WINCHESTER — As his malfunctioning medical helicopter plummeted toward the ground from a height of approximately 1,500 feet on Jan. 11, pilot Danial Wesley Moore had less than a minute to save himself, his flight nurse, the flight paramedic and the 2-month-old baby girl on board.
Dodging electrical lines, trees, pedestrians and vehicles, the Frederick County resident aimed for a patch of grass by the Drexel Hill United Methodist Church and crash landed by the church in the Drexel Hill section of Upper Darby Township Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. All on board survived the landing with the baby, who was in an infant pod strapped to the stretcher, unhurt. The nurse and paramedic sustained minor injuries.
However, Moore, who was wearing a five-point harness, was knocked unconscious and was badly hurt. Moore, who was flying for Air Methods Corp., is recuperating from his injuries, which include seven broken ribs, four cracked vertebrae, a broken sternum and a possible concussion.
Moore said he fought the controls to bring the nose of the Eurocopter EC-135 up and to slow the speed of the helicopter’s rotor disc and cushion the landing. The technique is known as a flare.
“The only option I had was to crash as slowly as possible,” he said. “My last moment of recollection before impact was realizing I’d overshot the field and seeing the church coming at us at a high rate of speed and thinking whatever I was trying didn’t work out and we were all about to die.”
Moore said he squeezed between an evergreen tree and utility poles and the copter’s rotor grazed a tree branch and pole as he descended. After striking the ground near a vehicle with three people in it, the helicopter bounced and slid and came to rest between a utility pole and a stone wall by the church entrance. Preschoolers were in a class at the church when the crash occurred.
Every six months, Moore trains for crash landings in a flight simulator on stilts. But he credits luck and his long flying experience for helping him survive.
The 51-year-old Moore obtained his pilot’s license in 1998 when he began flying for the Virginia Army National Guard. Moore is a member of the Army National Guard 224th Aviation Unit at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County and has flown a variety of different helicopters in the military including the UH-72 Lakota, the military version of the Eurocopter. Moore, who previously served in the regular Army as a military police officer from 1988 to 1994, has also flown the Embraer ERJ-145, a 50-seat commuter jet, while working as a private airline pilot from 2017-20.
Moore, who grew up in Mound, Minnesota, a small town outside Minneapolis, dreamed of flying since the age of 12. That was when his father Larry Moore paid $30 for Moore to fly in a Bell 47, a single-rotor helicopter.
Larry Moore flew UH-1 helicopters — nicknamed Hueys — during the Vietnam War and retired from the Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel. Moore said it was a thrill to eventually fly in a Huey with his father before his father’s retirement.
When Moore departed the heliport at Wellspan Chambersburg Hospital in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on Jan. 11 bound for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he had 4,123 hours of flight time, according to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary crash report. They included 3,400 hours in helicopters with 185 of those flying Eurocopters.
First produced in 1996, the twin-engine, German-made EC -135 is a top choice of hospitals and emergency medical service providers, according to Flight Magazine. It is about 12-feet high and 40-feet long and weighs between 3,200 and 6,500 pounds.
About 80% of Moore’s flights involved transferring adults and children between hospitals. Moore typically makes two flights per day, and they usually last 20 to 30 minutes. Typical flights are at heights of between 2,000 and 5,000 feet and at a speed of 130 knots (150 mph).
The sky was clear and the weather was mild when it took off around 12:05 pm He said standard pre-flight checks had been done. They include checking fluids, lights and walking around the helicopter. Besides the baby, Moore was flying with flight paramedic Kevin Chafee and flight nurse Kris Lawson.
Moore said there’s a lot he can’t remember about the crash, but said he lacked time to make a Mayday call and only glanced at his instrument panel for a few seconds because there was no time. Even during normal flights, flying a helicopter requires great concentration.
“Helicopters don’t like to glide. They like to crash,” Moore said. “The pilot just keeps them from crashing. That’s how we fly them. Airplanes inherently like to fly and helicopters don’t. So you’re constantly making inputs unless you’re on auto pilot.”
Moore hoped to land on a road, but each block had utility poles strung with wires and the roads were filled with lunchtime traffic.
“About all I can recall is getting control of the aircraft, getting it out of a dive and then essentially looking for a place to put it down,” he said. “And if you know the neighborhood up there, there weren’t a whole lot of options.”
The NTSB report said Moore was flying east at 3,500 feet at 12:43 pm when he descended to 2,800 feet and leveled, then descended to 1,500 feet and leveled which was routine as he neared his destination. He was about 10 minutes from the hospital when the trouble began.
Chafee told a Federal Aviation Administration investigator that he and Lawson were out of their seats treating the baby when they heard a loud bang and the helicopter banked sharply right and rolled to the right.
“[Chafee] said that the helicopter rolled inverted, perhaps multiple times and that he and [Lawson] were ‘pinned to the ceiling’ and internal communication was lost,” the report said. “The helicopter was leveled, the patient was secured and the crew members secured themselves in their seats and they braced for landing.”
Gail Miller, Moore’s fiancèe, compares the area where he landed to trying to land on Smithfield Avenue, a narrow street in Winchester.
“How he set it down where he set it and didn’t take out utilities and people is just amazing,” said Miller, a Winchester Medical Center nurse and former Frederick County firefighter. “Absolutely amazing.”
Police and witnesses were equally amazed. Driver Joshua James, who was traveling with his wife and young daughter, told The Associated Press that the helicopter tail boom was swinging side to side just before the copter crashed. The copter came to rest on its left side with the skids pointing out toward the street and the tail boom separated at the fuselage.
“It makes no sense to me that it didn’t hit any of the wires, that it didn’t hit us,” James told The Associated Press. “This is absolutely a miracle.”
Miracle was also how Upper Darby police Lt. Timothy M. Bernhardt described Moore’s landing.
“There’s no debris, no wires down, no trees down,” Bernhardt told The AP as he stood near the wrecked chopper. “I can’t wait to meet the gentleman and shake his hand.”
Chafee called 911 from inside the helicopter telling the dispatcher that Moore was conscious, but not alert.
“He’s breathing. He’s talking,” Chafee said. “My main concern right now is the 2-month-old child. I need an ambulance here right away.”
Miller, who learned of the crash while assisting in an operation, later spoke with Lawson. He told her he wrapped the baby in a blanket and crawled out of the wreckage. A photograph taken at the scene shows him cradling the baby in his flight suit as he emerged from the helicopter.
Lawson handed the baby to a Lyft driver who had stopped at the crash scene. He then returned to help Chafee and Moore from the wreckage. Spotting a small fire that had ignited from chopper fuel, Lawson yelled to Chaffee who used an onboard fire extinguisher to douse it. Meanwhile, Lawson aided Moore who had fallen from the right seat of copter through the left door and was underneath the chopper.
Chafee took the baby to the hospital in an ambulance and Lawson dragged Moore from the wreckage. Moore awoke to black circles above him. They were the helmets of firefighters above him who were cutting off his flight gear.
“I remember asking one of them, ‘Is this real?’ And that’s when Kris, while he was cutting off my flight suit, said, ‘Hey, we crashed,’” Moore recalled. “I asked Kris how my crew was and he said, ‘I’m your crew (expletive).”’
The cause of the crash remains under investigation. Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, said on Thursday that investigations typically take a year or two to conclude.
Moore is expected to fully recover from his injuries in about eight weeks and plans to resume his flying career. He said the most important thing to him was the baby and his crew survived intact.
“I’ll take that any day of the week,” he said. “The fact that all of us are here to talk about is pretty miraculous considering the situation. I’m just happy we had a lot of divine intervention combined with some luck and a little bit of pilot skill.”