Feds say pilot error probable cause in fatal 2022 Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter crash

National Transportation Safety Board / The Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter that crashed Aug. 23, 2022, on the side of Aetna Mountain along Interstate 24 in Marion County is shown at the salvage yard where it was stored for examination.
National Transportation Safety Board / The Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter that crashed Aug. 23, 2022, on the side of Aetna Mountain along Interstate 24 in Marion County is shown at the salvage yard where it was stored for examination.

The pilot's failure to stay clear of high-tension power lines over Interstate 24 was the probable cause of a 2022 deadly Tennessee Highway Patrol helicopter crash that claimed two lives, according to the final report from the National Transportation Safety Board.

The helicopter was piloted by THP pilot Harold Lee Russell when it crashed Aug. 23, 2022, in Marion County on the side of Aetna Mountain killing Russell, 35, and his passenger, Marion County Sheriff's Detective Matt Blansett, 40.

A witness to the crash was driving eastbound on I-24 toward Chattanooga when he saw a "dark-colored helicopter" flying westbound just north of the interstate, the report states. The driver was talking on the phone to his wife and told her he was concerned the helicopter was flying low and close to a set of power lines.


"He described the helicopter as hovering, and it did not appear to be in distress," the report states. "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 of the helicopter. The witness said the helicopter then descended and went out of view. At the same time, a broken section of a power line cable fell on the interstate in front of his vehicle."

The witness called 911 to report the crash.

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Investigators said Russell was not talking to air traffic control at the time of the accident, and he hadn't made any distress calls, according to the report. Because of the terrain, there was no radar surveillance data available, but a GPS unit aboard the helicopter showed the aircraft was in a descending, right-hand turn when it struck the power lines. The last GPS reading recorded the helicopter at an altitude of 1,130 feet.

The power lines were about 430 feet off the ground and about 3,800 feet long, the report states. The helicopter's cockpit "sustained extensive impact damage." No mechanical malfunctions that would have contributed to the crash were found.

Fateful mission

The helicopter had initially been on an assignment with a state marijuana eradication team, but Blansett had a missing person report to investigate first along U.S. Highway 41, Marion County Sheriff's Office Detective Gene Hargis said in the days following the crash. The missing person was reported the previous day after the man involved went to Chattanooga to purchase supplies and hadn't returned home.

Before leaving on the ill-fated mission, the pair of officers had come back to the office with Subway sandwiches, Hargis recalled. They soon returned to duty for the last time.

"As they were walking out the door, I said, 'Y'all be careful, boys,'" Hargis said in August 2022.

Blansett and Russell flew over a motel where the man's cellphone last connected with a cell tower, but his vehicle wasn't there, according to Hargis.

"He texted me a picture about 30 minutes or so before the crash and said, 'This is where the phone pinged. His vehicle is not here. We're headed back to the other group," Hargis said at the time.

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Less than 30 minutes later, authorities got the report of the helicopter crash and learned Blansett and Russell were killed around 4 p.m. CDT that day when the Bell 206B helicopter owned by the Tennessee Department of Safety crashed, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The crash and loss of lives was devastating to the Marion County community and members of law enforcement statewide who had worked with Russell on missing person searches, anti-drug operations and manhunts through the years.

The National Transportation Safety Board's final report corroborates Hargis' account of the helicopter's flight on the missing person's case, and it states the crash occurred on its return trip to the eradication operation.

Marion County Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said that tragic day still stings the community.

"It's just a sad situation," Burnett said in a phone interview. "A lot of my employees still are missing Matt, and people comment to me every day about him."

The helicopter was maintained by the state and had been inspected Aug. 15, 2022, a week prior to the crash, the report states. Pilots are required to check into an electronic maintenance database before flying, and Russell had done so the day of the crash, recording an entry stating the helicopter had a total of 5,674 hours in the air.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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