RIVERSIDE – A midair collision in Cabazon involving two Cal Fire helicopters, one of which crashed and burned, killing the three men on board, was the result of one chopper overtaking the other in mountainous terrain, with the pilots apparently never aware of where they were in relation to one another, according to federal officials.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Friday released its preliminary report on the Aug. 6 crash that destroyed a Cal Fire Bell 407 helicopter in the area of Apache Trail and Pipeline Road.
Cal Fire Assistant Chief Josh Bischof, 46, of Menifee, Cal Fire Capt. Timothy D. Rodriguez Jr., 44, of San Jacinto and contract pilot Tony Sousa, 55, of Red Bluff were fatally injured in the accident.
According to the NTSB, the ill-fated flight departed Hemet-Ryan Airport at about 6:35 p.m. and headed to the Broadway Fire burning over a hillside on the west end of Cabazon. The report said a Cal Fire Sikorsky S-64 water-dropping helicopter departed Hemet-Ryan three minutes after the Bell, going in the same direction.
“The Bell … maneuvered northeast toward Cabazon,” the report stated. “The Sikorsky … traveled northeast through mountainous terrain and continued northeast following descending terrain towards Cabazon.”
NTSB investigators wrote that radar tracks provided by each helicopter’s transponder indicated “both helicopters on a converging flight path, until the time of the collision.”
There was no word on whether the pilots were communicating, on the same frequency, making position reports in the blind, or any other details that might give a clue as to why the midair collision occurred in daylight conditions, with 10 miles’ visibility.
The choppers impacted at 6:44 p.m., causing the Bell to spiral out of control, slamming into “a steep and rocky hillside,” where the fuselage erupted in flames, according to the NTSB.
Bischof, Rodriguez and Sousa perished at the scene.
The Sikorsky crew, uninjured, landed without incident less than a mile away. The sky crane lost a foot-long section of its right main landing gear, but was otherwise undamaged, officials said.
The Broadway Fire scorched 20 acres before it was knocked down that evening. No homes or other structures were damaged.
Bischof, Rodriguez and Sousa were laid to rest last month following public tributes.
The NTSB’s final report on the deadly collision will likely be released in the next 24 months.
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