The Virginia State Police did not require training in an aerodynamic condition that contributed to the helicopter crash that killed two troopers who had been monitoring street clashes after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville almost three years ago, according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation report released Wednesday.
The “factual report” does not address the probable cause of the crash that killed Lt. H. Jay Cullen — a veteran state police helicopter pilot — and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates on Aug. 12, 2017. But the 10-page report found no record that Cullen had been trained in responding to a condition that may have caused the Bell helicopter to spin and roll before crashing in Albemarle County.
The NTSB report describes a phenomenon called a “vortex ring state” as an aerodynamic condition that causes a helicopter to descend rapidly in the downwash from its own rotor blades, making it subject to “uncommanded pitch and roll oscillations.”
The report says the training manual used by the Virginia State Police Aviation Unit did not list “vortex ring state” in sample lesson plans for initial or recurring training of pilots. The manual also said the maneuvers necessary to recover from the condition “were considered to be optional.”
It also finds no record that Cullen, 48, an 18-year veteran of the aviation unit, receiving training on how to recognize and recover from vortex ring state conditions on the make and model of helicopter he was flying at the time of the fatal crash. However, it noted “anecdotal information” that Cullen was aware of the phenomenon.
“The Virginia State Police received the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Aviation Accident Factual Report late Wednesday and is currently reviewing its findings,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Wednesday night. “The Department is now awaiting the final ruling on the incident to be made by the NTSB Review Board, which will occur in the next 30 to 60 days.”
Cullen and Bates had been monitoring the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally, in which a counterprotester died after an Ohio man attending the rally, James Fields Jr., drove his car into a crowd on a street next to the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville.
About six minutes before the helicopter crash, Cullen and Bates were diverted to oversee the motorcade of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe from state police headquarters next to Interstate 64 to a news conference in downtown Charlottesville.
McAuliffe had just landed at state police headquarters in a Fairfax County police helicopter when he heard a radio report about an aircraft going down.
He had recognized Trooper One, the helicopter that routinely flew him on gubernatorial business, circling above Charlottesville as he arrived from his home in Northern Virginia, where he had been monitoring the deadly clash between white nationalist groups and counterprotesters.
McAuliffe found out soon after he arrived at the news conference that the downed aircraft was indeed Trooper One and that two state police officers he knew well had died in the crash.
Cullen was commander of the state police Aviation Unit and Bates, 40, had helped protect the governor and his family for three years.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” McAuliffe said later that week. “The best of the best in state police.”