A helicopter pilot spraying a Burbank apple orchard Wednesday morning crashlanded after he apparently lost power.
The pilot, whose name and age were not released, was not hurt. The cockpit and main body of the helicopter remained largely intact, but part of the back tail did break off, officials said.
"It came down on its skids," said Walla Walla County Undersheriff Eddie Freyer. "He tried to set it down on the road, but he kind of ran out of air."
Emergency responders were called just before 7:30 a.m. about a possible downedaircraft near Ice Harbor Dam Road, also known as Highway 124, and Flat Top Road.
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When Walla Walla Fire District 5 crews arrived at the scene they found the downed helicopter in the trees at the Flat Top Ranch.
"The pilot is OK. He walked out under his own power," said Fire District 5 Chief Mike Wickstrom. "There was minimal damage to the crops that are around it."
The sheriff's office activated its search and rescue group and had a couple members from the group secure the scene until officials with the Federal Aviation Administration or National Transportation Safety Board could respond.
An FAA investigator from Spokane arrived around 11:30 a.m., Freyer said.
Freyer said typically there are three possible factors: weather, mechanical issue or pilot error.
"The weather seemed to have been fairly clear and calm," he said. "I don't know if there was pilot error or some type of mechanical malfunction."
The FAA will determine the cause of the crash.
Mike Fergus, an FAA spokesman, told the Herald that initial reports indicated the pilot was able to get the helicopter to "auto-rotate down."
"If the engine quits, a pilot can set up the blades in a way to cushion the impact down," Fergus said. "It's a great survival technique."
The helicopter, a Bell 206 JetRanger, is owned by a Zillah company, officials said. A person who answered the phone at JR Helicopters in Zillah told the Herald, "We have no comment."
Flying a helicopter for agriculture work can be extremely dangerous because of the low altitude, but Kennewick pilot Kyle Kugan called it "exciting."
"It's the feel of flight, and you're flying so low to the ground," said Kugan, who flies for L&L Helicopter. "You have a lot of obstacles and really have to be on your game when you're doing your job."
Kugan said there is very little room for error in that line of work, but he brushed off the dangers by noting there are many jobs that carry risk.
In addition to spraying orchards and crops, helicopters also typically are used to fly close to cherry trees to knock water off the fruit.
Kugan, a pilot for six years and spraying for three, said pilots try to get as low as they can when doing that type of agricultural flying -- often getting as close of 5-8 feet off the trees.
"You've just got to really focus and pay attention to your job," he said. "If you're flying along spraying and you're expecting (a problem), you're going to have a lot better chance of putting it there without rolling it over and causing much damage."
Kugan also said "a good bit of experience comes into play" when a pilot is able to safely set down a chopper when something goes wrong -- as the pilot did Wednesday in Burbank.
-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; email@example.com