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Federal report questions decisions in NM rescue

A former state police chief pilot says there was pressure to fly rescue missions from the Public Safety Department's top administrator, and that may have contributed to a fatal crash in which a helicopter went to save a lost hiker near Santa Fe, according to a report by federal investigators.

The report by the National Transportation Safety Board also raised questions about a pilot's decision to fly the rescue mission and whether the pilot was overworked before starting the mission, and it disclosed he was taking prescription medication for depression.

The crash occurred in June 2009 after the helicopter picked up the hiker and took off as a snow storm approached. The pilot, Sgt. Andy Tingwall, and the hiker died. One crew member survived and was found the next day.

The helicopter apparently hit something after taking off into clouds, flew for a short distance and then crashed on a ridge at about 12,000 feet. It rolled down a steep slope.

The NTSB report, part of hundreds of pages of documents released on the agency's website last week, did not reach a conclusion about the cause of the accident. A separate report on that is not expected until early next year.

Michael Dowd, a former chief pilot for the state police who retired in 2008, told investigators that Public Safety Secretary John Denko "always questioned" his decisions when he refused to dispatch rescue missions. Dowd complained that Denko, a pilot and former state police chief, micromanaged the agency's aviation section.

"The unnecessary pressures from DPS and state police management may have contributed to this tragedy," Dowd said in a letter provided to investigators.

Dowd had planned to send the letter as an opinion article to a local newspaper shortly after the crash but didn't. Calls to Dowd's listed telephone number in Santa Fe said it had been disconnected.

Denko dismissed Dowd's allegations as criticisms from a disgruntled employee who remained upset because he had been passed over for a promotion.

"To make the comment that pressure was put on these pilots to fly when it wasn't safe to fly is blatantly untrue, an unfair statement and a ridiculous statement," Denko said in an interview Friday. "I pride myself on safety. I would never, ever — and I never did — ever pressure people to fly when it was unsafe."

State Police Chief Faron Segotta said, "Nobody ever told a pilot they had to fly."

The final decision on whether it was safe to fly, Denko and Segotta said, rested with pilots.

However, Segotta acknowledged that it was possible that Dowd or others may have felt pressure knowing that Denko, a longtime pilot, was in charge of the department.

"If you know that the highest individual within the organization is maybe paying attention to the area that you are in command and control of, I don't think there is a person on the planet who wouldn't feel like they're under the gun or being pressured. That happens in government and the private sector," Segotta said.

The NTSB report said Tingwall, who was at home after working his shift on the day the hiker became lost, initially declined to fly because it was too windy in the mountains. He changed his mind a few minutes later after checking the weather and determining that another pilot wasn't available for the mission.

Denko and Segotta said they were unaware that Tingwall was taking medication. The report questioned whether the pilot followed proper procedures for having his use of medication approved by a flight surgeon or FAA medical examiner.

Tingwall's personal physician had prescribed the drug and indicated that the pilot's "mood and functioning had improved," according to the report.