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NTSB investigating fatal tour helicopter crash near Lake Mead

Helicopter crash

Steve Marcus

Andrew Munoz, National Park Service public information officer, briefs reporters on a helicopter crash near Lake Mead on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Five people are confirmed dead in the crash, Munoz said.

Updated Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011 | 12:37 p.m.

Helicopter Crash Investigation

Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy, second from right, talks with Metro Police Search and Rescue officers after viewing a helicopter crash site near Lake Mead Thursday, December 8, 2011. Five people were killed when a tour helicopter crashed near the lake Wednesday. . Launch slideshow »

5 die in helicopter crash

KSNV coverage of the tour helicopter crash near Lake Mead that killed five people, Dec. 7, 2011.

Click to enlarge photo

A Eurocopter AS350, similar to the Sundance Helicopters aircraft that crashed Wednesday near Lake Mead, is shown taking off in front of a section of the Grand Canyon in this 2001 file photo. The helicopter pictured is from a different tour operator.

Approximate crash area

A 12-member special investigation team has responded to the tour helicopter crash site near Lake Mead, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The “Go Team” is a group of specialists sent from the NTSB’s headquarters staff in Washington, D.C., to investigate major crash scenes as quickly as possible.

The helicopter crashed into a mountainside between Lake Mead and Henderson about 5 p.m. Wednesday, killing the five people on board. Authorities called off recovery efforts about 7 p.m. Wednesday because of the danger of accessing the rugged terrain in the dark.

The helicopter, which was carrying the pilot and four passengers, was on a flight from McCarran International Airport to the Hoover Dam, when it crashed about 2.5 miles south of Lake Las Vegas, officials said. It crashed along a normal route taken by tour helicopters.

Andrew Munoz, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said the aircraft was from Sundance Helicopters, a Las Vegas-based tour operator.

The National Park Service, NTSB and the Clark County Coroner’s Office began recovery efforts Thursday morning, Munoz said. They were assessing the best route to take into the crash site.

The NTSB has scheduled a press conference later this morning to release more information.

A Metro Police helicopter was called in to help locate the crash, but it took about an hour for officers to reach the crash site on the ground and confirm the deaths. The crash was about four miles west of the Alfred Merritt Smith Water Treatment Facility.

Officials said they could not confirm the victims’ identities. Officers at the crash site said the wreckage was on fire and the helicopter was not intact, Munoz said.

National Park Service rangers, Metro Police’s Search and Rescue Unit, the Clark County Fire Department and the Henderson Fire Department all responded to the scene, Munoz said.

The helicopter was a Eurocopter AS350, built in 1989, with tail number N37SH, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said.

According to the Sundance Helicopters website, the company has daily tours to the Grand Canyon, with many helicopters landing on the canyon floor. The company, which has a fleet of 23 helicopters, flies more than 160,000 passengers a year, the website says.

Sundance is a member of the Tour Operators Program of Safety, a professional group of air tour operators and the tour company has won the FAA Diamond Award twice for excellence in aircraft maintenance, the website says.

The company undergoes an annual safety practices audit by the T.O.P.S. board of review, according to the website. This review certifies that the company meets the safety regulations of the FAA.

In a statement released Wednesday night, the company said:

“Sundance Helicopters regrets to report that a Sundance helicopter with five people on board went down 16 miles east of Las Vegas at approximately 4:45 p.m. this evening. Emergency personal at the scene report that there were no survivors. Names of the deceased are being withheld pending notification of the next of kin. Sundance is cooperating fully with the FAA and NTSB with the investigation.”

A September 2003 crash east of the Grand Canyon West Airport in Arizona killed a Sundance Helicopters pilot and six passengers. Unsafe flying procedures and misjudgment were cited as the probable cause of that crash, the Associated Press reported.

In August 2009, the pilot of a Sundance tour helicopter returning from the Grand Canyon with six passengers on board was forced to land in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area after his controls indicated he had an electrical problem, the AP reported. No one was injured.

Sen. Harry Reid said in a statement Thursday he would monitor the investigation to ensure helicopter tours remain safe.

“My thoughts this morning are with the families of the five people who died in a terrible crash yesterday,” Reid said. “Hundreds of thousands of tourists enjoy these popular helicopter tours of Nevada each year, and I’m saddened that people lost their lives in this rare tragedy.”

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