The Columbus police reserve pilot killed Friday when the Metro Narcotics Task Force helicopter hit a power line and plunged into Alabama’s Coosa River was involved in another crash just before Thanksgiving 2016.
David Hall was piloting a single-engine Piper airplane on Nov. 23, 2016, when it lost power after takeoff from the Columbus airport and plunged into trees off Howard Avenue. Hall and the rookie pilot accompanying him were only bruised by the impact.
That crash and the one that killed Hall and a passenger Friday are unrelated, and the timing is simply a coincidence. The passenger who died with Hall has not yet been identified, on the request of his family, but he is not the same person who was with Hall in 2016.
Hall, 53, had just retired in July after working with the Columbus Police Department for 28 years. He was piloting the Bell OH-58 helicopter that went down around midday Friday in Lake Mitchell, on the Coosa River near Verbena, Ala., east of Interstate 65 and north of Montgomery.
Hall was flying to a repair company in Clanton, where the helicopter was to be swapped for another task force aircraft that already had its periodic maintenance. “Every so many hours you have to have maintenance done on an aircraft, and this was just the routine maintenance it has to have on it,” Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley said at a news conference Sunday.
The multi-agency, interstate narcotics task force includes sheriff’s investigators from the counties of Harris, Muscogee and Russell, and from the Columbus and Phenix City police departments. It was formed to coordinate efforts to fight drug trafficking across jurisdictional boundaries.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration will investigate Friday’s crash.
The 2016 crash
The FAA report on the 2016 crash includes a statement Hall filed with the agency the following December.
Hall said he met about 5:30 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving with a former student, Jorge Orderique, who was attending the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. Orderique had a private pilot’s certificate, but had not flown in three months.
“Our intention was to remain in the traffic pattern to work on takeoffs and landings,” Hall wrote, adding his companion had planned to take his family on a flight the next day.
Hall went through all his safety checks and noticed nothing amiss, except that testing the carburetor heat seemed to reduce power.
They took off without incident and were climbing away at 85 mph, when just a half-mile to a mile from the runway, the engine began to vibrate and lose power.
“We have an engine problem,” Hall radioed flight control, and got no reply.
“Did you hear me?” Hall radioed.
“You are clear to land any runway,” the tower answered.
“I have the airplane,” Hall told Orderique, and tried to fly them back.
He wrote: “The aircraft continued sinking and I observed the stall light flickering as I tried to maintain a level altitude…. I could see the tops of trees ahead of us under our wings.”
They checked the aircraft’s systems, and tried to turn on a heater to warm the carburetor, but “the aircraft kept sinking,” Hall wrote. “I glanced at the airspeed indicator and saw it was near 70 mph and told Jorge that we were about to enter the tops of trees and to brace himself for impact.”
Here’s his account of what happened next:
“I leaned down and covered my head as I felt the aircraft strike the trees. The plane fell for four to five seconds and came to a sudden stop. I lifted my head and observed the door was open and large branches underneath us on the ground. I asked Jorge if he was OK and he replied yes. We removed our seat belts and shoulder harnesses and exited the aircraft.”
The plane was nose-down in the trees behind a house at 3528 Howard Ave., where the resident came out to ask if they were OK, and tell them police and firefighters were en route.
The firefighters cleaned up the leaking aircraft fuel, and Hall and Orderique caught a ride to the hospital emergency room for an exam. They were treated for bruises and released.
At the time, Hall had logged more than 3,000 hours as a pilot in control of an aircraft. Orderique, then 19, had 19 hours.
Included in the FAA report is an agency bulletin warning of the dangers of carburetor icing:
“There were 212 accidents attributed to carburetor icing between 1998 and 2007,” says the alert. “The certification requirements for carbureted airplanes require that heated source of air be provided as mitigation for carburetor icing.”
It adds: “Pilots should be aware that carburetor icing doesn’t just occur in freezing conditions, it can occur at temperatures well above freezing when there is visible moisture or high humidity. Icing can occur in the carburetor at temperatures above freezing because vaporization of fuel, combined with the expansion of air as it flows through the carburetor causes sudden cooling, sometimes by a significant amount within a fraction of a second.”
Friday’s helicopter crash was unforgiving, the aircraft smashing into an unflagged power line over Lake Mitchell and plunging into the reservoir, sinking 70 feet.
“We believe that it struck a wire that went across the river, a low-hanging wire that was not marked at the time, and as the helicopter was apparently ascending over there from some area, it hit this wire and the helicopter went down in the river,” Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren said Sunday.
Hall graduated from Jordan High School and from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He started with the police department in 1990. After retirement, he remained a pilot for the Metro Narcotics Task Force and a recruiter for the police department.
“It’s bad, especially for the law enforcement family in this area,” Boren added. “We had hired several officers that he had recruited from the area for the department. He was known to everybody on the metro board. He had done flight services for everybody on the metro board, and he’s going to be a loss to our department.”
Funeral arrangements had not yet been announced Monday.