Fort Worth

Pilot killed in Bell helicopter crash served as Marine in Iraq

Bell Helicopter pilot Jason Grogan in an undated family photo stands in front of a Bell 47G helicopter. Grogan was one of two Bell test pilots killed Wednesday, July 6, 2016, when a Bell 525 prototype crashed in southern Ellis County.
Bell Helicopter pilot Jason Grogan in an undated family photo stands in front of a Bell 47G helicopter. Grogan was one of two Bell test pilots killed Wednesday, July 6, 2016, when a Bell 525 prototype crashed in southern Ellis County. Courtesy

The thought was always in the back of Lynn Grogan’s mind.

It had been there since 2005, when she married Jason Grogan, a Marine pilot. Another military wife pulled her aside.

“She told me that as long as he’s flying, I need to wake up every day prepared that will be the day he won’t come home,” Grogan remembered.

Jason Grogan left the military without injury in 2010.

But on Wednesday, while working as a test pilot for Bell Helicopter, Grogan and another crew member were killed when their 525 Relentless helicopter crashed in southern Ellis County.

Grogan, 43, lived in Burleson with Lynn and their two children, Katelyn, 8, and Aaron, 5.

The name of the other Bell employee killed had not been released by Thursday evening. Lynn Grogan said he and Jason Grogan served together in the Marines.

The crash occurred about 11:45 a.m. three miles northwest of Italy near Bell Branch, off Farm Road 876 north of Chambers Creek, authorities said.

Six investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board performed an initial examination of the crash site Thursday. The wreckage will be removed on Friday to a secure location to be more closely examined, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said.

“The investigators were able to recover a recorder from the helicopter that was described as relatively undamaged that may contain aircraft performance parameters,” said Knudson. The recorder will be sent to a lab in Washington D.C.

Fast flight

Investigators will likely have a preliminary accident report within about two weeks, and then it typically takes about a year for the investigation to be completed, Knudson said.

According to FlightRadar24, the helicopter was traveling 199 knots (about 229 mph) at an altitude of 1,975 feet immediately before the crash. The 525 Relentless had been in the air for an hour and eight minutes.

Radar data show that before that, the helicopter increased and decreased speed several times, from 190 knots at an altitude of 2,650 feet down to 150 knots.

In its promotional material, Bell said the helicopter’s maximum cruising speed is 162 knots (about 186 mph).

The 525 Relentless is the first commercial helicopter in the U.S. to have computer-controlled flight controls, known as fly by wire. In May, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice proposing special conditions to establish safety levels for the new helicopter design.

“This helicopter will have a novel or unusual design feature associated with fly-by-wire flight control system (FBW FCS) functions that affect the structural integrity of the rotorcraft,” the FAA said. “These proposed special conditions contain the additional safety standards that the administrator considers necessary to establish a level of safety equivalent to that established by the existing airworthiness standards.”

Since Bell was testing the prototype, it is likely there were complex data recorders on the helicopter collecting detailed information about is performance, said Jon Kettles, a Dallas aviation attorney and former Army helicopter pilot.

“What [investigators] will probably be looking for is [whether] the crash was caused by something related to a new design feature such as the fly-by-wire or some other new system in this aircraft or was it caused by a more traditional failure such as a critical component that fails like a bolt,” Kettles said.

Kettles represented the families of a CareFlite pilot and mechanic who died in June 2010 in Midlothian when a Bell Model 222 helicopter crashed. The NTSB determined that a bolt in the main rotor mechanism had failed, causing the helicopter to pitch forward quickly, breaking the tail boom off in mid-air.

Since the tail boom of the 525 Relentless was found a significant distance from the main crash site in Ellis County, Kettles said, he believes investigators will probably focus on the flight control system.

“I would not be surprised if there was an aberration in the main rotor controls that produced a violent pitch in the aircraft that may have caused a similar failure sequence that happened back on the 222 accident in 2010,” Kettles said.

Two farmers told WFAA that they saw the helicopter flying from the northeast when it hit a power line and exploded. But Sgt. Lonny Haschel, a Department of Public Safety spokesman, said the helicopter did not strike the line, and electricity transmission was unaffected.

‘Dream job’

Grogan’s primary job was testing the 525 Relentless, in which Bell has invested hundreds of millions of dollars as it shifts to commercial sales because orders of its military aircraft have slowed.

In April, Scott Donnelly, CEO of Bell’s Rhode Island-based parent, Textron, said the company had built two 525 helicopters for flight testing with a third expected soon.

As a test pilot, Grogan flew three to four times a week, Lynn said.

“It was his dream job,” she said. “But he always said those two kids were the best thing he ever did.”

He took the family on trips to Port Aransas in South Texas and went snorkling with Lynn in the British Virgin Islands for their 10th wedding anniversary in December. They had another family vacation planned in two weeks.

He mastered impressions, too, imitating Sean Connery. Lynn laughed until she cried.

They met in college, at Texas Tech University, and dated off and on before reconnecting for good in the early 2000s.

“We were like two puzzle pieces,” she said. “I was the one that kept track of the schedule and the money and the house, and then he was the one who came in and brought laughter.

“He helped me to not be so serious … He just filled in the parts that I didn't have.”

We were like two puzzle pieces...He just filled in the parts that I didn’t have.

Lynn Grogan, wife of helicopter pilot killed in crash Wednesday

Lynn, at home with the kids Wednesday, heard about the crash from a neighbor.

After trying Jason’s cell phone and work number, and then the wives of other pilots, she heard a knock on her door. It was Jason’s boss and another employee from Bell.

They told her what happened, and then she told her children.

Katelyn, 8, understood. But Aaron, who turned 5 on Monday, began asking questions.

He was confused, Lynn said, because he thought going to heaven was a good thing.

“Are you upset Daddy’s in heaven?” Aaron asked her.

It was the type of conversation she didn’t expect, even though she knew the risks his job involved.

As a test pilot, “somebody has to test those limits, and that’s what he did,” Lynn said.

Before working for Bell, Jason served two tours of duty in Iraq and worked as a test pilot in California.

But the Grogans didn’t live in constant stress, Lynn said. Wednesday was a normal morning. Katelyn, who figured out how to use email two weeks ago, sent her dad a message, asking about his day.

He replied about 10 a.m., a couple of hours before the crash.

He told her he was “going to fly a big orange helicopter,” and assured her he’d be home on time.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk