School Owner: Mid-air Crash Could've Been Deadly

Published February 20, 2012 10:45PM (EST)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The owner of a helicopter flight school whose student was involved in a mid-air collision said Monday the pilot narrowly escaped what could have been a deadly crash after the chopper was hit from behind by a small plane.

Instead, the pilots of both the Robinson R22 helicopter and Beechcraft Bonanza plane escaped with minor injuries after making rough emergency landings Sunday evening just north of Antioch, about halfway between Oakland and Sacramento.

The chopper pilot, a 29-year-old woman, is an experienced commercial airplane pilot who was logging night-flying hours alone toward a helicopter license, said Wayne Prodger, owner of Vertical CFI Helicopters in Hayward.

The woman told Prodger she briefly saw the plane behind her around 7 p.m. The next thing she knew, it struck the chopper's skids and she was falling to the ground, Prodger told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

"A few feet higher, it would've been catastrophic because the plane would've crashed right into the copter," he said.

Prodger declined to provide his student's name, saying she's still shaken up from the incident.

There are about 12 mid-air collisions each year in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

While infrequent, the mishaps are often deadly, said Peter Leffe, a Los Angeles-based aviation accident investigator.

"Both pilots are exceedingly lucky to be alive," he said of the weekend incident. "They can count their blessings."

Leffe, who has been flying for more than 46 years, said landings and departures have the greatest potential for accidents.

"It doesn't mean you don't have to be vigilant at all times," he said. "You're constantly scanning the skies for other aircraft."

The helicopter set down just off state Highway 160, while the single-engine plane made a rough landing in a field just short of a nearby airport, authorities said.

Prodger said the woman's flight experience helped keep damage and injury to a minimum.

"The copter flipped over and she got herself out and turned the fuel off. In the face of all adversity, she was calm and cool enough to turn the switches off," Prodger said.

"From all accounts, she did everything perfectly to get the copter down," he added.

Two people were aboard the plane, said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman. The passenger was not injured.

Both pilots were taken to hospitals with minor injuries, Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Ramos said. The woman had cuts to her hands from barbed wire she encountered while climbing out of the chopper, according to Prodger.

The 1961 six-seat Beechcraft plane is registered to Ronald A. Gawer of Brentwood in Contra Costa County, records show.

Gawer did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.

The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the crash.

By Salon Staff

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