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Helicopter crashes at Durango-La Plata County Airport

Two people on board; neither injured. Runway reopens after nearly two hours
Emergency personnel respond to a helicopter crash Wednesday at the north end of Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Two people avoided serious injury in a helicopter crash Wednesday afternoon at Durango-La Plata County Airport.

The crash occurred at 1:14 p.m. on the north end of the runway, said Tony Vicari, director of aviation at the airport. Two people were on board, both of whom escaped without injury, he said.

The helicopter lay on its side with “fairly significant damage,” Vicari said.

The crash occurred on one of the busiest travel days of the year – the day before Thanksgiving. The runway was closed for about one hour and 45 minutes and reopened at 2:55 p.m. Four commercial flights were delayed, including two United Airlines flights and two American Airlines flights.

The runway closure was expected to cause “cascading delays” throughout the day, Vicari said.

The helicopter belonged to Colorado Highland Helicopters, which is based at the Animas Air Park south of Durango. The helicopter took off from the air park at 12:28 p.m. and signaled its arrival to DRO at 1:07 p.m., according to FlightAware, a website that tracks aircraft movements across the country.

“They were doing training flights,” Vicari said. “It’s just normal for that operation at our airport.”

He did not have any information about what may have caused the crash.

Brandon Laird, owner and chief pilot of Highland Helicopters, said the helicopter was occupied by an “FAA representative” and a student pilot. The FAA representative was piloting the craft and demonstrating an emergency maneuver, called an autorotation landing, which is a transition from forward flight to the ground without power, Laird said.

“The blades are rotating under their own aerodynamic force and gliding similar to an airplane,” he said. “The intent was to glide to the runway, which they did, but in that transition to touch the ground, he hit a little harder than what was intended.”

A skid on the bottom of the aircraft broke away, as designed in high-impact situations, and the aircraft tipped onto its side, causing the blades to contact the ground and “tore everything up,” Laird said.

The autorotation landing is “something that we teach and we practice, and it is a very, very dynamic maneuver,” he said. “You’re practicing for the potential eventuality of an engine failure, which would be scary, but that’s something that we train diligently for. I do thousands of those a year, and this was just a mild misjudgment that resulted in a bit of a hard landing.”

Highland Helicopters has owned the MD 500 chopper since 2016, but the craft was built in 1971.

“That was our first machine that we started our business with,” Laird said.

The wind was blowing about 15 mph with gusts up to 25 mph about the time of the crash, said Norv Larson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, which maintains a weather station at the airport. But there were no other weather impediments, he said. Visibility was clear in excess of 10 miles.

The airport will be working with the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration to preserve the crash debris.

It is not unusual for helicopters to fly up and down the runway similar to a fixed-wing aircraft, so “this is a normal maneuvering area for helicopters,” Vicari said.

Vicari could not immediately recall the last time the airport had an “alert 3,” or an incident involving an actual crash.

After loading the aircraft onto a trailer, the airport underwent an intensive cleaning process to ensure all debris was removed from the runway so that other aircraft could resume operations.

“These types of accidents can go very differently, and we’re very grateful – it’s a good time to be grateful right before Thanksgiving – that this didn’t go a different way,” Vicari said.

The helicopter that crashed Wednesday at the north end of Durango-La Plata County Airport is lifted onto a trailer and removed so the airport can reopen. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Emergency personnel respond to a helicopter crash on Wednesday at the north end of Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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