On January 17, 2018, about 1800 mountain standard time, N658H, registered as a Bell UH-1H helicopter, impacted terrain near Raton, New Mexico. A ground fire and explosion subsequently occurred. The commercial pilot, pilot rated passenger, and three other passengers were fatally injured. One passenger sustained serious injuries. The helicopter was destroyed during the impact and ground fire. The helicopter was registered to and operated by Sapphire Aviation LLC as a 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 personal flight. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed in the area about the time of the accident, and the flight was not operated on a flight plan. The flight originated from the Raton Municipal Airport/Crews Field (RTN), near Raton, New Mexico about 1750 and was destined for Folsom, New Mexico.
According to a statement taken by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Inspectors, the passenger said that the purpose of the helicopter flight was to take the group to a personal function in Folsom, New Mexico. The passenger indicated that they were in level flight and recalled a big bang as the helicopter hit the ground. After ground contact, the helicopter rolled forward coming to a stop upside down. The passenger was hanging from the seat belt, the door was not present, and jet fuel was pouring on her. The seat belt was released by the passenger who subsequently evacuated the helicopter. The helicopter was on fire and subsequent explosions followed. The passenger called 9-1-1 and waited for emergency responders.
The pilot held an FAA commercial pilot certificate with airplane single engine land, rotorcraft helicopter, and instrument helicopter ratings. He held an FAA second-class medical certificate issued on December 7, 2017. This pilot reported on the application for his medical certificate that he had accumulated 6,416 hours of total flight time and 44 hours in the six months before the examination.
The pilot rated passenger held an FAA commercial pilot certificate with a rotorcraft helicopter rating. He held an FAA second-class medical certificate issued on December 11, 2017. This pilot reported on the application for his medical certificate that he had accumulated 3,140 hours of total flight time and 30 hours in the six months before the examination.
N658H, was registered as a Bell UH-1H, helicopter with serial no. 67-17658. However, the current type certificate holder for that serial number is Rotorcraft Development Corporation. The accident helicopter was a single-engine helicopter powered by a Honeywell (formerly Lycoming) T53-L-703 turbo shaft engine with serial number LE-10462Z, which drove a two-bladed main rotor system and a two-bladed tail rotor. T53 engines are a two-spool engine. The gas generator spool consists of a five-stage axial compressor followed by a single-stage centrifugal compressor, and a two-stage high pressure turbine. The power turbine spool consists of two stages. The engine has a maximum continuous rating of 1,300 shaft horsepower at an output shaft speed of 6,634 rpm.
At 1753, the recorded weather at RTN was: Wind 030° at 10 kts; visibility 10 statute miles; sky condition clear; temperature 1° C; dew point -18° C; altimeter 30.26 inches of mercury. According to U.S. Naval Observatory Sun and Moon Data, the end of local civil twilight was 1735 and local moonset was at 1754. The observatory characterized the phase of the moon as "waxing crescent with 0% of the moon's visible disk illuminated."
The main wreckage (fuselage) came to rest on a flat mesa at the top of rising terrain about 10.7 nautical miles and 102° from RTN, on a heading about 15° magnetic. The area around the main wreckage was discolored and charred, consistent with a postaccident ground fire. The elevation in the area of the main wreckage was about 6,932 ft above mean sea level (msl).
The initial observed point of terrain contact was a parallel pair of ground scars, consistent with the width of skids, which led directly to the main wreckage on a 074° magnetic bearing. The elevation of this point was about 6,933 ft msl. The distance from the start of the parallel ground scars to the wreckage was about 474 ft. Proceeding from the end of the 330-ft parallel ground scars, 18 ft further down range, was a 25 ft long blade slap ground scar perpendicular to the path of travel, followed by the entire main rotor about 60 ft further down range. The tail rotor and tail rotor gear box were resting nearby. The helicopter's main wreckage was located 66 ft further down range, upside down, with the entire cabin section between the cockpit and tail boom having been destroyed by fire.
Examination of the wreckage revealed that sections of the helicopter exhibited damage consistent with overload, deformation, thermal damage, and consumption by fire.
The engine compressor cases, accessory gearbox housing, and inlet housing were consumed by fire. The output reduction carrier and gear assembly, which attaches to the inlet housing, was intact and recovered as a loose component. Gears within the accessory gearbox were recovered as loose components. There were no penetrations of the combustor plenum. The exhaust tail pipe was disassembled from the engine while on scene to gain access and photo document the second-stage of the power turbine. There were metal spray deposits on the suction side of the second-stage power turbine stator vanes. There was no damage to leading edge of either the second-stage power turbine stator vanes or the second-stage power turbine rotor blades.
Autopsies on the pilot and pilot rated passenger were requested.
A cellphone and an I-pad were retained and shipped to the National Transportation Safety Board Recorder Laboratory to see if they contain data pertinent to the accident.