Three local crew members died in a crash of a Lifeguard medical transport helicopter in December of 1986 near the Pendleton airport after the chopper was placed in a holding pattern for 20 minutes.
The nearly new Bell 206 L-3 helicopter was purchased by Lifeguard Medical Transport in June of 1986 at a cost of $500,000. The aircraft had more horsepower, and several other features adding convenience for crew and patients, than the rented helicopter it replaced. Its crew, including pilot Freddie Marshal Davis, 37, of Pendleton, James Borgman, 50, registered nurse, of Walla Walla, and Nancy Neerenberg, 37, paramedic, of Hermiston, were returning from a flight to Portland and had been waiting for clearance to land at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport at Pendleton for 20 minutes the afternoon of December 3, 1986, when Davis contacted the FAA’s Seattle Center, which handled air dispatch for the area, saying he was encountering adverse weather conditions and needed to land. When the tower responded for more information to determine the helicopter’s exact position, they lost contact with the craft.
At the time, the Pendleton airport did not have an operational air traffic control tower; it was shut down during the summer due to liability insurance issues. The FAA’s spokesman said that having an operational tower in Pendleton would not have averted the crash, however.
Air traffic controllers said their last contact with the helicopter, reportedly a mayday call, was received at 5:32 p.m. A short time later, a Umatilla resident monitoring a CB radio reportedly overheard a statement about a helicopter running out of fuel. Several planes were called to make an aerial search, but the low cloud ceiling prevented the pilots from getting into the air. Farmers in the Despain Gulch area began their own unofficial searches along the farm roads in the area around 8 p.m.
It was hours later when search parties headed up by the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office and Oregon State Police were dropped along Interstate 84 west of Pendleton to begin searching on foot for the wreckage of the aircraft. Among the party stationed furthest west from the airport, some five miles away, were East Oregonian reporters Wil Phinney and Chuck Westlund, who climbed a barbed wire fence near milepost 201 and started trudging through wispy fog along the muddy furrows of a newly seeded wheat field in search of anything that could lead them to the crash site. “Wouldn’t it be weird if we did find it?” Phinney asked as he shone his weak flashlight beam along the ground.
Not five minutes into their search, at 12:25 a.m. on Dec. 4, Westlund saw the first piece of twisted metal. “I glanced at it, hoping it was a stick,” Westlund wrote in his story. Seconds later, a second piece of wreckage containing part of the craft’s electronic circuitry came into view, and Westlund knew they had found the crash site. Yelling to the rest of their group, and signaling to the next closest search party, Westlund and Phinney ran for the top of a short rise, following the line of debris, and saw more in the darkness below them.
The searchers sprinted down the slope, searching desperately for survivors. But there was nothing anyone could do for the crew.
Wreckage at the scene indicated the helicopter was moving southwest when it hit the rise in the field with its landing skids, leaving them partially buried, and tearing the cabin away as it rolled down the hill. Debris was scattered in a circle about 100 yards across, with papers, maps, an oxygen bottle, blankets, medical narcotics, and even a package of “Wheel of Fortune” play money scattered along the hill in the wake of the crash. The bodies of the three crew members were found in and around the wreckage.
A scenario was later suggested by Lifeguard administrator Craig Manley that Davis had probably landed the helicopter for about 25 minutes while waiting for planes to land at the Pendleton airport. When he lifted off about 5:25 p.m., he rose into very low clouds. The accident appeared to have happened when he turned away from the airport searching for a clear area. Manley said his scenario was based on his own experience, his knowledge of the crew and Lifeguard’s flying standards.
A public memorial service for Davis, Neerenberg and Borgman was held Dec. 6 at Blue Mountain Community College’s Pioneer Theater.
Lifeguard’s board of directors unanimously decided to keep the program flying, and an identical helicopter with some additional safety features was to be obtained from the manufacturer in Louisiana. Until the local program could be brought back on line, emergency calls were routed to other medical transport services in La Grande, Bend, Portland and Spokane.
Lifeguard Medical Transport went out of service in June of 1987 after voters rejected a $198,500 one-year operating levy for the service.