Pilot of Hagerstown-based helicopter that crashed heralded for 'miracle' landing

Staff and wire reports
The Herald-Mail

A 2-month-old girl and three crew members escaped life-threatening injuries after a medical helicopter, originating from Hagerstown Regional Airport, crashed outside of Philadelphia on Tuesday afternoon.

The baby was taken to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia by ambulance and was in stable condition, according to a report by the Associated Press and hospital officials.

The three others on board included the pilot, a nurse and a medic. The identities of those involved have not been released.

The helicopter is operated by private air medical service Air Methods. Doug Flanders, Air Methods vice president of communications, released a statement Tuesday.

"Privacy rights with regards to those on board the aircraft will be honored, and we will not be sharing any additional information,” he said in an email.

Air Methods executives, through a spokesman, declined further comment Wednesday.

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The pilot, who sustained more serious injuries, was transported to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, where he also was in stable condition. The nurse and medic did not require medical attention.

Timothy Bernhardt, police superintendent of Upper Darby Township, called the pilot's landing a "miracle" at a news conference.

This still image from WPVI-TV/6ABC shows a helicopter that crashed in Upper Darby, Pa,, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.  Authorities say the medical helicopter crashed in a residential area of suburban Philadelphia.  [WPVI-TV/6ABC via AP]

How did the helicopter crash happen?

Life Net 81, a Eurocopter EC135, departed from Hagerstown at 10:29 a.m. according to FlightAware.com. It landed in Chambersburg, Pa., about 8 minutes later.

The juvenile patient was being flown from Chambersburg Hospital, which is operated by York, Pa.-based WellSpan Health, to a hospital in Philadelphia, taking off from Franklin County at 12:05 p.m.

About 45 minutes later, the aircraft began experiencing issues while flying over U.S. 1 in Delaware County, Bernhardt said.

The pilot searched for a place to land, gliding lower and lower overhead for about a mile, before plummeting, Tim Boyce, director of Delaware County's Department of Emergency Services, told the Associated Press.

The helicopter fell and "slammed violently" into the street at Bloomfield Avenue and Burmont Road, then skidded into the side of Drexel Hill United Methodist Church, Boyce said.

No bystanders were injured, nor did the church receive any structural damage.

Firefighters from Upper Darby, Pa, stand near a medical helicopter that crashed next to a church in a residential area of suburban Philadelphia, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, with four people on board including an infant. All are expected to survive, authorities said. [AP Photo/Claudia Lauer]

"We have no information on how the crash occurred, but I will tell you that (the pilot) did a great job of landing that helicopter without taking any telephone poles down, damaging any structures, and again no loss of life," Derrick Sawyer, chief of Upper Darby Township Fire Department, said. 

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash, an FAA spokesperson said.

Firefighters gather at the scene after a medical helicopter crashed in the Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby Township in Delaware County, Pa., on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.

Flanders, the Air Methods vice president, said in his statement Tuesday the company would work with investigators.

"Our team will cooperate fully with their efforts to assess the cause of this unfortunate accident," he said.

Mike Barnhart, manager of Rider Jet Center, which services private aircraft at the Hagerstown airport, said on Tuesday the helicopter was the only medevac operating from the center. He did not have other details, such as the name of the pilot.

Barnhart could not be immediately reached Wednesday for further comment.

What was it like on the ground in Upper Darby?

Jerrell Saunders said he heard the sounds of trouble in the air before he actually saw the helicopter. As he walked to his car in the parking lot of the Drexel Hill apartment complex where he works, Saunders eyed the sputtering chopper flying lower and lower overhead.

"It was really low but it was flying," he said. "In my head I'm thinking, 'Oh, this jawn really about to crash.'"

Then, as Saunders, 28, drove along Burmont Road toward the hardware store, he and other drivers stopped in shock, watching as the copter careened to the ground.

"It bounced and then it started screeching," Saunders said.

There were two loud bangs on the way down, he recalled — one when the smoking helicopter hit the ground, and another when it landed near the church. He was scared for the passengers, but felt reassured when he saw them climb out of the helicopter.

"That was one of the craziest things I've ever seen in my life," he said.

Herald-Mail reporter Michael D. Garcia and the Associated Press contributed to this story.