Copter crashes at Watson; Fire crew, pilot survive as aircraft flips in lake
A Nevada Division of Forestry pilot and six passengers narrowly escaped from a helicopter that crashed into Watson Lake on Friday morning near Northstar-at-Tahoe.
They walked away with only minor injuries and nervous energy after a failed take-off attempt forced the helicopter into the lake, officials said. Initial investigations report the crash may have been caused by the aircraft being overweight.
The helicopter, which was dispatched to assist the North Tahoe Fire District and the U.S. Forest Service extinguish an escaped campfire, landed on the west shore of Watson Lake shortly after 10 a.m. When the helicopter crew arrived on scene, it was notified that they were no longer needed because the fire was extinguished successfully.
The crew boarded the helicopter and prepared for a normal takeoff, said NDF officials, when they attempted to clear a stand of trees on the south end of the lake.
They said the helicopter was unable to clear trees and the pilot made the decision to circle back over the lake to gain altitude.
In a failed attempt, the helicopter skid hit the water and forced the aircraft to spin out of control above the lake.
An overnight camper witnessed the crash and said the helicopter spun around three times before the rudder hit the water and shot like a missile straight into the air.
Lora Ashe of Los Angeles said, “I saw the helicopter spinning out of control and the men inside were all screaming.”
Ashe said the helicopter quickly flipped onto its side and ultimately went belly-up.
“I can’t believe everyone walked out of the crash,” she said. “It would have been worse if they hit the trees.”
Another camper, said to be from North Carolina, jumped into the water to help rescue the men.
Ashe said the unidentified camper kept diving under the water attempting to help free everyone from the craft.
“I wish I could have helped, but my leg is broken,” she said.
USFS spokesman Bill Driscoll said if it wasn’t for the helicopter crew’s team effort there would have been more injuries and possibly fatalities.
“They all worked together and made sure every
one was accounted for,” he said.
Officials said only the pilot, whose name has not been released, was taken to Tahoe Forest Hospital for treatment of an injured leg. The other crew members were from a USFS Conservation Crew and escaped unscathed.
Driscoll said, “When we asked the crew members about the crash they all agreed that it was an adventure.”
Concerns about leaking jet oil were top priority for officials at the scene. As investigators combed the scene for any signs of the cause of the crash, hazardous material experts and Placer County officials secured the helicopter’s fuel tanks.
Until the helicopter was removed, approximately 100 gallons of jet fuel and 20 gallons of fuel oil had remained in the tanks without leaking.
Officials said the helicopter removed from the lake over the weekend with the help of another helicopter.
Full investigations by USFS, NDF, Placer County, National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are being conducted.
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