NTSB report: Witness saw helicopter clip TVA power line before it spun out of control

Staff File Photo / Tennessee Highway Patrol pilot Sgt. Lee Russell secures a THP helicopter’s rotor near a firefighting staging area in 2016 when wildfires had broken out across the region. Russell and Marion County Sheriff's Office Detective Matt Blansett were killed Aug. 23, 2022, when this same helicopter went down on the slopes of Aetna Mountain, 20-25 miles southwest of this scene in Soddy-Daisy.

A witness to the Aug. 23 Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter crash that killed the trooper pilot and a Marion County Sheriff’s Office detective saw the aircraft clip a TVA power line before it spun out of control and plunged out of sight, a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report states.

The witness was on Interstate 24 headed east toward Chattanooga when he saw the helicopter overhead a few minutes before 3 p.m. CDT, according to an NTSB preliminary report released this week.

“He observed a ‘dark colored helicopter’ headed westbound just north of the interstate,” the preliminary report states. “The witness was talking on the phone to his wife, and he told her how concerned he was that the helicopter was flying very low and near a set of power lines. The helicopter did not appear to be in distress. The witness then saw the helicopter strike the power lines and observed an ‘arc.’

“The helicopter spun a few times, and it appeared as if the pilot was trying to regain control. The witness said the helicopter descended out of view,” the report states. “At the same time, a broken section of a power line cable fell on the highway in front of his vehicle. He was unable to stop in time and ran over the cable.”

(READ MORE: Authorities investigate deadly I-24 road rage shooting in Marion County)

According to the report, the helicopter crashed in the steep mountainous terrain of Aetna Mountain west of the CSX railroad tracks that cross I-24.

Marion County Detective Matthew Walker Blansett and Highway Patrol Sgt. Harold Lee Russell were killed when the Bell 206 helicopter owned by the Tennessee Department of Safety hit a high tension power line, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA said it has no record of accidents or incidents for the helicopter that crashed and no record of accidents, incidents or enforcement actions for Russell.

Blansett, 40, of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, was a longtime veteran officer with the Sheriff’s Office and also served as a Marion County commissioner alongside his father, Don Blansett. Blansett’s mother and sister also serve in public office. The pilot, Russell, 35, of McKenzie, Tennessee, had flown many missions in the Chattanooga region, according to authorities.

The NTSB report contained a Tennessee Department of Safety account of the helicopter’s day closely resembling an account given to the Times Free Press by Marion County Sheriff’s Office Detective Gene Hargis.

Blansett and Russell had been conducting a joint-agency marijuana eradication mission that day and stopped for lunch and fuel at the Marion County Airport in Jasper, the report states. Russell purchased 48 gallons of fuel, and after lunch, a call came in requesting backup for a police pursuit, but Russell felt the pursuit would be over before they arrived to assist.

Then a call came in about a missing person case that Blansett was working, not associated with the eradication mission, the report states. Blansett and Lee departed at 2:01 p.m. CDT and flew to a set of coordinates where the missing person was believed to be. The missing person was not found, and Blansett and Lee returned to join the eradication team, the report states.

Hargis’ last words to the two men as they left that day from a lunch of Subway sandwiches were, “Y’all be careful, boys,” the detective said in a phone interview Aug. 26.

In the preliminary report, NTSB investigators describe a violent impact.

“The nose of the helicopter was embedded in the ground on a ravine wall with the tail section pointed straight up in the air,” the report states.

There was no indication of fire. The tail boom appeared to have been struck by one of the helicopter’s two rotor blades, the report states, and there was rotor blade damage consistent with striking a power line, including signs of arcing on the trailing edge of one of the blades.

A handheld GPS device found at the site was retained along with the aircraft wreckage, the report states.

The helicopter wreckage was recovered Aug. 25 and taken to an undisclosed facility in Springfield, Tennessee, for further examination, an NTSB spokesman said Tuesday in an email.

Typically, an NTSB investigation takes a year to two years for a final report, but it’s possible an interim report will be issued at the halfway point before a final report is issued, the NTSB said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.