On August 12, 2017, at about 1649 EDT, a Bell 407 helicopter, N31VA, crashed and was destroyed in an accident in Charlottesville, VA. The airline transport-rated pilot and the private pilot observer, both Virginia State Troopers, were fatally injured.

Virginia State Police Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates, left, of Quinton, Va., and Lt. H. Jay Cullen, of Midlothian, Va. (Virginia State Police via AP)

After reviewing the preliminary report released just several weeks later by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSP), experienced Bell 407 helicopter pilots agreed that the NTSB got it so wrong and independently published comments on how wrong the NTSB was. [Read Comments]

“The only reason that a helicopter stops flying from a nice straight-and-level altitude and course is if something goes wrong mechanically,” said Robert Hadow, a 20-year certified flight instructor based out of NJ who has 5,000 hours of fixed-wing pilot experience.

In 2019, Lt. Cullen and Trooper Bates’ widows filed suit against the manufacturer, Bell Helicopter Textron. 

The plaintiffs’ experts, some of the most qualified accident reconstructionists in the world, have since issued scathing reports showing how the NTSB performed a sloppy investigation and ignored obvious and critical evidence. These reports are linked below.

Accident Reconstructionists Reports:

Based on these reports, the NTSB:

  • ignored eyewitness statements,
  • ignored the significance of the severed tail rotor drive shaft,
  • ignored the metallurgical evidence that the pedal limiter was in the engaged position when it should have been disengaged,
  • ignored the fact that the emergency pedal limiter disengagement lever could not be pulled due to left pedal pressure being applied by the pilot,
  • ignored that the pilot was a Certified Flight Instructor who taught vortex ring state, 
  • never did a flight test which would have shown that the Model 407 is almost immune from vortex ring state and recovers in 100 feet of altitude loss, 
  • ignored the fact that the tail rotor, as well as the main rotors, struck the tail boom,
  • ignored that the helicopter was originally certified without a pedal limiter and keeps crashing even with it installed

They also ignored the hundreds of service difficulty reports that showed flaws in the rotor blades and ignored the fact that the rotor blades on the accident helicopter were replaced repeatedly.

The NTSB ignored the fact that Bell Helicopter was responsible for recertifying all Virginia State Police Pilots and did not demonstrate vortex ring state for years before the accident, and then the NTSB never interviewed any of the pilot’s helicopter students to see how frequently he taught and demonstrated vortex ring state. 

It also ignored the fact that on the morning of the day of the crash, Trooper Bates commented on the helicopter’s anomalous behavior, which the pilot thought to be vortex ring state when it was a rotor system out of track.

No flight tests, student witness interviews, no reconstruction that wasn’t by Bell, no realistic metallurgical analysis, and no tests of exemplar parts; in short shoddy, incomplete investigation not in accordance with the NTSB’s procedures.

~ Arthur Alan Wolk