Data offers clues in final minutes of flight before Baton Rouge PD helicopter crash
The helicopter rapidly climbed as high as 1,300 feet and flew between speeds of 40 mph, 102 mph and 30 mph before crashing
By Paul Cobler
The Advocate, Baton Rouge
BATON ROUGE, La. — In the moments before a Baton Rouge Police Department helicopter crashed, killing the two officers aboard, it rapidly ascended as high as 1,300 feet and see-sawed between speeds of 40 mph, 102 mph, and 30 mph, according to publicly available flight data.
The data, from tracking website Flightaware, lends credence to what fellow pilots and friends of Sgt. David Poirrier and Cpl. Scotty Canezaro have been saying since the crash: Something must have happened before the helicopter's tail rotor struck a tree, because the pilots would not have intentionally been flying low enough for that to happen.
An intial report by the Federal Aviation Administration said the rotor striking the tree caused the helicopter to crash land upside down. However, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are conducting a more thorough investigation to gather more information about what happened before that.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said investigators will study data from an on-board flight tracker that broadcasts and records information about an aircraft's location, altitude and ground speed every second. Investigators have also removed the wreckage from the scene to study it.
Knudson said the agency's investigation will focus on three areas:
— The licenses, ratings and training activities of the pilots, and information like their activities over the 72 hours prior to the crash and their sleep history before the incident.
— The aircraft's maintenance and history and any indicators of pre-crash failure.
— The operating environment that morning, meaning the weather and communications.
A preliminary report will be issued in the next two to three weeks, while the full analysis could take a year or two.
Several pilots told The Advocate it's impossible to know what went wrong until the federal investigation is completed. But they said the sharp changes in speed and altitude could have resulted from a mechanical failure or clouds causing the pilot to become disoriented.
Poirrier, 47, and Canezaro, 38, were killed when the helicopter they were piloting in pursuit of a hit-and-run suspect crashed sometime after 2:30 a.m., according to the FAA.
Deputies with the West Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office searched a field between North Winterville Road and Bueche Road after receiving a call from a family member from one of the victims requesting a search at 10:38 a.m., according to the agency. The crashed helicopter was discovered in the field and BRPD was notified shortly after, according to the sheriff's office.
The helicopter took off from the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport at 2:26 a.m. to support a high speed chase taking place on the ground below, according to BRPD and the Flightaware data.
The data is not continuous; it maps points in time every 15-20 seconds.
The weather in the Baton Rouge area was mostly cloudy, with 7 mph winds from the south. The cloud ceiling, or the height above the ground to the lowest layer of clouds, was 900 feet, according to National Weather Service readings from the airport.
For most of the roughly 12 minutes of the flight tracked by Flightaware, the helicopter did not show any major, sudden changes in speed or altitude. At the lowest tracked point, it was still roughly 300 feet up — well above the treeline.
But the changes became much more abrupt just after 2:35 a.m. Over the next two minutes, the speed dropped from 84 mph to 56 mph in 16 seconds; rose from 67 mph mph to 98 mph in 20 seconds; and soared from 40 mph to 102 mph in 17 seconds.
Over that same two minutes, the aircraft swiftly gained altitude, going from about 400 feet to 1,300 feet up. That's when the data stops.
At the end of the flight, the helicopter also rapidly changed directions; it was headed west, south, east and north all within the last few minutes, the data says.
The final flight was the helicopter's fifth in 24 hours, according to Flightaware. The four flights before the fatal crash covered:
— A 17-mile flight from the Baton Rouge airport to southeast East Baton Rouge Parish from 7:29 a.m. to 7:39 a.m. Saturday.
— A 16-mile return flight to the Baton Rouge airport from 1:31 p.m. to 1:39 p.m. Saturday.
— A 61-mile flight over much of the city of Baton Rouge from 7:48 p.m. to 8:29 p.m. Saturday.
— A 43-mile flight near the Baton Rouge airport and around some of the city from 10:55 p.m. to 11:26 p.m. Saturday.
All told, the helicopter had traveled 137 miles in 24 hours. It's not clear how much of that time Poirrier and Canezaro were flying; the department has two other helicopter operators.
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