Deadly Lake County helicopter crash involved crew testing new firefighting equipment, officials say


LAKE COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – There are no survivors after a crew testing new equipment on a Blackhawk helicopter crashed at Leesburg International Airport Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

The Leesburg Police Department confirmed Wednesday that all four people involved are dead.

“This was a test flight of a new bucket water release system for the helicopter,” said Eric Weiss with the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to the initial report from the Federal Aviation Administration, the crew was conducting fire water drop exercises and lost control of the bucket. That caused the rotor section to separate.

“The helicopter went into a tailspin and, at some point, the tail separated from the main body of the aircraft. The tail actually went onto the airport runway area while the main body of the helicopter went into the wooded swampy area,” said Capt. Joe Iozzi with the Leesburg Police Department.

The helicopter is owned by Firehawk Helicopters, Inc., also known as Brainerd Helicopters Inc., a private company that partners with local, state and federal entities to fight wildfires.

The company declined to comment on the incident Wednesday.

The NTSB was on scene Wednesday gathering evidence to determine what went wrong.

“They’re examining the wreckage. They’re taking measurements. They’re looking at different components. They are taking lots and lots of photographs,” said Weiss.

The muddy conditions in the wooded area where the aircraft crashed have made the search and information gathering process more difficult, according to officials.

In the next day or two, the NTSB will use another helicopter to lift the wrecked helicopter away from the scene so a closer examination can be done. It could take one or two years for the NTSB to determine the cause of the crash.

People who spend time near the airport are familiar with the Firehawk training.

“You see them carrying the bucket and practicing putting water in an exact location,” said Mike Reynolds, a pilot in training. “They’re just out here every day trying to do their job. They do a really dangerous job.”

Employees at Cecil Clarke Chevrolet across the street saw all the training activity Tuesday

“We just saw a lot of training exercises going on, a lot of helicopters going back and forth. We thought it was a normal training exercise. In the afternoon, we did see a lot of the smoke coming up,” said Buzz York.

When employees at the dealership heard the news, they lowered their flag to half-staff.

“They’re our friends and our neighbors so we just wanted to show a little respect,” said York.

Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried directed all flags to be lowered to half-staff at the state’s Forest Service facilities.

“We are devastated to hear of yesterday’s firefighting helicopter crash in Leesburg,” Fried said in a statement. “On behalf of the State of Florida, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Florida Forest Service, we extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones and colleagues affected by this immeasurable loss. These brave souls training to protect our communities will not be forgotten.”

The Florida Forest Service Withlacoochee Forestry Center issued a statement saying it was saddened by the loss of the crew known to the Florida Forest Service as the “Firehawk.”

“We greatly appreciate their service and the piece of mind they gave our firefighters when they arrived on scene. REST IN PEACE,” the statement on Facebook reads.

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