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Recovery efforts begin for Las Vegas helicopter crash victims

December 8, 2011 |  2:11 pm

Authorities investigate Las Vegas tour helicopter crash

Federal investigators launched a probe Thursday into a helicopter crash outside Las Vegas, in which the pilot and four passengers were killed during a sunset sightseeing tour.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a 12-member team to Lake Mead National Recreation Area, where authorities said the helicopter appeared to have slammed into the River Mountains just before 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Authorities had not identified the helicopter’s passengers by midday Thursday. The pilot was identified by his father as Landon Nield, 31. Nield had worked for Sundance Helicopters for several years, White Eagle Nield told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He had gotten married in June and his wife, Gabriela, had two children from a previous marriage.

The Eurocopter AS-350, operated by Sundance, had been on a sightseeing flight over the Las Vegas Strip and Hoover Dam. A Sundance representative said the company had suspended all flights Thursday and was cooperating fully with the investigation.

The wreckage, which television news video showed strewn about a canyon, was in a site so remote that authorities could only reach it via helicopter and all-terrain vehicles. NTSB board member Mark Rosekind told reporters he expected the site’s ruggedness to complicate the investigation.

Authorities deemed it too risky to try to recover the crash victims late Wednesday, so a park ranger was dispatched to guard the bodies and debris overnight. Recovery efforts began Thursday morning.

Federal investigators will comb the site for several days, Rosekind said. A final report on the incident, which includes safety recommendations intended to prevent future crashes, could take as long as a year to complete.

Sundance, which flies out of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, was involved in a fatal crash in 2003. One of its helicopters smacked into a canyon wall near the Grand Canyon, killing the pilot and six passengers. A National Transportation Safety Board report said the pilot had a history of flying recklessly.

Former coworkers told investigators that the pilot was nicknamed “Kamikaze” and often “worked the helicopter, pushed the aircraft, and pushed the rules of flight in Descent Canyon,” the report said. The NTSB found that the tour company had failed to discipline him.

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--Ashley Powers in Las Vegas

Twitter.com/ashleypowers

Photo: Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy, center, talks with Las Vegas Metro Police search and rescue officers after viewing the site where a tour helicopter crashed near Lake Mead. Credit: Reuters

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