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Report: Helicopter got new fuel injection unit just before fatal crash-landing on Tampa road

TAMPA —The engine powering the half-million dollar helicopter had only a few days' worth of run time, but something was wrong.

It was March 31, and the owner was flying the 2019 Robinson R44 II from Naples to Cross City when the engine lost all power, forcing him to make a emergency landing in Lutz. Four days later, on April 4, mechanics replaced the fuel injection unit of the sleek, blue four-seater, and a pilot and mechanic set off for Sarasota.

Fifteen minutes into the flight, the engine lost all power again, forcing the pilot to make a hard landing on 50th Street in Tampa. A piece of the rotor blade flew across the intersection with Palm River Road, pierced the windshield of a passing pickup and struck 72-year-old Deodat Gangapersaud, killing him instantly.

New details of the helicopter's engine troubles are included in a preliminary report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board. They chronicle the problems that plagued the new chopper before the fatal crash.

The Federal Aviation Administration had previously said that a pilot reported a "possible mechanical problem" with the helicopter during a flight March 31 and made an emergency landing at Geraci Airpark, a private airfield in Lutz.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Plant City man killed by helicopter rotor was grandfather and role model, his family says

The owner of the Robinson was flying the chopper that day, according to the new NTSB report, though his name is not included in the report. Records show the helicopter is owned by BC Dental Inc. in Fort Wayne, Ind. Efforts by the Tampa Bay Times to reach the owner have been unsuccessful.

After the landing in Lutz, the pilot restarted the engine, letting it idle for several minutes. When he pulled up on the lever that makes the aircraft ascend and descend, the engine lost power again. He tried once more with the same result, then contacted Robinson and asked the company to make whatever repairs were necessary.

An FAA inspector arrived at the field on April 4 to find mechanics from Florida Suncoast Helicopters working on the helicopter. The mechanics told the inspector they had cleaned the fuel screen. A pilot with Florida Suncoast Helicopters started the engine, let it warm up and tried to ascend. The engine, a 260-horsepower Lycoming with 81 hours of run time, lost all power.

"After further discussion with the manufacturer, the mechanics decided to replace the fuel servo unit with a new one," the NTSB report says.

After that work was done, the Florida Suncoast pilot started the engine and hovered the helicopter for several minutes. No problems were noted.

The pilot and one of the mechanics — later identified as Bryan T. Messick, 38, and 21-year-old Joshua J. Wells — took off at 2:01 p.m. bound for Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport, where Florida Suncoast Helicopters is headquartered.

At 2:16, the engine lost power, forcing Messick to bring the helicopter down on 50th Street. As the helicopter slid to a stop in the southbound lanes, its main rotor blade struck a utility pole, slicing it in half. According to the NTSB report, a 2 1/2-foot-long piece of the rotor blade broke off and pierced the windshield of a Chevrolet Silverado heading north on 50th Street approaching Palm River Road.

Ryan Persaud, 35, was driving the pickup truck and his father was sitting in the passenger seat. Persaud told the Times the day after the crash that they had just left a grocery store and were heading home to Plant City.

Messick and Wells were not injured.

Investigators who examined the engine after the crash noted the engine's air intake duct was partially collapsed and the duct's inner rubberized fabric liner had separated from the outer liner, blocking the interior of the duct.

The report doesn't say if investigators suspect the damaged duct was a factor in the engine problems or a result of the crash landing. But on Thursday, Robinson issued a service bulletin noting the company had received a report of an air induction hose separating. The bulletin directed R44 owners and operators to inspect the hoses and immediately replace any that show signs of separation. The bulletin directed the replacement of all hoses by June 30.

Robinson, based in Torrance, Calif., sent its own investigator to assist the NTSB. A Robinson spokeswoman said previously the company cannot comment on a pending investigation.

Messick of Bradenton had nearly 658 hours of flight experience at the time of the crash, the report says. He did not immediately return a message Tuesday.

Bill Cooper, owner of Florida Suncoast Helicopters, told the Times on Tuesday that the NTSB report contains what he knows so far about the incident. Cooper said the owner of the helicopter has a winter home in Naples and during the March 31 flight was attempting to return to his home up north.

Cooper said Messick likely could have brought the helicopter down without sliding, but had to pull up to avoid a passing semitrailer truck and lost some control.

Still, Cooper said, "We couldn't believe the job he did getting it down between the wires. I think he did a miraculous job."

Messick and Wells, who lives in Pinellas Park, didn't know someone on the ground had been killed until about 20 minutes after the crash, Cooper said.

"When they found that out, they were very upset," he said. "I feel very sorry for the family of that man."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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