Report Offers Details of Deadly 2021 Copter Crash

The National Transportation Safety Board published factual findings of their investigation into the Feb. 15, 2021 crash that killed four Virgin Islanders. (Photo courtesy NTSB)

A new report on the 2021 helicopter crash that killed four Virgin Islanders has more details about the incident near Botany Bay, St. Thomas, but stops short of determining the cause.

The National Transportation Safety Board published factual findings of their investigation into the Feb. 15, 2021, crash that killed pilot Maria Rodriguez and her passengers, Daniel Yannone, his wife Neisha Zahn, and their teen son Tyler Yannone, all well-known and beloved members of the St. Thomas community.

A final report explaining what likely caused the crash is expected in March or April, an NTSB official said.

The Jan. 4 report confirmed Rodriguez did not have intoxicating drugs or alcohol in her system when the helicopter went down. It also detailed the Bell 206B-III helicopter’s age and history, its maintenance records, and debris found at the crash site.

The report highlighted the flight path, meant to be a 17-minute sightseeing tour, as the helicopter flew over St. Thomas’ west end, to when it went down on a sunny day with light east winds of 12 knots.

Mobile phone video recorded by a witness as the helicopter flew near his house was also described in the report. Just after 3 p.m., a puff of dark-colored smoke came from the vicinity of the engine compartment, and the nose of the aircraft suddenly twisted left, then right before it descended into the steep, heavily wooded terrain, the report states.

The helicopter was visible in 14 seconds of the 24 second video, according to the report. The puff of smoke appeared 6.2 seconds into the video while the helicopter was moving at roughly 39 knots. It slowed to 30 knots for 2.5 seconds then began to rapidly fall, moving at 68 knots before disappearing behind tall vegetation. Investigators estimated it hit the ground landing skids first less than 2 seconds later.

The helicopter burst into flames upon impact in the steep, remote and heavily wooded area about 375 feet above sea level, according to the report.

It took a host of first responders — Emergency Medical Services, St. Thomas Rescue, V.I. Police, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, and the Port Authority Fire and Rescue Division — to cut through the bush with chainsaws to reach the site, and two days to recover all of the victims, Fire Director Daryl George reported at the time.

Investigators from the NTSB combed the crash site for two days then moved the debris to Cyril E. King Airport for further examination on Feb. 20, 2021.

The highly technical report lists in detail the condition of the 1981-built helicopter’s parts: its propulsion and rotor systems, compressors, cockpit controls, engine and fuel systems, and more.

From late February to May 2021, the Materials Engineering Department at Rolls-Royce examined the aircraft’s compressor section, power turbine shaft, and compressor turbine shaft in microscopic detail in Indianapolis. Rolls-Royce’s 111-page report noted two broken blades in the aircraft’s compressor rotor.

Two damaged stage three compressor blades examined by investigators. (Photo courtesy NTSB)

NTSB investigators found the impeller inducer, a part that sucks in air during flight, had likely been damaged by ingesting a hard object.