A conversation between a Virginia State Police helicopter pilot and his trooper co-pilot before a crash that killed both of them referred to an aerodynamic phenomenon that a National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded was the probable cause of the fatal accident three years ago after the violent Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville.
But the conversation also shows that Lt. Jay Cullen, the pilot and commander of the State Police Aviation Unit, was familiar with “vortex ring state,” even though the NTSB said it found no record that he had received “recent and recurrent training” in how to recognize and recover from the condition.
In a recording state police provided to the investigation, Cullen spoke to Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates about the loss of tail rotor effectiveness, which the pilot described as “like a vortex ring state on your tail rotor.”
It is not clear from an NTSB memorandum how soon the conversation occurred before the Bell 407 helicopter piloted by Cullen crashed in a wooded area of Albemarle on Aug. 12, 2017, but it raises further questions about the investigation’s conclusion that the pilot’s “lack of recent and recurrent training” in recognizing and recovering from vortex ring state contributed to the accident.
Arthur Alan Wolk, a lawyer for the widows of the troopers in multiple wrongful death lawsuits against the state and aircraft manufacturers, said the conversation does not show that either vortex ring state or loss of tail rotor effectiveness caused the crash.
“That conversation was a teaching discussion and Berke Bates was a student helicopter pilot,” Wolk said in an email Friday.
Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB, said, “The mention of a vortex ring state was part of a conversation explaining a different condition, tail rotor effectiveness, so it was not deemed directly relevant to the NTSB’s findings and analysis.”
An experienced pilot who trained with Cullen in the months before the crash said the safety agency had determined “an unfair probable cause” in its investigation of the accident.
Mike Mickel, owner of Dominion Aviation Services Inc. at the Chesterfield County Airport, said he had extensive conversations with Cullen about the phenomenon, which occurs when a helicopter descends in a downwash of air in its own rotor blades that can cause an aircraft to spin and roll.
“He knew vortex ring state and everything about it,” said Mickel, who was interviewed by a member of the state police aviation unit as part of a formal arrangement with the NTSB.
Knudson said Friday the report “didn’t state that the pilot was not knowledgeable about the vortex ring state condition.”
“The NTSB said that the pilot’s lack of recent and recurrent training in vortex ring state recognition and recovery contributed to the crash,” Knudson said in an email response to questions about the investigation. “NTSB investigators found no documentation that the pilot had any recurrent training on vortex ring state recognition and recovery.”
The investigation also found that the state police aviation unit training manual “did not include vortex ring state recognition and recovery in any of the sample lesson plans for initial or recurrent training, and the associated maneuvers were considered to be optional.”
The crash occurred about six minutes after the state police helicopter diverted from monitoring violent clashes between white nationalist groups and counterprotesters in downtown Charlottesville after the Unite the Right rally. It had left its surveillance flight to accompany the motorcade of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe into Charlottesville for a news conference about violence that had killed counterprotester Heather Heyer.
It is not clear from a memorandum in the NTSB investigation when the conversation occurred between Cullen and Bates or how it was recorded.
The NTSB said Cullen lost control after entering vortex ring state, “leading to a high rate of descent to the ground with a right spin.” It said it could not determine whether the rightward spin began “immediately before or after the helicopter’s encounter with the vortex ring state” because the helicopter did not have a crash-resistant in-flight recorder.
“This accident demonstrates the benefit of crash-resistant recorders” in aircraft that are not required to be equipped with them.