NOXEN, PA. - The weather was fierce Saturday night when a helicopter - which earlier departed from Tri-Cities Airport in Endicott - went down in a remote area near a northeastern Pennsylvania wind farm, killing all five people on board.
The victims' identities hadn't yet been released Monday afternoon, according to the Wyoming County Coroner's Office. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration also haven't released new details by Monday afternoon.
The crash apparently happened Saturday night after radar and communication contact with the helicopter was lost, according to the FAA.
The FAA said the Robinson 66 helicopter was heading to Jake Arner Memorial Airport in Lehighton, Pa., between Wilkes-Barre and Allentown. An alert notice was issued after the radar and communication contact was lost. The wreckage was found around 2 p.m. Sunday in a remote wooded area, about halfway between Endicott and Lehighton.
A Noxen volunteer firefighter said Monday morning the crash happened on a private windmill farm just north of center of the community. The Mehoopany Wind Farm, operated by BP Wind Energy, spans miles on the top of a mountain.
A man who lives nearby the wind farm said it was raining very hard Saturday night, and he was surprised the helicopter was even out. He didn't hear anything out of the ordinary Saturday night, but he could have mistaken the sound of the crash for thunder, he said Monday morning.
"No wind turbines have been damaged as a result of the accident and none of our personnel were impacted," said Matt Hartwig, media affairs officer for BP America.
Wyoming County coroner Thomas Kukuchka said Sunday four adults and one child were killed in the crash. Those on board appear to have been a man and his son, a man and his daughter and the pilot, he said. Kukuchka did not release the ages of the victims. He said his office was trying to reach family members of the deceased in Leesburg, Va., Ellicott City, Md. and Kintnersville, Pa.
Kukuchka said the pilot reported he was losing altitude just before air traffic controllers lost track of the helicopter around 10:30 p.m. Saturday. He said the area experienced strong storms on Saturday night, and rough weather also hampered search efforts.
Pennsylvania State Police and FAA personnel were still on the scene Sunday night, according to Trooper Adam Reed. Additional details will be released as the investigation progresses, he said. The FAA says the National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation.
Carl Beardsley, Commissioner of Aviation at the Greater Binghamton Airport, confirmed the helicopter took off from the Tri-Cities Airport.
The air traffic control tower at the Greater Binghamton Airport was in communication with the helicopter at the time of its departure, Beardsley said, adding that he was not aware of any issues reported at the time.
Beardsley said air traffic control at the Greater Binghamton Airport communicates with aircraft departing from the Tri-Cities Airport until they get to a certain elevation. He did not have information about the time the aircraft took off on Saturday evening.
"At this point, they're telling me that, no, there were no issues at that point," Beardsley said.
Tri-Cities Airport Manager Gerard Corprew said he was not at the Tri-Cities airport when the helicopter took off, but other aviators witnessed a turbine helicopter matching the aircraft's description picking up fuel and departing some time after 7 p.m. Saturday.
The father and his young son killed in the crash were still waiting to be picked up when Corprew left Tri-Cities Airport at 7 p.m., Corprew said Monday. The airport has a voluntary sign-in log, Corprew said, and the helicopter did not leave its information.
"We get a lot of transient pilots coming through to pick up fuel," he said.
The helicopter that crashed is sometimes used for tours, Corprew said, and can seat four in addition to a pilot. It can also be used for training new pilots.
A federal tail number Corprew provided showed the aircraft is owned by Robinson Helicopter Co. of Torrance, Calif., according to an FAA records check. A company spokeswoman could not immediately be reached by email and phone before regular business hours Monday.
According to the Robinson Helicopter Co. Web site, the helicopter has a maximum cruise speed of 125 knots - 144 miles per hour - a maximum operating altitude of 14,000 feet, and a maximum range of 325 nautical miles.
The FAA lists 133 registered R66 helicopters in the U.S., including one in the Syracuse area, the only one in New York state.
A NTSB database of aviation accidents lists four fatal crashes involving the helicopter model, including a July 2011 crash in Colombia, a January 2013 crash in Brazil and a March crash in New Zealand. The only American fatal crash involving the helicopter occurred Oct. 1, 2011, near Philip, South Dakota, when the helicopter broke up in flight while cruising, according to NTSB data.
Kukuchka said there were severe thunderstorms in the area Saturday night, although it was not clear if weather played a role in the crash. The coroner and police said rough weather contributed to the difficulty of the search; the wreckage was located shortly before 2 p.m. Sunday.