Investigators: Copter Blade Struck Heinz Plane’s Right Wing
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A helicopter rotor struck the right wing of U.S. Sen. John Heinz’s airplane moments before the collision that resulted in seven deaths, according to preliminary investigation results.
Strike marks from the rotor were found on the Piper Aerostar PA60′s right propeller and wing, Susan M. Coughlin, National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman, said Friday night at a Philadelphia hotel.
A 9 1/2 -foot section of the wing’s leading edge was found about a block from most of the wreckage, she said. One of the Bell 412 helicopter’s four rotor blades was found in a nearby yard.
The right wing’s landing gear also was found apart from the main wreckage, which burned on impact Thursday near Merion Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia, Ms. Coughlin said.
Heinz, his two pilots and the two helicopter pilots were killed. Two children on the school playground were killed by falling debris from the fiery crash.
Heinz, 52, a Pennsylvania Republican, was the heir to the Heinz food empire. Funeral services were to be held Wednesday in Pittsburgh, with a memorial service also scheduled Friday at the National Cathedral in Washington. Investigators today intend to interview the air traffic controller who talked to pilots of both aircraft as the helicopter tried to check the plane’s landing gear, Ms. Coughlin said.
The cause of the crash is unlikely to be determined for several months, officials said.
Officials have said the plane’s pilots had asked the helicopter’s pilots to check on their landing gear after a light in their cockpit indicated it had not properly locked into place.
Witnesses have said both aircraft were flying low, in close proximity and on a level flight path, with the helicopter slightly lower than the plane before the collision, Ms. Coughlin said.
Nothing unusual had been detected about either craft’s flight before the plane’s cockpit light failed to confirm its nose landing gear had locked into place as it approached Philadelphia International Airport.
The landing gear lockdown switch had been recovered and would be analyzed in Washington, she said. The instrument light panel was destroyed by fire.
Voice tapes were retrieved from the helicopter and have been sent to Washington for analysis, Ms. Coughlin said.
The airport tower’s tape recordings also have been preserved but not yet turned over to the NTSB, Ms. Coughlin said.
No transcripts have been made public from either set of recordings.
The plane had no cockpit flight recorder and was not required to have one, said Tom Haueter, an NTSB investigator.