The small town of Chatham, New Jersey, was stunned when a helicopter crash-landed in the parking lot of an apartment off Main Street on Friday, February 24, 2017. A pilot and one passenger were on board the aircraft, which hit one of the complex's community garages as it came down. Despite the proximity to numerous dwellings, there were no fatalities in the R44 helicopter crash, and the only person to sustain injuries was the helicopter's passenger.
Robinson R44 Narrowly Misses Apartment Complex
The helicopter, a Robinson R44 registered in Delaware, was traveling from Richmond, Virginia, to Lincoln Park, New Jersey, when the crash, which is being deemed an emergency hard landing, occurred at about 6:37 p.m. Hard landings differ from classic helicopter crashes in that the pilot usually has at least some control over the aircraft on the descent, but hard landings can still be serious and even fatal.
At the time of the crash, the Robinson R44 was only about 15 miles from its destination and approximately three miles south of Morristown Municipal Airport in East Hanover. Prior to the crash, the pilot had been in contact with Morristown airport to communicate that he would be crossing their airspace en route.
While the pilot was able to land the helicopter upright in the small parking area of the Madison Hill Apartments at 525 Main Street in Chatham, the tail of the aircraft struck a garage during the landing.
Witnesses Recount Small Explosion Sound During Helicopter Accident
Noise from the helicopter accident involving the apartment complex's garage instantly attracted the attention of residents and neighbors, who described hearing a noise that sounded like an explosion.
Sarah Schwarz, who witnessed the events, spoke with ABC7 and described the moment.
"We heard something we thought was an explosion, and we all stopped and tried to figure out what was going on," Schwarz recalled.
Marisol Malinoski, a physical therapist who was nearby, also heard the noise from the crash and responded to the scene, where she found the pilot seemingly unharmed and the passenger struggling with back pain.
"The [passenger] was the guy who was really hurt. He explained to me that he was feeling a really big pain on his lower back. That's why I asked him not to move. There was another guy holding his head and I was holding his back," Malinoski told Pix11.
Kathryn Hill lives with her husband in an apartment nearby and heard the low-flying Robinson R44 before the crash, noting that it seemed to be in distress. Soon after, Hill told New Jersey Hills, they "heard a loud pop of metal hitting pavement."
Who Was Flying the Robinson R44?
Piloting the Robinson R44 was John Walsh, a 54-year-old man who lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Witnesses say that Walsh did not appear injured, but was coherent and calm, and officials have said that while Walsh refused medical treatment, he did remain on the scene and was cooperating with authorities.
The Chatham helicopter crash made headlines in the U.K. because Walsh, who was born in Ireland, is the brother of X Factor U.K. judge Louis Walsh.
Sole Passenger Sustains Injuries
Paul Benson, a 49-year-old man from Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, was the only passenger aboard the Robinson R44 when it crashed.
Though, like Walsh, Benson remained conscious during the crash, he reported feeling back pain, and was taken to Morristown Medical Center, where he was treated, kept overnight, and eventually released.
Officials have not detailed what injuries Benson sustained in the helicopter crash.
Investigation into New Jersey Helicopter Crash is Ongoing
A host of local first responders came to the scene of the Chatham helicopter crash shortly after the accident, including the Madison Police Department, Chatham Fire Department, Chatham Office of Emergency Management, Morris County Office of Emergency Management and Morris County Hazmat Team.
It was, however, the Chatham Police Department and the Morris County Sheriff's Department Crime Scene Investigation Section that completed the initial of the helicopter crash on Friday night.
Investigations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are underway, and the FAA examined the crash site the day after the hard landing. On Tuesday, February 28, 2017, a salvage company removed the wreckage of the Robinson R44.
For their part, Chatham city officials believe it could easily have been much worse.
"I think the pilot, from my vantage point, did a wonderful job landing this helicopter where he did and could've averted catastrophe," Stephen Williams, police information officer of the Chatham Borough, told ABC7. "He crashed right in between the garages and the complex, like of all places to land, I mean there was a lot of angels out there."
Robinson R44 Known for Crashes
The Robinson R44 is a controversial aircraft, with a reputation for crashes. As of September of 2016, the NTSB accident database listed 119 fatal incidents for the Robinson R44, with 252 deaths.
On February 13, 2017, two men were involved in a Robinson R44 hard landing at Jandakot Airport in Australia. Both were able to walk away from the accident with minimal injuries after the helicopter came down in a field near the airstrip, losing its tail in the impact.
In the week transitioning from December 2016 to January 2017, Robinson helicopters were involved in two helicopter crashes in California. In the first, a Robinson R44 made a hard landing on Mount Baldy that resulted in non-life threatening injuries and the rescue of all four on board. In the second, a Robinson R22 crashed into the waters of the Port of Los Angeles, killing the two men on board. In that crash, the pilot and passenger had intended to take up a Robinson R44, but the larger helicopter had been unavailable.
Experts have called upon authorities to ensure that Robinson R44 helicopters are outfitted with crash-resistant fuel systems, and New Zealand has placed Robinson helicopters on its Watchlist of Most Pressing Concerns and has even grounded their aircraft at times.