On January 29 at approximately 5:20 p.m. , Chief Pilot Dr. Phillip Smith and Chief Deputy Tony Thomason were on a training flight in the Spalding County helicopter (STAR). While recovering from a training scenario at an altitude of approximately 200 feet, STAR lost its engine. Due to the engine loss, the lift created by the rotor blades began rapidly decaying causing STAR to descend straight down. Dr. Smith, who is a highly decorated helicopter pilot with tours of duty in Vietnam, and is now a flight instructor, nosed the helicopter down to increase the speed of the main rotor in an effort to create more lift. As they neared the ground Smith was able to level out and just before STAR hit the ground, Smith raised the nose to slow the fall, the tail boom struck the ground, the main rotor struck the tail boom, and they came to a stop in a field behind a residence on Ga. Highway 19 in Pike County. Neither Smith or Thomason were injured. Pike County Deputies responded to the scene as did Pike County Sheriff Jimmy Thomas. The FAA and NTSB were notified and an NTSB investigator responded to the scene this morning.
According to Sheriff Darrell Dix, “It appears that the incident was unavoidable and was attributed to a mechanical failure. There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Smith’s experience, actions and quick response to the crisis saved his life and the life of Chief Thomason. Chief Thomason told me that Dr. Smith remained calm, worked the problem all the way to the ground and he without a doubt saved our lives.” Dix added, “There are very few instances where that type of catastrophic failure, that close to the ground ends as well as this one did. It is a miracle that they walked away unharmed. 100 yards to the right or 100 yards to the left and they would have been in a wood line or a lake. 20 yards shorter and they would have been in a large pile of cut timber. 50 yards further and they would have also been in the woods. The Lord was with them and sat them down in about the only area they could and still be ok. Even though the helicopter is damaged, we are more thankful that they were not harmed.”
Dix continued, “STAR was the second helicopter received by the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office from GEMA’s excess property program. The helicopter program started in Spalding County in 1998 and has been a valuable asset to law enforcement jurisdictions from all across the state. We have always responded to calls for assistance from outside of Spalding County whenever asked.” The equipping, maintenance, upkeep, fuel, insurance, and inspections for STAR are all funded by seized drug funds. STAR went through its last annual maintenance and inspection in August of 2017.” Dix stated, “At this point we are going to examine if it would even be feasible to continue the program. While the damage to STAR may not look extensive, it is substantial. We will get repair costs, check on the availability of another helicopter through the GEMA program and work out the costs of refitting a new helicopter before a decision is made.
We would like to thank Sheriff Jimmy Thomas and his deputies for their quick response. We would also like to thank Atlanta Air Salvage for their assistance.