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Five killed in crash of tour helicopter at Lake Mead

UPDATE, 9 a.m., 12/8/11 - Helicopter pilot identified

Five people on a sightseeing tour died Wednesday in a helicopter crash at the Lake Mead National Recreation area.

The National Park Service said the helicopter went down shortly before 5 p.m. on the Nevada side of Lake Mead.

Agency spokesman Andrew Munoz said the victims were four passengers and the pilot.

He said the crash occurred about a half mile within the boundary of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, about four miles west of the Alfred Merritt Smith Water Treatment Plant near Boulder Beach. Munoz said witnesses heard the crash and reported seeing smoke west of the lake .

The remote crash site, about 30 miles from Las Vegas, is not accessible by road.

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.

It crashed along a normal route taken by tour helicopters from McCarran International Airport to Hoover Dam and back.

Munoz said he was "saddened" that a search-and-rescue mission turned into a "recovery investigation" of bodies and helicopter debris.

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. The recovery operation and crash investigation were suspended Wednesday night and will resume this morning. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board are expected to take part.

A park ranger was sent to the crash site late Wednesday to protect the bodies and debris, Munoz said. Information on the victims will not be released until the remains have been recovered and next of kin have been notified, he said.

The crash occurred on the western side of the River Mountains.

It was unclear what might have caused the crash. The weather was mostly clear near Lake Mead on Wednesday, with a low temperature around 30 degrees and winds around 5 mph. Munoz said there were no notable conditions that might have caused the accident.

According to the park service and the FAA, the aircraft was operated by Sundance Helicopters, based in Las Vegas.

A spokesman for Sundance Helicopters said the helicopter had been giving a local tour when it went missing. He declined to answer more questions.

Sundance Helicopters has had accidents before.

A September 2003 crash east of the Grand Canyon West Airport in Arizona killed a Sundance Helicopters pilot and six passengers. Unsafe flying procedures and misjudgment were cited as the probable cause of that crash.

In August 2009, the pilot of a Sundance tour helicopter returning from the Grand Canyon with six passengers was forced to land in the Lake Mead area after the craft's controls indicated an electrical problem. No one was injured.

The company gives daily tours to the Grand Canyon starting at $334, according to its website.

Another tour that costs $509 is described as a flight over Hoover Dam and Lake Mead before the aircraft descends 3,200 feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon.

The AS350 was originally manufactured by Aerospatiale and now by Eurostar in France. It is classified as a light-utility copter with room for a pilot, a co-pilot and as many as six passengers. It is used by military, police and businesses around the world and is marketed in the United States as the Astar or A-Star. It is about 40 feet long and 10 feet high. It has a three-bladed rotor and is outfitted with a Turbomeca Arriel 1SER engine.

The helicopter is flown by several Las Vegas tour companies and is used extensively by tour companies in Hawaii.

There have been several crashes of this type of helicopter in the past few years.

An AS350 helicopter crashed northwest of Reno on March 13, 2010, killing all three people on board. The copter had just dropped off a patient at Renown Medical Center in Reno and was returning to Susanville, Calif.

Fatal crashes of this type of helicopter also have been reported in Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina and California and in Peru, Australia and Antarctica.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638.

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