ATLANTA — Atlanta’s three police helicopters remained grounded indefinitely Monday, two days after a chopper crash in west Atlanta killed two officers.
Eleven years ago, city officials said a Vietnam War-era Hughes OH-6 chopper had “outlived its useful life.” That was the one the officers were flying Saturday night as they helped ground crews search for a missing 9 year-old boy. The mission ended in a fiery crash.
It could take months to determine whether it was caused by a mechanical failure or pilot error or if there were other contributing factors.
The city’s failure to retire the 45-year old OH-6 as it was asked to do raises questions about how such an an old helicopter remained fit for duty.
According to Atlanta City Council records from September 2001, that helicopter was built in 1967 and used by the U.S. Army until it was donated to the Atlanta Police Department in 1996 to assist with the Olympic Games.
Atlanta’s pilots were comfortable in their machines, a somber Mayor Kasim Reed said at a Monday news conference, flanked by two dozen police officers and elected officials. He said the city had invested the cash to keep them airworthy.
“We spent a substantial amount of money refurbishing those helicopters,” Reed said. “No resources, that we’re aware of, were denied. We listened to the people in our department. They felt that by spending additional dollars we could keep these aircraft flying.”
The Hughes was completely refurbished in 2004/2005, the city says.
The police department’s three remaining helicopters are 38, 34 and 10 years old. Like the downed Hughes aircraft, all are on 100-hour schedules of routine maintenance and also scheduled to get annual maintenance service.
The city spends between $250,000 and $300,000 on maintenance for its helicopters, which fly about 500 hours a year to look for missing persons and stolen cars or to assist in other cases. The police department uses a Hiram company called Rotor Resources for aircraft maintenance.
“We listened to our pilots,” Reed said. “I want to be very clear that we have been very responsive.”
In 2001, the APD requested $2.8 million from the City Council to replace at least two of the department’s helicopters, the Hughes OH-6 that crashed Saturday night and a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter, because both had “outlived their useful lives of 25 years.”
The council approved $1.3 million to purchase one new helicopter, but kept two including the OH-6.
“We had been given the choppers around the Olympics with the understanding that they needed to be worked on because they were older,” said Michael Julian Bond, who was in his first stint on the council at that time.
Bond, who voted for the allocation before he left office in 2001, said the assumption at the time was that the rest of the money would be allocated during the 2002 budget season.
“The paper was passed to put half of the money in place with the idea to add the rest during the next budget cycle,” Bond said. “There may not have been enough money at the time. ”
C.T. Martin, who was also on the council at the time and survived the 2001 election, said he doesn’t know why another request was never made. In 2001, Shirley Franklin was elected mayor after Bill Campbell reached his term limit. Shortly after Franklin’s election, she hired Richard Pennington as police chief, replacing Beverly Harvard.
“I think it just got lost between administrations,” Martin said. “It just never came up.”
Officers Richard J. Halford, 48, and Shawn A. Smiley, 40, were using the Hughes helicopter to search for a missing 9-year-old boy Saturday night when they crashed near Martin Luther King Jr. and Hamilton E. Holmes drives.
Two hours after the crash, the boy was found safe about two miles away.
Halford was the department’s most experienced pilot, a 16-year APD veteran with more than 3,000 flight hours logged. He routinely requested the evening watch, and was proficient at flying at night, police commanders said Monday. Halford was a pilot for APD and Smiley was a tactical flight officer, commonly known as a spotter.
Smiley, who came to APD with a commercial pilot’s license, was considered a rising star in the air unit, which has three pilots in command and four tactical flight officers.
Officer Halford’s funeral will be 11 a.m. Friday at Jackson Memorial Baptist Church on Fairburn Road in Atlanta; Smiley’s will be 11 a.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church of Atlanta on North Peachtree Road.
Memorial funds have also been set up to help their families. Donations are accepted at any Wells Fargo bank location for the Officer Richard Halford Memorial Fund and/or the Officer Shawn Smiley Memorial Fund.
The type mission they were on when they died, assisting in missing-persons cases, is standard practice for APD pilots, said Dep. Police Chief Renee Propes.
Each APD pilot attends formal in-house training four times a year.
City officials said they did not know whether the officers were using night-vision goggles. The helicopter was not equipped with data boxes or video recording systems, which might have yielded details about the crash.
“We forget how dangerous (helicopter flying) is under the best of circumstances,” said Bond, chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee.
It is not clear how long the flying moratorium will last. Reed said he would rely on the advice of the police command staff. In the meantime, DeKalb County and the Georgia State Patrol have offered to assist in emergencies, Reed said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. A preliminary report is expected to be issued within ten business days, said spokesman Eric Weiss.
Reed said he did not plan to authorize the city’s own investigation, preferring to leave matters to the federal agency. He said a full federal investigation could take up to a year.
Jerry Kidrick, chairman of the flight department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Ariz., campus, said a 45-year-old helicopter like the Hughes is “pretty old.”
Kidrick said the main reason helicopters and other aircraft are normally retired before reaching that age “is the technology changes.”
“What happens is, over time, you try to upgrade aircraft to new technology, new avionics, new types of systems, and eventually, that becomes a waste of time,” said Kidrick, a retired Army colonel and aviator who recently returned from serving in Iraq.
“You upgrade to a newer helicopter where those are standard,” he said. But “a lot of police departments don’t have a lot of money to do that with.”