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Loose oil screen blamed in police chopper crash

A Tampa police helicopter was leaking oil before it took off, lost power and crashed into a West Tampa neighborhood this month, damaging two houses and injuring two officers on board, federal investigators say.

After examining the wreckage, investigators said, they found that an oil screen in the helicopter's engine was loose. Police said the helicopter's oil and oil screen were changed as part of routine maintenance the day before the crash July 6.

"They found a puddle of oil where he (the helicopter pilot) departed from," said Phillip Powell, an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board in Atlanta. "We don't have many engines that will operate very well without oil in it."

Tampa police Maj. Jane Siling, who oversees the department's aviation unit, said the pilot, Sgt. Jim Zaleski, checked the chopper before taking off about 11 p.m. but could not have seen leaking oil on the dark, wet ground.

"You don't physically look under (the helicopter), but it's raised a little bit so if anything is on the ground, you'd see it," Siling said. "If oil had been down there, you'd smell it. They (pilots) are very keenly attuned to that. Everything appeared normal when they entered that aircraft."

But a few minutes into the routine patrol flight, police said, Zaleski noticed the oil pressure gauge register zero, and then the temperature gauge shot up. The helicopter hit a power pole and crashed between two houses on W Cordelia Street. No one on the ground was hurt.

Officer Jorge Alatorre, the passenger, had facial surgery Thursday and will have his jaw wired shut for three weeks, Siling said. He is expected to be out of work at least two months.

Zaleski has returned to light duty and is undergoing physical therapy for back injuries, Siling said. He should return to flying in about a week.

Powell said it will take investigators four to six months to make a final ruling on the crash's cause.