Documents show officers chose different helicopter before deadly crash

by: Aaron Diamant Updated:

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ATLANTA - Channel 2 Action News has obtained documents that give new insight into the deadly Atlanta Police helicopter crash.

Officers Richard Halford and Shawn Smiley died last month when their helicopter went down near Martin Luther King Jr. and Hamilton E. Holmes drives.

After the officers were laid to rest, Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant filed an open records request with the Atlanta Police Department for all its records on the helicopter that crashed.

Diamant got back hundreds of pages of maintenance records, pilot logs, and other documents for not just that helicopter, but for all APD aircraft.

Diamant learned the 1967 Hughes OH-6A helicopter that went down was not the officers' first choice that day.

Records released by Atlanta police show the officers' names on so-called "start sheets" for two department helicopters, a Bell 206b and the Hughes.

Documents show when the officers first started up the Bell, a warning light came on -- grounding it for maintenance.

Maintenance records for the older Hughes the officers ended up flying show nothing unusual.

"We spent a substantial amount of money refurbishing our helicopter and that one of the most experienced helicopter pilots felt comfortable using that helicopter and we trusted his judgment," said Atlanta Mayor Kaseem Reed two days after the crash.

The chopper crashed and caught fire in southwest Atlanta on Nov. 3, while Halford and Smiley searched for a missing boy.

The NTSB's initial report shows the helicopter hit wires "at the top of a 42-foot-high power pole."

"Think of it as almost skimming the treetops, and there's no reason to be flying that low," explained Channel 2 Action News Reporter-Photographer Jason Durden, who has logged thousands of hours in News Chopper 2.

Given the danger, a 2009 letter written by the APD Air Unit's sergeant reminded pilots that aircraft "must maintain an altitude at or above 500 feet" from dusk to dawn unless approved by a commander.

On Wednesday, APD confirmed the Hughes and Smiley got no such permission.

And with no distress calls before the crash, federal investigators now are looking at whether a catastrophic failure with the helicopter higher up caused it to hit the wires on the way down.

"They'll put together a comprehensive investigation," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told Channel 2 Action News last month. "I certainly expect that we'll have a probable cause determination."

The NTSB's final report on the crash will not be ready for many more months.

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