The pilot flying the Baltimore police helicopter that crashed Saturday while chasing a dirt bike on the city's west side reported losing power just before it went down in a park, federal investigators said yesterday.
While officials caution that they have not examined the wreckage of the $250,000 craft, they are investigating reports that the pilot, Officer Lawrence Lester, radioed a distress call moments before the accident, claiming the craft experienced a power failure.
"We have not determined a probable cause yet," said Lorraine Carra, a spokeswoman for the Eastern regional office of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is one of two federal agencies conducting the investigation.
Meanwhile, city police commanders continued the Sunday grounding of the remaining four helicopters. A spokeswoman said the fleet will not fly "until we know more about what happened" in Saturday's accident.
Two officers, the 49-year-old pilot and an observer, Officer John Smith, 37, were released from Maryland Shock Trauma Center Saturday night. They were resting at home yesterday, and, through a department spokeswoman, declined requests for interviews.
Police offered few details of their investigation yesterday and refused to release a transcript or tape of radio communications between dispatchers and the helicopter pilot.
The helicopter crashed as it pursued a dirt bike that had collided with a police car and then sped away.
Officer Sabrina V. Tapp-Harper, a department spokeswoman, said the craft was flying just above treetop level when "it made some type of strange noise" and crashed in Easterwood Park, off the 1500 block of Moreland Ave., about 7 p.m.
Police were investigating the altitude of the helicopter just before it crashed, as well as reviewing safety and mechanical records of the fleet.
The crash was the third in the 25-year history of the helicopter unit, often referred to by the nickname "Foxtrot." The last crash was in October 1992 in Walbrook and occurred at a street intersection. The other incident was in 1977, when a helicopter made an emergency landing on North Avenue.
The wreckage from Saturday's crash has been moved to a hangar at Martin State Airport, where officials from the National Transportation Safety Board plan to examine it within the next few days.
Dennis Jones, the NTSB's Northeast director, said he would withhold comment until his investigators can talk to the officers. He said his office is aware of the pilot's statement about losing power.
Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said the pilot radioed in a code "10-50 red," meaning helicopter down without power. "The unit has an impeccable safety record," he said.
Records on file with the FAA's office in Oklahoma City, a national repository for pilot and airplane information, show a clean maintenance record for the Schweitzer 300-C two-seat helicopter that crashed.
The only problem occurred in April, when a new canopy did not fit properly and had to be replaced.
FAA records show that the canopy pulled away from a support beam and cracked while in flight. A new aluminum piece was too large to fit an older, fiberglass piece, resulting in cracked rivet holes, the records show.
Officer Lester, who has spent 22 years in the helicopter unit, also has a clean record, records show.
The FAA says he holds a valid commercial pilot's license for helicopters and passed his last medical exam. He is required to wear eyeglasses to correct nearsightedness, records show.
City police could not say yesterday whether the officer was wearing glasses at the time of the crash.