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Makeshift landing pad may be linked to fatal chopper crash

Casey Grove

A helicopter involved in a fatal crash this month at the Pogo Mine, near Delta Junction in Interior Alaska, touched down on a makeshift log landing pad that appeared to have broken apart, investigators say.

Alaska State Troopers identified the pilot of the McDonnell Douglas 600N as Missouri resident James Hopper, 63, who flew the helicopter for Aurora Aviation Services to support operations at the gold mine.

According to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report released Monday, a witness told investigators he radioed Hopper for a pickup at a remote landing pad about 4:30 p.m. Aug. 7. The pad, made of interlaced logs attached with spikes, sat on a hillside surrounded by trees, the report says.

The witness said he kneeled next to the improvised helipad as the aircraft touched down. Hopper, the lone occupant of the helicopter, turned his head, apparently about to give the unnamed man a signal to board, the man said. But the helicopter pitched up and back. It hit trees and rolled down a hill about 100 feet, landing on its left side, engine still running, the witness told investigators.

Another witness reported he heard the crash from farther away and came running. As he passed the landing pad, he noticed a log at its back edge had moved, the NTSB report says.

"He noted that the long spike that attaches the log to the foundation was pulled out, and the log was displaced aft," the report says.

Down the hill, Hopper was mortally injured and the helicopter's fuselage, tail and rotor were destroyed. Medical staff at Pogo Mine pronounced Hopper dead, troopers said.

The NTSB's preliminary report is the local investigators' first publicly released report on the crash. A factual report and a report on the crash's probable cause from the full safety board will likely follow.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported representatives of three companies involved in the helicopter's construction -- McDonnell-Douglas, Rolls-Royce and Boeing -- studied the wreckage.

Reach Casey Grove at or 257-4589.

Anchorage Daily News