Pilot’s disorientation likely caused fatal air ambulance crash in Brainerd

BRAINERD, Minn. — The pilot’s spatial disorientation on a dark and foggy night was the probable cause of the fatal 2019 North Memorial Health helicopter crash at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued its final report last month on the June 2019 crash that killed the pilot and a flight nurse while seriously injuring a flight paramedic. There was no mechanical failure reported.

It was just past 12:30 a.m. June 28 when pilot Tim McDonald initiated the instrument landing system in the Agusta medical helicopter. The three-person crew was returning from delivering a patient to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale and as they approached the airport, visibility was about a half-mile, deteriorating to a quarter-mile, according to the report. A quarter-mile visibility was the minimum distance approved by North Memorial Health for approaches at the time.

Following the accident, Josh Duda of Pillager, Minn., the flight paramedic seated in the left front seat, recalled the runway lights and surface were visible below a thin fog layer during the approach. As the helicopter approached the runway, he noticed clouds to the side and recalled McDonald stating the weather conditions were foggy and that a go-around was needed, the report stated.

Just before the helicopter lost control, McDonald declared a missed approach, likely due to the loss of visual contact with the runway. But a combination of factors caused an increase in torque and the helicopter accelerated into a spin before crashing near the runway.

“The dark night conditions at the rural airport resulted in little to no visual references during the pilot’s transition to landing and the attempted missed approach,” the report stated. “It is likely that the pilot became spatially disoriented, which led to the excessive pitch attitude, slow airspeed, his failure to recognize and arrest the right yaw, and the subsequent loss of control.”

Following the crash, North Memorial Health increased the minimum weather conditions required for pilots to conduct an instrument approach to a cloud ceiling of 400 feet above ground level and 1 mile visibility, the NTSB reported.

Although investigators state the helicopter was upright and nearly intact after the crash, they also report parts of it — including the main body and tail — “exhibited crushing consistent with a high velocity vertical descent.”

There was no evidence of a post-crash fire, but a portion of the ground was soaked in fuel.

An arc-shaped ground scar, consistent with a main rotor blade strike, was found to the left of the helicopter’s body. The outboard section of one tail rotor blade was found about 200 feet southwest of the helicopter. A 7-inch deep ground scar was located underneath the tail rotor and exhibited evidence of multiple tail rotor blade strikes.

McDonald and flight nurse Debra Schott died at the scene of the June 28 crash. Duda was taken to Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd after the crash, and then to North Memorial in Robbinsdale.

McDonald, 44, a resident of Bloomington, was based at North Memorial Air Care’s facility in Siren, Wis., and is survived by his wife, Crystal and four children, according to a GoFundMe page set up in his honor. His obituary states he was a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College and served as a helicopter pilot in the Army, completing two combat tours in Iraq before leaving to fulfill his dream of being a medevac pilot. He also earned his Master of Business Administration degree from Oklahoma State University.

Schott, 58, of Lester Prairie, Minn., graduated nursing school from Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn., and earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Crow College, according to her obituary. She was first licensed as a practical nurse in 1980 at the age of 19 and received a license to work as a registered nurse in 1994. At the time of her death, she worked as a registered nurse at the Ridgeview Emergency Department, along with North Memorial Air Care.

Schott is survived by her husband, Gary, along with two children, two grandchildren, two stepchildren and seven step-grandchildren.

North Memorial Air Care has bases in Brainerd, Bemidji, Princeton, Redwood Falls and Lakeville.

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