A Las Vegas pilot just embarking on married life and a Kansas couple celebrating 25 years together were among the five casualties of a tour helicopter crash Wednesday in a rugged canyon west of Lake Mead.
The aircraft was owned and operated by Sundance Helicopters of Las Vegas, which has had at least five accidents and has been the subject of 10 federal enforcement actions since 1994.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday began the task of collecting evidence at the 2.7-square-mile crash site about four miles west of the Alfred Merritt Smith Water Treatment Plant near Boulder Beach at the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
"Most of the aircraft was consumed by fire," NTSB member Mark Rosekind said Thursday night. "It is largely fragmented. The wreckage that is available is in a very confined area near the impact."
Investigators are expected to release a preliminary report on the crash, which will be available on the NTSB website within 10 business days. A full report won't be ready for at least nine months, Rosekind said.
The bodies of the five victims arrived at the Clark County coroner's office late Thursday afternoon, Coroner Michael Murphy said. His office has not released the names of those involved in the crash.
The pilot was identified by his father as Landon Nield, 31, of Las Vegas. Nield crashed along a normal route taken by tour helicopters from McCarran International Airport to Hoover Dam and back. He had been a pilot with Sundance for several years, his father said.
Landon Nield was married in June in Las Vegas.
"He was just a great son," said his father, White Eagle Nield. "He really, really loved people. He was always looking out for his brothers and sisters."
Landon Nield had no children, but his wife, Gabriela, had two children from a previous marriage.
"He just loved those kids. He was great with them," White Eagle Nield said.
Nield and four passengers died when the helicopter went down. A preliminary review of radar data puts the time of the crash about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. The aircraft hit the north side of a ravine about 20 feet above the base, Rosekind said. The wreckage was found in a 150-foot-wide, V-shaped ravine that narrows to about 30 feet at the bottom.
A television station in Kansas, KAKE News, reported Thursday that a Utica, Kan., couple died in the Sundance crash. They were identified as Delwin and Tamara Chapman. The Chapmans were in Las Vegas celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. The tour tickets were from their children, the report said.
Ron Solze, whose son is married to one of the Chapmans' four daughters, said the couple from the small, western Kansas town went to Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows.
Solze said Tamara Chapman recently closed her hairstyling shop in the town of about 160 people.
"It's a small town, so this affects a lot of people," Solze said.
Delwin Chapman was a general contractor and owner of a construction business in Utica. He also was a city council member.
Rosekind said Thursday a 12-member "go team" from the National Transportation Safety Board will be at the crash site for three to five days. The remote location of the crash has made it difficult for investigators, he said. To reach the site Thursday, investigators had to travel by ATV, make a 150-yard hike and climb a 10-foot ladder.
Rosekind did not know whether the helicopter had a recording device onboard but said that's not a standard practice.
The National Park Service, Las Vegas police and fire departments from Clark County and Henderson responded to the initial call. Officers with the Las Vegas police search-and-rescue team reached the scene by helicopter and confirmed there were no survivors.
Coroner Murphy said Thursday a forensics team from his office would work throughout the night to identify the victims. Murphy said the coroner's office knows who was on the helicopter and has contacted their families, but his staff still has to verify the identities of the dead.
Murphy said various methods could be used, including dental records, DNA and fingerprints.
Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration, said the aircraft was an AS350 tour helicopter. It was manufactured in 1989, according to the FAA registry.
Paul Gretschel, an FAA official, said Nield was his helicopter instructor several years ago in New York.
"He came to birthday parties, even came to my house for Thanksgiving," Gretschel said. "He was a very sweet man and a very talented pilot."
Gretschel, who had been invited to Nield's wedding this summer but couldn't attend, was shocked to learn of Nield's death.
"He knew my daughters and my wife. I can't believe it," he said.
White Eagle Nield said he received a phone call about the crash late Wednesday from officials at Sundance Helicopters. He then called his other children. Landon Nield was the third-youngest of 14 siblings, he said.
The family was close and expected to spend Christmas together.
"We'll be OK," he said. "You learn to grow from your trials. I don't know if everybody feels that way, but you do. This family has had some real hard trials, but we've done it, and we'll get through it."
Sundance Helicopters also has had its share of trials, including at least five accidents and 10 federal enforcement actions since 1994.
Helicopter-crash trial lawyer Gary Robb said tour pilots are encouraged to push the aircraft's limits and ignore unpredictable winds that can push the helicopter into a fixed object, such as a mountain.
"There is an incentive for the pilot to provide a flight thrill to passengers," Robb said. "It's deadly."
The Federal Aviation Administration last year proposed new rules for helicopter operators, including tour guides, which required that operators use onboard technology and equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles.
It's unclear what might have triggered the Nevada crash. The weather was mostly clear near Lake Mead on Wednesday, with a low temperature around 29 and winds around 5 mph.
Sundance CEO Larry Pietropaolo said no distress call was sent before the crash. He said the company was turning over pilot and mechanical records to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"We work every day to prevent this from happening," Pietropaolo said. "We don't know what happened."
The company offers daily tours to the Grand Canyon and boasts a 22-helicopter fleet. The aircraft that crashed can hold up to six passengers and is often used for air tours.
"It's a very efficient and good helicopter," Pietropaolo said.
In 1997, the company was ordered to pay a $22,000 fine for violating regulations pertaining to the airworthiness of the aircraft.
National Transportation Safety Board records show Sundance was involved in at least five other accidents since 1997, but only one resulted in fatalities.
Pietropaolo downplayed the previous accidents and safety violations, saying he would measure Sundance's accident rate per hours flown against any other company.
According to data from the Clark County Department of Aviation, Sundance flew 167,182 passengers during the first 10 months of this year -- nearly 17,000 per month.
"Sundance has an excellent safety record relative to the industry and general aviation," Pietropaolo said.
Nield had no history of accidents or violations, according to the FAA.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Mike Blasky at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0283.