LAS VEGAS – Rescue crews completed the difficult process of recovering bodies Thursday from a remote canyon outside Las Vegas after the crash of a tour helicopter belonging to a company with repeated aviation violations.
Sundance Helicopters of Las Vegas had at least five accidents and was the subject of 10 federal enforcement actions since 1994. It charted a luxury sunset tour of the Las Vegas Strip and Hoover Dam on Wednesday that killed a 31-year-old pilot and his four passengers.
The recovery of the bodies and the investigation were complicated by the remoteness of the rugged canyon accessible only by helicopter and four-wheel-drive.
Mark Rosekind, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said the helicopter crashed near the bottom of a V-shaped canyon about 150 feet deep in the River Mountains bordering Lake Mead. Investigators had to climb ladders into the canyon to survey the scene, he said.
Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said Thursday that all five bodies had been recovered, but they were not easily recognizable.
"This was not an easy process," Murphy said as night fell and the bodies were removed by all-terrain vehicle from the site in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Murphy said he could not release the names of the dead until medical examiners make identifications. The process may involve the use of DNA, fingerprint and dental records.
In Kansas, a relative of two of the passengers on board identified them as Delwin and Tamara Chapman, a couple from the town of Utica celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. Ron Solze, whose son is married to one of the Chapmans' four daughters, said the couple from western Kansas went to Las Vegas to celebrate their anniversary and renew their wedding vows.
Solze said Delwin Chapman ran a construction company and his wife recently closed her hairstyling shop in the town of about 160 people.
"It's a small town, so this affects a lot of people," Solze said. "They were good people."
Sundance Helicopters identified the pilot as Landon Nield, who was married in a Las Vegas church in June.
"He was a good pilot," said his wife, Gabriela Orozco, 38. "He loved what he was doing. His dream was to be a pilot."
Orozco told The Associated Press her husband had flown for roughly seven years, and was taking tourists along a typical twilight route when the helicopter crashed.
The crash was the latest involving tour helicopters across the country in recent years and comes amid concerns about the safety of the air tour industry. From 1994 through 2008, there were 75 commercial helicopter accidents in the U.S., excluding air ambulances, resulting in 88 fatalities.
Helicopter-crash trial lawyer Gary Robb said tour pilots are encouraged to push the aircraft's limits and ignore unpredictable winds that can push the helicopter into a fixed object, such as a mountain.
"There is an incentive for the pilot to provide a 'flight thrill' to passengers," Robb said. "It's deadly."
The Federal Aviation Administration last year proposed new rules for helicopter operators, including tour guides, which required that operators use onboard technology and equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles.
It's unclear what might have triggered the Nevada crash. The weather was mostly clear near Lake Mead on Wednesday, with a low temperature around 29 and winds around 5 mph.
Friday will be the NTSB's first full day of investigation, and it's expected to take three to five days to examine the scene, Rosekind said.
Investigators have identified both tail rotor blades and parts of the engine, Rosekind said at a news conference Thursday night. There's evidence that the main rotor blades remained attached to the rotor hub of the ill-fated aircraft, he said.
Sundance CEO Larry Pietropaolo noted there was no distress call before a GPS monitoring the location of the helicopter went silent. He said the company was turning over pilot and mechanical records to the NTSB and FAA.
"We work every day to prevent this from happening," Pietropaolo told the AP. "We don't know what happened."
The company offers daily tours to the Grand Canyon and boasts a 22-helicopter fleet. The aircraft that crashed was an AS-350BS, which can hold up to six passengers and is often used for air tours. FAA records show it was built in 1989.
"It's a very efficient and good helicopter," Pietropaolo said.
It's a popular model for Sundance, which has had a history of safety citations. The FAA has taken enforcement actions against Sundance Helicopters at least 10 times since 1994, mostly for minor violations. In 1997, the company was ordered to pay a $22,000 fine for violating regulations pertaining to the airworthiness of the aircraft.
NTSB records show Sundance was involved in at least five other accidents since 1997, but only one resulted in fatalities.
In September 2003, a pilot and six passengers were killed when a helicopter slammed into a canyon wall east of the Grand Canyon West Airport. In a 2007 letter that made safety recommendations to air tour operators and the FAA, the NTSB cited unsafe flying procedures and pilot misjudgment as the probable cause.
The company was not punished for the incident because the pilot, not Sundance Helicopters, violated federal aviation regulations, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.
Pietropaolo downplayed the previous accidents and safety violations, saying he would measure Sundance's accident rate per hours flown against any other company. According to data from the Clark County Department of Aviation, Sundance flew 167,182 passengers during the first 10 months of this year — nearly 17,000 per month.
"Sundance has an excellent safety record relative to the industry and general aviation," Pietropaolo said.
Nield had no history of accidents or violations, according to the FAA. He and his 13 siblings grew up on farms in Wyoming and Utah, said his sister Angalena Adams.
"We all learned to work hard and love each other and appreciate each other," Adams said. "He loved everyone. He was an awesome brother and an awesome son."
Nield was hired by Sundance nearly three years ago. Pietropaolo called him a solid pilot and a "very nice young man."
Critics argue Sundance's troubled past is a symbol of relaxed safety practices by helicopter tour companies nationwide.
Robb, the trial lawyer, said chopper tours are the most dangerous form of aircraft travel because the pilots are expected to guide the aircraft and entertain passengers. Even something seemingly minor, like a bird smashing into the helicopter, could have sent the aircraft tumbling into a mountainside, he said.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., repeatedly asked the FAA to address public complaints about helicopter safety issues, most recently in October, when a private aircraft crashed in the East River off Manhattan.
"Helicopter traffic is the wild west of aviation," she wrote to Federal Aviation Administrator Randolph Babbit in October. "Helicopters are subject to much less scrutiny than other types of aircraft."
The FAA requires that pilots be certified. Pilots must fly safely but are not restricted to specific altitudes. Gregor noted the FAA does random surveillance on air tour companies, "both overt and covert," to ensure they're operating safely.
Jen Boyer, executive director at Tour Operators Program of Safety, said Sundance Helicopters' membership has been in good standing with the industry group since 1997. That means it has passed thorough annual audits, most recently in July.
"We truly believe this is a sector of the helicopter industry that can be done safely," Boyer said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas, and Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Mo.