Ken Carlson

Sheriff’s helicopter crew didn’t ‘top off the tank’ prior to accident

The Stanislaus County sheriff’s helicopter takes part in a search-and-rescue mission at Modesto Reservoir.
The Stanislaus County sheriff’s helicopter takes part in a search-and-rescue mission at Modesto Reservoir.

The July 30 accident that put a Stanislaus County search-and-rescue helicopter out of service occurred on a busy weekend for search teams in the Sierra region.

More details of the hard landing at Modesto Airport came to light recently in a National Transportation Safety Board report, which concluded the Sheriff’s Department’s Bell 206 Long Ranger helicopter ran out of fuel.

The impact with the ground caused $400,000 in damage to the aircraft. With repairs, the aircraft should return to service in six months.

The sheriff’s helicopter first assisted with a July 29 search for a 71-year-old woman around Spicer Lake in Alpine County. Search teams from at least eight counties and the state Office of Emergency Services were involved in the unsuccessful search operation.

As the helicopter returned to its home base at Modesto Airport, a hiker called 911 around midnight to report he was lost in Red Hills Recreation Area, between Chinese Camp and Don Pedro Reservoir in western Tuolumne County. A dispatcher was getting information from the hiker when his phone died.

The helicopter returned to Modesto Airport, where it refueled, and departed for Tuolumne County at 2:15 a.m. with the same pilot behind the controls. An early morning calculation to leave with 74 gallons in the fuel tanks most likely led to the accident.

The Tuolumne County search team, assisted by the two-man Air Support crew with night-vision goggles, found the lost hiker. Stanislaus County sheriff’s Sgt. Robert Latapie, who was flying the helicopter, told an NTSB investigator he spent an hour and a half hovering over the site, waiting for the ground search to reach the hiker.

It was past 4:30 a.m. when the returning helicopter was over the Modesto Airport hangars and banked right to begin landing. The jet engine lost power and the aircraft landed hard on the ground, damaging the tail boom, landing skids, main rotor and tail rotor system.

Latapie and a fellow crew member, Deputy Manuel Garcia, were not injured, officials said.

Latapie told the NTSB the “low fuel” light came on during the return flight, and no mechanical failures preceded the accident. According to the report for the July 30 accident, the pilot had logged eight hours of flight time in the past 24 hours.

The aircraft left on the second mission with plenty of room in the fuel tanks, but an aviation crew does not “top off the tank,” as is done by highway motorists, Sheriff Adam Christianson explained. The amount of onboard fuel is based on factors such as mission altitude, projected flight time and the weight the aircraft can safely carry, he said.

The “low fuel” light might not have come as a complete surprise when the mission exceeded the two-hour mark. The Bell 206’s jet engine is said to consume about 35 gallons per hour.

Latapie, who retired in October after 21 years with the Sheriff’s Office, has not returned messages to comment on the accident. A family member suggested the 48-year-old pilot made a decision to continue flying with low fuel because smaller airports in the area were closed.

“He made the search-and-rescue team what it is today,” his mother said. “I don’t think he is getting the recognition he deserves. He received many commendations and awards.”

The county has insurance to cover repairs to the helicopter.

My guess is that search-and-rescue operations will increase, rather than decline, in a state with almost 40 million residents. Beside serving as a playground for California residents, the Sierra’s outdoor destinations draw people from all over the world.

The rivers and reservoirs in Stanislaus County, and out-of-county water resources owned by local irrigation districts, create demand for a search-and-rescue capability. The sheriff’s Air Support Unit is a resource shared with neighboring counties such as Tuolumne, with requests for mutual aid coming through the Office of Emergency Services.

The Stanislaus Sheriff’s Department has a second helicopter that’s usually deployed to assist police officers on the ground. The next closest rescue helicopters are dispatched from Fresno or Sacramento, Christianson said.

According to Tuolumne County’s search-and-rescue Facebook page, the hiker rescued in Red Hills said he traveled from Los Angeles to attend a DJ party. For whatever reason, he decided to first take a hike.

The 71-year-old woman who walked away from a campsite in Alpine County was described as an avid hiker from the Half Moon Bay area. Two months earlier, the same woman reportedly became lost in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Tuolumne County’s rescue team also responded to an incident near Pinecrest on July 30.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16