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DRAPER — A Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter attempting to retrieve the body of a fallen hiker in Corner Canyon nearly crashed in a terrifying close call on Wednesday, the agency reported.
Luke Bowman, chief pilot for the Utah Highway Patrol's aero bureau, said the pilot, Kent Harrison, and another officer on board were attempting to meet with rescuers on a cliff ledge. The crews were attempting a "skid load," intending to rest one skid on the ledge while essentially keeping the chopper hovering, when a rope became tangled in the craft's main rotor.
"The pilot, at that point, applies some aggressive maneuvers to maneuver the aircraft away from the cliff and the people on the ground," Bowman said.
The chopper's rotor was spinning at full power, sending the craft spinning and sending the helicopter's tail toward the rescuers on the ledge, Bowman said. The tail passed over the heads of the rescuers and hit the cliff wall, and the chopper continued to spin as it headed toward the ground.
Harrison began to prepare for a crash landing, but managed to steady the craft and determined he had enough control to fly down to a park in Highland, Bowman said.
As Harrison applied more power as he prepared to land, however, the chopper began to shake again. Fearing a crash, the pilot called for a medical response before he attempted to put the craft down.
"He was convinced at that point that, when he did go to land, that they were going to roll and they wouldn't be able to control it well enough to land," Bowman said. "They were actually able to land pretty uneventfully. … They were able to land upright on the landing gear in the park."
After the emergency was averted, the crews successfully completed their mission of retrieving the body of 43-year-old Kerry Crowley, a South Jordan woman believed to have died in an accidental fall.
The chopper — which is the department's newest and best helicopter — has been pulled from service since the near-crash and is significantly banged-up, Bowman said. However, the aircraft's engine and other mechanics pose an even greater concern.
In the meantime, the department will rely on some of its older units.
Bowman complimented Harrison's flying, applauding his ability to keep himself and the people around him safe in an emergency.
"I've talked extensively with him and spent the day with him yesterday going over the situation," Bowman said. "He's doing really good, and I think he did an phenomenal job. … He had a situation and he did his job and dealt with it, and now he has kind of moved on. He's not really one to emotionally dwell on things."
The accident will be reviewed by the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Contributing: Dave Cawley, Andrew Adams