Report says ‘poor maintenance’ led to deadly 2022 crash of firefighting helicopter in New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A loss of engine power due to poor maintenance caused a 2022 helicopter crash in New Mexico that claimed the lives of four Bernalillo County first responders as they were returning home from a firefighting mission, according to federal investigators.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board issued a final report Wednesday. They also noted that a maneuver to account for the loss of power was complicated by the setting sun and low altitude and contributed to the crash of the Bell UH-1H helicopter.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that the crash was devastating and deeply affected the department and the community.

Sheriff John Allen, when he took office in 2023, grounded the department’s air support unit and overhauled procedures. The yearlong effort included revamping guidelines and acquiring a new aircraft that meets safety standards.

In light of the NTSB findings, Allen said it was clear the decision to pause and overhaul the program “was not only necessary but critical.”

“We have taken every possible step to ensure such a tragedy does not happen again,” he said.

Killed in the crash were Undersheriff Larry Koren, Lt. Fred Beers, Deputy Michael Levison and Bernalillo County Fire Rescue Specialist Matthew King.

The crash marked the single deadliest incident for law enforcement in New Mexico history and one of the deadliest for first responders.

According to the investigation, an examination of the engine found that a gear failed because of fatigue, leading to a driveshaft shearing and a gearbox seizing. That resulted in a loss of engine power.

The report noted that before the crash, the oil was changed after a small piece of metal was discovered. Samples were sent to a lab, but investigators said the results were not used to troubleshoot the problem on the aircraft.

“Had the operator conducted an analysis, they could have potentially identified the deteriorating component and impending failure,” the report stated.

Koren was piloting the helicopter on July 16 as the group returned from a wildfire on private land near Las Vegas, New Mexico. Authorities say the aircraft made an abrupt descent without any turns before hitting the ground.

Records show King, 44, managed to call 911. Despite being mortally wounded, he tried to lead rescuers to the remote crash site before dying from his injuries.

Koren, 55, was a veteran pilot who had been with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office for more than two decades. Being the sole pilot at the time, his death had left the future of the air support unit uncertain. The sheriff’s office relaunched the unit in December and along with the new safety measures, added an extra pilot and mechanic.

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