TUSAYAN — The decision had to be made in a split second for Kenai Helicopters pilot Richard Griffin. The reaction to put down his Bell 206 copter down on an airport ramp last week turned out to save the lives of six German tourists, himself and potential victims on the ground.
“He did put the aircraft down in the best possible place,” said Martin Adams, Kenai’s chief pilot. “He was limited on his choices. It was either a parking lot full of buses or a small access road where he would’ve impacted several obstacles or on the empty ramp in front of him.”
The crash occurred shortly after 9 a.m. on April 18. Griffin, who is also the director of operations for Kenai, was recovering from back injuries late last week at Flagstaff Medical Center. Adams said he had been in contact with him daily and added that “he’s in good spirits.”
Sgt. Randy Servis of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department said the preliminary investigation shows the copter had just taken off from the heliport and experienced a loss of power.
“At this point in time, anything coming out is an assumption,” Adams said. “Based on eyewitnesses, several of which were helicopter pilots and an eyewitness who works for the airport itself, it appears as though the aircraft lost power.”
However, if a loss of power was the case, Adams said the pilot still has directional control of the aircraft.
“He had to make an instantaneous choice of three separate places,” Adams said. “Richard is very, very experienced. I feel if it had to happen, and it did happen, I’m glad the injuries were relatively minor compared to what they could have been.”
The six tourists were treated at Flagstaff Medical Center, none with life-threatening injuries. The names of the tourists were not released at the request of the German Consulate. Servis said five were from Eutin, Germany, and the other passenger was from Hamburg, Germany.
The airport’s emergency response team made it to the nearby accident scene in 32 seconds, acting airport manager Andy Taranto said. Speaking to the Grand Canyon Airport Authority’s board of directors, Taranto said emergency team leader Russ Panky responded to the
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accident in seconds — and on his day off.
“Russ took command of the scene and everything went very smoothly,” Taranto said. “It’s miraculous that they’re all there right now.”
At the time of the accident, Taranto was meeting with Paul Babbitt, Coconino County supervisor who was in town on other business.
“I didn’t really see it ... I heard a crash,” Babbitt said. “It’s a noise you’ll never forget. I was a real bang.”
Babbitt also commended the airport staff’s reaction, adding “it was flawless.” In fact, at the GCAA’s Thursday meeting, Babbitt successfully asked the board to adopt a resolution to recognize the superior way the various agencies dealt with the crash.
Another one of those agencies responding was the Tusayan Volunteer Fire Department. Robbie Evans, fire chief, said the copter was pretty crumpled up when his unit arrived.
“When we got on-scene, four were on board and three were walking around,” Evans said. “The airport’s fire department was foaming the fuel. We got involved with medicals and flew three out to FMC. They were very lucky. I thought for sure we’d have some dead people there.”
National Park Service firefighters and rangers also responded to the crash.
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident.