By Barry Massey
SANTA FE, N.M. — Moments before a helicopter crashed during a mountain rescue attempt, the pilot radioed to his wife — a state police dispatcher — and told her he was "going down."
Recordings of radio transmissions from State Police Sgt. Andy Tingwall, who died in the accident last week, document the final seconds before the helicopter crashed in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Santa Fe.
The accident happened shortly after the helicopter picked up a hiker who had been lost. The hiker, Megumi Yamamoto of Tokyo, died in the crash. A helicopter crew member survived.
Throughout the final transmission — lasting just under a minute — Tingwall's labored breathing can be heard as he apparently struggles to control the helicopter.
"Hey Leighann, can you hear me," Tingwall said as he radioed the state police dispatch center, knowing that his wife was on duty.
"Affirmative," his wife, the dispatcher, replied.
"All right. I struck a mountainside," Tingwall said in a controlled voice. "Going down."
With urgency in her voice, she replied in radio code, "Are you 10-4?" She was asking whether Tingwall and the helicopter were OK, according to a state police spokesman.
"Negative," responds Tingwall.
For about 35 seconds, Tingwall remains silent except for his heavy breathing. The dispatcher talks with a state police sergeant who was in a patrol car in the Santa Fe area and had heard the helicopter's transmission.
Tingwall's wife finally frantically calls out in code for the helicopter: "Santa Fe 606."
"Hang on," Tingwall abruptly says, apparently to others on the helicopter just before it hit a ridge at about 12,000 feet and then rolled down a boulder-filled slope.
The crash survivor, State Police Officer Wesley Cox, has told investigators that the helicopter's tail rotor apparently struck something — possibly a tree — shortly after taking off with the hiker. Tingwall had landed the helicopter in a clearing and hiked about a half mile to find Yamamoto, who had told dispatchers she was too cold to walk up a slope and through trees to reach the rescuers. Tingwall carried Yamamoto on his back to the helicopter
The rescue came as darkness settled and storm clouds began to blanket the mountains. It had started to sleet.
According to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, "The pilot pointed out a 'valley in the clouds' and took off towards it."
Clouds closed around the helicopter after it took off.
"Sometime later the pilot pulled the helicopter up abruptly and the spotter (Cox) felt the helicopter hit something, shutter and start flying roughly," the NTSB report stated.
Based on the recordings of the radio transmission, an NTSB investigator said the helicopter "continued to fly for at least a minute before impacting a steep ridgeline in a 'controlled hard landing.'" It rolled about 800 feet down a slope. The pilot and hiker were thrown from the helicopter. The survivor remained belted inside the fuselage.
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Yamamoto was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She became separated from her boyfriend during a hike on June 9, and called authorities for help using her cell phone.