ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Missouri State Highway Patrol helicopter that crashed and killed a trooper was dangerously low on fuel when it went down near St. Louis in October 2010, federal regulators said in a new report.
Patrol Sgt. Joe Schuengel, 47, was killed when the Bell 206B JetRanger helicopter he was flying crashed into a suburban St. Louis subdivision. He was the only person on board.
The Jan. 5 NTSB report said there were only three quarts of jet fuel in the helicopter's fuel tank after it crashed, and there were no signs that fuel had spilled onto the ground.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/xhso87 ) reports there were only two drops of fuel in the line leading to the fuel pump. Also, a toxicology report from the Federal Aviation Administration showed Schuengel had traces of antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory medications in his system.
The NTSB report did not assign the likely cause of the accident. A spokesman said the probable cause will be detailed later by safety board staff.
The helicopter's fuel supply was a topic of conversation earlier on the day it crashed, the report suggests.
Shortly before 9 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2010, Schuengel and two other Highway Patrol officers took off from the Arnold Police Department toward Interstate 55 for a speed enforcement flight.
Schuengel told the officers they would not be able to "stay up as long as normal" because he would have to refuel before his next flight later that day.
The report says one of the officers said the fuel gauge showed there was "slightly above 25" gallons during the flight, and by the time the helicopter landed back in Arnold, it was "halfway between E and 25" gallons.
Clarke Thomas, owner of Fostaire Helicopters in Cahokia, Ill., said that model of JetRanger holds about 76 to 91 gallons of fuel and burns about 25 gallons an hour.
A witness said he heard the helicopter's engine sputter and then stop before it crashed into a residential area, just missing some homes. Nobody on the ground was hurt.
Thomas said if it's true there were only three quarts of fuel in the bladder when it crashed, that's less than the 1.03 gallons the flight manual considers unusable because the fuel pump wouldn't be able to pump it out.
Federal regulations require helicopter pilots to be able to reach their destinations with 20 minutes of fuel left in the tank.
"We are required to have the frame of mind that empty is where you have 20 minutes of fuel left," Thomas said. "We aren't supposed to ever run them out of gas."
After the crash, the minimum fuel reserve for Highway Patrol helicopters was increased to 30 minutes from 20 minutes, Patrol Capt. Tim Hull said, and helicopter pilots now must receive training every six months instead of every year.
The NTSB report said Schuengel had traces of the anti-anxiety medication alprazolam (the generic name for Xanax), the antidepressant venlafaxine, and over-the-counter naproxen, an anti-inflammatory, in his system.
When Schuengel applied for a Second Class Airman's Medical Certificate in May 2010, he was asked whether he took any medications and whether he suffered from "mental disorders of any sort," including depression and anxiety, according to federal aviation records.
He answered "no" both times, the board said.
The Highway Patrol's aircraft operations standard operating procedures require crew members to "ask their doctor if any prescribed drug, or any nonprescription medications they are taking will affect their ability to function as a pilot."
If so, the section reads, the pilot will "not operate patrol aircraft."
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com