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Wharton copter crash report released

A report on a fatal helicopter crash in Fayette County reveals investigators are focusing on whether the aircraft ran out of fuel or crashed after its engine malfunctioned.

The July 22, 2009, crash in Wharton killed pilot Jonathan T. Kidd, 33, of Las Vegas, who was part of a survey crew mapping sites for potential gas wells for Dominion Transmission Inc.

It will take several months before the National Transportation Safety Board issues an official determination as to why the helicopter crashed about 11:25 a.m. in a field off Kirby Road, about a half mile from Laurel Caverns.

The safety board's report disclosed the helicopter -- Hughes 369D rotor-craft with a turbo-shaft engine -- may have run out of fuel. The Aug. 31 report was posted online this week.

According to the report from NTSB investigator Shawn Etcher:

Fuel lines were inspected, and approximately three drops of fuel were discovered in the line to the fuel nozzle from the check valve. The fuel lines from the fuel control to the check valve and from the aircraft fuel tank to the filter were void of fuel.

Investigators discovered the "low fuel" indicator light on the instrument panel had been illuminated. A test of the fuel-sending unit of the aircraft could not be performed because of the impact damage.

Initially, investigators sought to determine whether Kidd, who was shuttling supplies to workers on the ground, lost control of the helicopter because a basket it was carrying may have become tangled in trees.

Kidd was retrieving four bags of seismic-monitoring equipment from remote locations. Each bag weighed between 200 and 250 pounds.

On the morning of the flight, Kidd attended a safety briefing conducted by Houston-based Geokinetics Inc., which had been hired by Dominion. Federal aviation records show the helicopter was registered to Utility Helicopters of El Cajon, Calif.

According to paperwork, Kidd performed a routine preflight inspection of the helicopter.

"During the return to the landing zone, numerous personnel, including the operator, heard the pilot talking over their communication frequency. Most of the communications were inaudible, but some heard the pilot say that he was going into the trees," the report said.

Kidd had a commercial pilot certificate, with a proper rating for a rotorcraft helicopter and 2,844 hours of flight experience, including 1,252 in the model of helicopter that crashed. The aircraft engine passed inspection 24 days before the crash.

Toxicology reports on the pilot were negative.

Several pieces of the engine and rotors were tested, and most of the results indicated there were no problems. However, an examination of an exhaust collector tunnel showed it was "deformed near the top support section and precluded the No. 5 bearing from rotating." It did not note whether that deformity could have been caused by the crash.

Kidd's ground personnel disclosed that sufficient fuel had been an issue on at least one earlier flight, and he had been told the crew "wanted to see some space between the empty mark and the needle" on the fuel gauge.

Ground personnel told investigators that "one time it was very low and there was no space between the (empty) mark and the needle," and Kidd was told to avoid that.

Attempts to reach Etcher, who works in Washington, to discuss the report were unsuccessful.

The nine-page factual report will be forwarded to a five-member safety board for review, and it will attempt to make an official determination of the probable cause of the crash.

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