Report expected Friday in fatal airport crash

Published 8:44 am Tuesday, September 23, 2014

By Monique Roth and Stephen Hemelt

RESERVE — A preliminary report is expected by the end of the week to help explain the circumstances surrounding the death of two people killed Sunday when a gyrocopter crashed at St. John Airport, killing both its passengers.

The St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office announced the victims’ names Monday morning, identifying them as Darren Mahler, 47, and a family friend, Payton Wilt, 13, both of Metairie.

The crash occurred at approximately 5:20 p.m. Sunday, when the home-built gyrocopter, which looks like part helicopter and part airplane, took off at the airport.

Piloted by Mahler, the aircraft made it about 300 feet down the runway before taking off approximately 30 feet into the air, where it flew for about 1,000 feet.

Officials at the airport who witnessed the crash said the flight pattern was consistent with a pilot who was checking out aircraft systems and appeared to be satisfied with the aircraft’s performance.

The aircraft then rose to an altitude above 200 feet as it crossed the end of the runway. The blades began to malfunction, causing the aircraft to descend rapidly before crashing into a drainage ditch.

Arnold Scott, investigator in charge for the Nation Transportation Safety Board, said he will file a preliminary report by Friday and will also be writing the final report, which could take a couple of months.

“My goal is to write a factual report that describes all the facts and circumstances and conditions of the accident,” Scott said. “I submit it to Washington, D.C., and the five-member board determines the probable cause.”

Scott, who has not visited the scene, said he will not travel to Louisiana, instead he will rely on information provided by local and regional investigators, including those of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The gyroplane had been flying earlier (Sunday),” Scott said. “Witnesses saw the gyroplane take off to the north and curve left on what we call the crosswind leg. (The pilot) got up to an estimated 200 feet when witnesses saw something fall off the gyroplane and it plunged into that canal.”

Should investigators determine if any rules or regulations have been broken, Scott said the FAA would handle that part of the case.

“They are the ones that make the regulations, and they are the ones who investigate whether a regulation was broken and take action, but in this case I don’t know if any regulation has been broken,” Scott said.

Lynn Lunsford, public affairs officer with the Federal Aviation Administration, said he is looking into the history of the pilot, the history of the aircraft and if any regulations came into play, adding the final determination and report from investigators could take up to a year to produce.

St. John Airport

The St. John Airport, with a 5,150-foot paved runway, offers private, business and air-freight services and storage. It is owned and operated by the Port of South Louisiana.

The airport is a “general aviation public airport,” said Joey Murray, treasurer of the Port of South Louisiana. “Any aircraft with a suitable license can use it.”

He said tenants rent space at the airport, which Mahler did. Mahler kept his gyrocopter in a privately owned hangar on site.

Murray, who is also a pilot, said he was not sure of the specific license needed to fly the gyrocopter, but added Mahler would have had to hold a license to fly out of the airport.

Mahler’s gyrocopter is considered an experimental aircraft, which meant it was not assembled in a factory. Murray said all experimental aircraft are marked as such in big letters to give the public and potential passengers “fair warning” of the production of the aircraft.

Murray said the Sheriff’s Office and Port authorities worked all night Sunday to preserve and protect the crash scene, adding he didn’t think pilot error was the crash’s cause.  

Murray said because of several eyewitness reports, including his own, FAA officials were able to focus on the mechanics of the aircraft to see what may have caused the wreck instead of having to piece together every single detail.

Emergency services, including 911, fire services and the St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office first responded to the scene Sunday evening, where the two males were pronounced dead.

“It was very, very sad to see,” Murray said.

Vincent Caire, airport director, said Federal Aviation Administration officials will be in Reserve this week to investigate the crash.

He said the gyrocopter remained partially submerged in the drainage ditch overnight Sunday before it was moved Monday onto pavement, where investigators could fully inspect it.