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The Harvard Yacht Club Building, site of a helicopter crash which killed all four passengers Wednesday morning, remained roped off by yellow police tape yesterday.
But a federal investigation into the cause of the tragic decent, which left two state troopers and two AT&T employees dead, has already revealed that the crash may have been caused by transmission failure in the six-seat American-made helicopter.
According to eyewitness accounts of yesterday's disaster, only the main rotor of the helicopter was not operating at the time of the crash.
"The only thing running was its tail section," said MIT Utilities Construction Coordinator David M. Barber, who witnessed the crash from across the street.
Larry R. Retta, a spokesperson for the Army Safety Center at Ft. Rucker, Ala, said yesterday that the failure of the main rotor may have been due a faulty transmission.
"When the motor is not turning, it's a sign of transmission failure," Ketta said. "That's what it sounds like it was to me."
On Wednesday, the helicopter's wreckage was transported on a flatbed truck from the crash site to a hanger at Logan International Airport, where federal investigators are working to determine the cause of the deadly crash.
The team of investigators have recovered several key pieces of the aircraft, including its control panel, engine, and tail section, Alan Yarman, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said at a press conference yesterday.
"We are setting the aircraft up, reconstructing it to the way it was prior to the accident," Yarman said. "There's still a lot of areas we want to look at."
'Like a Pinwheel'
Nearly all helicopter crashes are the result of engine malfunction which cut off power to the rotor blades, said Robert E. Breiling, an independent contractor who has compiled aircraft safety records since 1963.
When an engine malfunctions, the pilot can keep the craft from plummeting to the ground by forcing air through the engines in a technique known as autorotation, Breiling said.
"It's like with a pinwheel," Breiling said. "When the engine fails, you shift it into neutral, then let the air keep run through the blades and keep it spinning."
Most emergency autorotation landings are not fatal, and pilots must master the procedure during flight school, he said.
John D. Sturgeon, who saw the accident as he stood outside his Memorial Drive office building Wednesday, said the pilot appeared have lost control of his craft.
"It circled over, then it turned sideways and just came straight down," he said.
The fact that the blades were still intact after impact with the Yacht Club Building indicates that transmission failure is a distinct possibility, Yarman said.
"The blades were damaged, but not damaged like I would expect at high RPMS [revolutions per minute]," Yurman said. "In this, we show no signs of autorotation."
A clue to the puzzle may lie in the helicopter's transmission indicator, which lights up if pieces of transmission gears begin to clog the aircraft's motor.
"If that light comes on, you better land the aircraft right then," Retta said. "That's something all kids learn in flight school."
The transmission equipment was recovered near the crash site and is presently being analyzed, Yurman said.
Yurman said yesterday that his investigation is only in the preliminary stages. It may be weeks before investigators can finally locate the problem with the chopper.
After every thirty flight-hours, state police maintenance crews inspect the plane, and pilots check the unit daily, Bennett said Wednesday. The helicopter's engine had been serviced last year, he said.
The crash was the first in the 26-year history of the state police helicopter unit, according to Dean R. Bennett, chief pilot for the state police. "We pray it will not happen to us again."
According to NTSB records, the A350B AStar helicopter has been involved in 63 accidents in the United States, killing 57 on-board passengers. It averages 3.5 accidents per 100,000 hours of flight.
"The helicopter has an average failure rate for popular vehicles of the same size," Breiling said.
The remaining State Police helicopters have been grounded and will fly only in emergencies, Col. Charles Henderson, Superintendent of the State Police, told The Associated Press yesterday.
Caring for the Families
The two state troopers aboard the helicopter were James Mattaliano, 33, of Sandwich and Paul A. Perry, 39, of Salem. They were 12 and 14-year veterans of the State Police, respectively. Both had extensive flying experience, Bennett said.
Also killed were longtime AT&T technicians Arthur T. Howell, 47, of Malden and Michael McCarthy, 46, of Weymouth. Both men were just shy of completing 29 years of service with the firm. They would have been eligible for retirement next year, said S. Kay Gibbs, a spokesperson for AT&T.
The technicians were being transported by helicopter from Boston to Norwood Airport, where they were to work on upgrading the phone system at the Norwood State Police Head-quarters, Gibbs said.
Funeral services for Perry, Mattaliano, and Howell were scheduled for Saturday. Perry's Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. in at St. Joseph Church in Salem.
The Mass for Mattaliano will be celebrated at 1 p.m. at St. Elizabeth's Church in Milton. Howell will receive last rites at 10 a.m. at St. Brigid's Church in Boston. Funeral arrangements for McCarthy were not available last night.
Flags at State Police headquarters will be flying at half-mast for the next thirty days, and officers will be wearing a small black sash around their uniform badges as a symbol of mourning, according to Capt. Robert J. Byrd, commander of public affairs for the state police.
The deceased officers will also be honored at their funerals with a gun salute, the playing of bagpipes, and, "ironically, there will be a helicopter fly-over," Byrd said.
"It's a time of reflection; you reflect upon your own mortality," Byrd said. "This makes us realize we must appreciate people when they are alive, not after they have died."
Gibbs said AT&T representatives spent Wednesday consoling the families of Howell and McCarthy. Workers also sent flowers and will be collecting donations.
"This is not a company where someone goes off to work in the morning expecting any risk other than the normal risk of going to work," she said.
'Attempting to Regroup'
As aviation officials sift through the helicopter's wreckage, members of Harvard's sailing team are looking for ways to salvage their upcoming racing season.
"First and foremost, we're concerned about the victims and their families. Secondly, we're attempting to regroup and move on with the season," said Bryan T. Agnetta '96, the team's captain.
The helicopter crashed directly upon the roof of the tiny two-story barge, tearing a large gash in the ceiling and western wall and also damaging the storage and launching systems.
Sailing team members use the 4,629 square foot building as a headquarters, storage and training facility. The team's fleet of forty boats was housed inside Wednesday.
Boats are hung from a unique storage system which enables solo boat launchings, said Michael S. Horn '63, the team's head coach.
One of the boats suffered structural damage when it was knocked from the hangar and wedged between two rafters. Although rescue officials covered the area with flame-retardant foam, none of the sails were damaged, Horn said.
Agnetta said he is hoping the building will undergo repairs. Practices at the boathouse were scheduled to begin next week, he said.
If the boats can be extracted from the building (which may be difficult because of the damages) the boathouse's docks could still be used this season. Otherwise, the group may ask the MIT team for permission to tie the boats at their headquarters, team member Emily R. Patek '97 said yesterday.
"We have a good chance to qualify for nationals, and we hope things will turn out all right," Agnetta said.
The building has frequently served as the site of the North American Sailing Championships, according to Harvard's Sports Information Office.
In addition, team members said they would hold a team meeting to decide whether to name a boat in honor of the four deceased helicopter passengers.
"Above all, we want to be sensitive to the families," Agnetta said.
One concern of both university officials and sailing team members is paying for the cleanup costs to the damaged boathouse.
Boats stored in the building, which was constructed in 1972 with money raised by the Friends of Harvard Sailing, are each worth more than $5,000. Estimates on repairing structural damage could run close to $20 thousand, Horn said.
The Harvard-owned building is covered by university insurance policies, Horn said.
State police would only be liable for damage if negligence by the pilot could be proved, said University Attorney Allan A. Ryan, Jr.
"One would have to show they failed to use reasonable care. From everything I've seen, it doesn't look like that is the case," he said. Dueling Crash Theories
Engine failure results from a loss of power to the engines. In a process called "autorotation," the pilot changes the pitch of the blades and forces air through them. This keeps the craft from plummeting to the ground.
The pilot does not lose control of the helicopter, and he often lands gently. Passengers often walk away from the landing site.
Transmission failure results when parts of the transmission flake off and clog the plane's engine, preventing the pilot from keeping the blades running. The plane spirals out of control and crashes to the ground.
Eyewitnesses and experts believe the downed helicopter's blades were not turning when it crashed Wednesday.
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