters in the sheriff’s Air Support Unit. Its jet engine was upgraded 10 years ago for search-and-rescue missions, in which a deputy is lowered on a line to pluck a person from a mountainside or reservoir. The second helicopter is smaller and mostly used as air support for officers on the ground.
The sheriff said the Air Support Unit is a regional asset that assists other counties.
Christianson said it is cost-effective to repair the Long Ranger. “Repairing the aircraft in essence gives us a ‘brand new’ helicopter with zero time on dynamic components such as the airframe, transmission and rotor system,” the sheriff wrote. He said the engine was not damaged by the accident.
Latapie had more than 6,500 hours of flight time with Sheriff’s Department aircraft, including 3,700 hours in the helicopter. The sergeant, who retired with a $70,600 annual pension, has not been replaced, leaving the Air Support Unit with four pilots.
Before joining the Sheriff’s Department, Latapie had military experience flying helicopters.
Latapie and Modesto police Officer Jerry Ramar were commended for a June 2008 response, in which Ramar dropped from a sheriff’s helicopter to the ground and fatally shot a Turlock man who was kicking his 2-year-old son on a country road. The boy was later pronounced dead at Emanuel Medical Center.
According to Christianson, the costly accident in July was the first in the history of the sheriff’s Air Support Unit. Its safety record has received recognition from the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321