A helicopter pilot who died in a 2010 crash at an Aleutian island cattle ranch had been using his aircraft in an attempt to free a bull ensnared in plastic wrapping material, according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.
At one point the pilot tried to knock the bull down with the helicopter, a witness told investigators. The chopper crashed when a landing gear skid hooked the plastic-wrapped animal and briefly lifted it from the ground, according to the report.
Unalaska resident Lonnie Kennedy, 48, was killed in the June 19, 2010, accident. A recent accident analysis posted on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association website highlighted the crash.
The problems began as Kennedy and two ranch hands at the Bering Pacific Ltd. cattle ranch on Umnak Island attempted to remove plastic sheeting from the uncooperative bull, NTSB investigator Larry Lewis wrote in his March 2011 report.
The ranch hands -- who had been riding in the Robinson R44 helicopter with Kennedy -- hopped out to count cattle, according to Lewis's report.
The bull was tangled in plastic sheeting, and Kennedy, piloting the chopper, tried to herd the animal toward the ranch hands so they could cut off the plastic, Lewis said.
"This is open range," said Lewis, who worked on cattle ranches in his teens. "Cows are tenacious things, and when they start to run, you're not going to stop them, even with a horse. If you don't have some way to stop them, they'll just run for days."
After the first attempts to herd the bull didn't work, Kennedy landed on a trailing piece of plastic so the ranch hands could try to tackle the bull, the report says. Then Kennedy appeared to try to knock the bull down with the helicopter, the witness told Lewis.
"Herding animals with helicopters is a fairly common practice," Lewis said. "Now, as far as making physical contact with the animals, that's a different story."
The witness told Lewis that the pilot then hooked the chopper's right skid under the plastic and tried to lift up the bull. The plastic broke, the report says. The helicopter skid hooked the plastic a second time, the report says, and this time the helicopter lifted the bull off the ground.
Lewis said it's unclear how high the helicopter lifted the animal. He suspects it was a matter of feet. The added weight caused the chopper to pitch forward and to the right, according to the report.
The helicopter slammed into the ground, deforming the fuselage and causing Kennedy's fatal head injuries, the investigator said. The bull also died in the crash, but it's unclear exactly how, Lewis said.
Workers at the cattle ranch notified authorities and a Coast Guard helicopter crew arrived to find Kennedy dead, according to Alaska State Troopers, who later recovered the body.
An autopsy of the body in Anchorage showed no evidence of alcohol or drugs in Kennedy's system, according to Lewis's report.
There were no formal recommendations from the NTSB following the crash, Lewis said.
"This was not something that should have been done," he said. "It's not like a procedure you can change when it's something that you don't routinely do."
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association analysis put it more bluntly:
"Even in Alaska, there are some jobs for which aircraft just aren't well suited," wrote the AOPA's David Jack Kenny. "Lifting unrestrained livestock would seem to be one of them, especially animals that weigh more than the machine can lift."
The helicopter was registered to Calgary-based Bering Pacific Ltd. Officials for the company did not respond to interview requests Tuesday afternoon.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.