weather icon Clear

Pilot in Grand Canyon crash campaigns for safer helicopters

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Scott Booth woke up about 65 feet from the burning helicopter to the sounds of screams and a woman praying over him.

His clothes were burned off, except for the fabric directly underneath him. His face and hair were singed.

Booth, 43, survived the impact and subsequent fire, but the crash that would eventually claim the lives of five people also took his legs. Now he hopes sharing his story of recovery can spark change in the helicopter industry and prevent similar fallout in other crashes.

“I want justice for myself, for all the passengers involved, and I want to make sure that this never happens again,” Booth said from his parents’ Long Beach home.

Feb. 10, 2018, started normally for Booth. Though he wasn’t initially scheduled to fly that day for Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, he picked up the shift.

On the pilot’s third flight from Papillon’s Boulder City base, the British tourists seemed happy. He gave them the safety briefing, and they were joking around.

“It was just a flight like every other flight, and then it wasn’t,” he said.

He intended to land the EC130 B4 sightseeing helicopter in Quartermaster Canyon on tribal land in Arizona. But on approach, the helicopter spun to the left at least twice as it fell out of the sky and into the wash below.

Booth has no recollection of the impact or how he was freed from the helicopter.

‘They were spread everywhere’

Flight nurse Cambria Hilgers, who was working with her partner in Kingman, Arizona, was dispatched to the canyon.

Their rescue helicopter had to circle a couple of times in the high winds before it could land near the Quartermaster picnic area. They hiked down the rugged terrain to the wreckage, where she saw a still-burning fuselage and a detached tail.

“People were still very much alive, and they were writhing in pain and they were yelling,” she said. Their cries echoed through the canyon.

Her focus was on the patients.

“I had four different people, and they were spread everywhere,” she said.

When Hilgers got to Booth, she covered him up. He was raspy, his throat was swelling and he cycled through emotions. Both legs were broken from the knee down.

“The right leg was just charred all the way through,” she said.

Hilgers continued talking with Booth to keep him alive. When he started to fade, she yelled at him, forcing him to come around.

Eight hours would pass before rescue crews could lift the victims from the canyon. In that time, Hilgers formed a bond with Booth that continues today.

Three of the passengers died at the scene: Becky Dobson, 27; Jason Hill, 32; and Stuart Hill, 30. Booth and three other passengers were taken to Las Vegas. Newlyweds Ellie Milward Udall, 29, and Jonathan Udall, 31, died at University Medical Center in the days after the crash. Jennifer Barham survived.

All five deaths were due to burn-related injuries.

Months in hospitals

Booth’s mother, Kathy Booth, was in her kitchen in Long Beach when she heard the phone ring close to midnight. Her son’s friend asked where Scott was. She was interrupted by the police calling.

An operator told her an official from the National Transportation Safety Board called but couldn’t get through. She was asked to call the agency.

“So then I knew something was pretty bad,” she said.

By the time she’d packed, she had heard her son was out and talking. She thought it was only broken bones; she never considered a fire or losing a limb.

When she arrived at the hospital, she saw her son on a ventilator. It was hot in the room, and he was bloating.

“He was very scary to look at,” she said.

Doctors quickly amputated Booth’s left leg, which was fractured and burned in the crash. They would remove his right leg later because it was severely burned, he recalled.

Kathy Booth visited her son at the University Medical Center burn unit in weeklong intervals, trading off time between watching over him and caring for her husband, who suffers from dementia, back home. She advocated for her son when she said the quality of care he received didn’t meet standards.

Scott Booth struggled with not being able to talk to the people who visited him in the hospital.

“Everyone was gowned up,” he said. “They had gloves and long sleeves and gowns and masks, so I didn’t even know who was visiting me. I could just see eyes.”

After about four months, he was taken to Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California, where he would spend an additional three months in a burn unit. He recalled crying fits because he didn’t want to spend his life in a wheelchair.

Going home

After another month in a Long Beach hospital, Booth went back to the home where he grew up.

Now his days are filled with medication.

Kathy Booth upended her lifestyle to care for her son. She lost sleep because she wanted to be available if he needed her.

“This is your child, so you want to blow on it and kiss it and make it go away, but it doesn’t work like that,” she said.

Scott Booth has undergone dozens of surgeries since he was hospitalized.

The scars from his skin grafts will be visible forever. Though he no longer requires regular treatment for his burns, he is seeking plastic surgery to deal with loose skin from grafting.

Most recently, he had titanium rods put into his legs, which will allow him to click his legs into his prosthetics. The prosthetic legs he was given are too painful to regularly wear over his burns.

Despite the physical limitations, Booth has found ways to carry on. He can drive a vehicle with hand controls, and he’s taking boxing lessons.

He later reconnected with one of the nurses who cared for him in Las Vegas. Now, Elisabeth Wolf is his fiancee. “I think he’s kind of super human,” she said.

Invisible scars

Booth said he was devastated when he found out the harm the crash had caused. He still is, but one thought keeps him going.

“I know I’m not responsible,” he said. “That’s the only thing that keeps me sane. I didn’t do it. I didn’t cause that accident.”

The fire took nearly half his body and scarred much of the rest, but the hardest part of recovery has been healing the psychological wounds.

As someone who has traveled the world, he wrestles with the fact that he can’t move the way he once did.

“I mean, how do you take someone that was in Mount Everest three months before the accident and put him in a bed?” he asked, choking back tears. His brain still wants to travel, but his body is broken, he said.

He’s experienced suicidal thoughts and wondered if he would ever walk again. The little things that people take for granted got to him, like standing up to go to the bathroom or putting up Christmas lights.

“I just was hoping to get through the day,” he said.

Booth will be able to walk again with prosthetics, but he knows his life is forever changed.

“You put it all into perspective, though, in the long run, there’s time, right?” he said. “I’m still going to have time.”

Lawsuits and loopholes

A lawsuit from Jonathan Udall’s family that names Papillon, Booth and Airbus Helicopters among the defendants claims Udall’s death could have been prevented. The lawsuit blames a faulty tail rotor, failed weather checks and pilot inexperience for causing the helicopter to spin out of control and crash into the canyon. It says if the helicopter had been outfitted with a crash-resistant fuel system, Udall would have survived.

Booth also has filed a claim against Airbus, blaming the crash and his extensive injuries on a defective tail rotor and the lack of a crash-resistant fuel system.

Airbus would not comment on potential causes of the crash and referred all questions to the NTSB. An NTSB spokesman did not respond to a voicemail.

There’s no final report that spells out the cause of the crash or explicitly says whether the helicopter was equipped with a crash-resistant fuel system. But two things are clear: Such systems were not standard equipment on the model of helicopter that crashed, and the manufacturer did not provide an option for an upgrade at the time.

After the wreck, Papillon reached an agreement with a third-party company to retrofit its fleet with safer tanks. That project has been completed.

Airbus says it complies with all applicable certification regulations.

But a loophole in a 1994 federal aviation regulation allowed helicopter makers to sidestep a requirement to put crash-resistant fuel tanks in new aircraft. The regulation requires all newly certified helicopters to be equipped with the systems, but it grandfathers in newly built aircraft with certificates approved before the regulation was implemented. The helicopter that crashed was a derivative of a pre-regulation model.

In 2015, a federal transportation safety official wrote that only 15 percent of new helicopters had the rupture-resistant systems.

An Airbus spokeswoman said the company didn’t make the rupture-resistant tanks standard largely because it was not required and it wasn’t a big topic in the industry when the EC130 B4 was certified about 20 years ago.

The systems also came with added weight and added cost. The company’s crash-resistant fuel systems are about 40 pounds heavier than the original systems, the spokeswoman said.

An Airbus crash-resistant tank retrofit kit will be certified soon for the type of helicopter that crashed, the company said. And on current Airbus production models, crash-resistant fuel systems are standard on all aircraft in the same class as the Papillon tour helicopter that crashed.

A law signed in October 2018 requires newly manufactured helicopters to have the safer fuel systems, but the new standards only apply to helicopters built 18 months after the law was enacted, aviation lawyer Mike Slack said.

“Everything before that date is not subject to the new law,” he said. The law does not contain any retrofitting requirements, he said.

Booth said he thinks there should be a requirement to add safer tanks to commercial aircraft. Compared to the total cost of a helicopter, it doesn’t take much to make the aircraft safer, he said.

“It’s a fraction of a percent to make sure the fuel systems are crash-resistant,” Booth said. “Changing the material, changing what it’s encapsulated in. That’s what I want. That’s important, right?”

Contact Blake Apgar at bapgar@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5298. Follow @blakeapgar on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
Why does the vote count take so long?
RJ political reporter Rory Appleton discusses the vote counting process and why it takes so long.
Doolittle Community Center hosts caucuses - VIDEO
The Doolittle Community Center hosted six precincts in one room for the Nevada Democratic caucuses, and voters engaged in debate and discussion about who to lead each precinct, Feb. 22, 2020. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caucus day in Summerlin - VIDEO
Out-of-state caucus observer Ken Valz speaks about the Nevada Democratic caucuses at Palo Verde High School, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caucus day at East Last Vegas Community Center - VIDEO
Registration begins at the East Las Vegas Community Center for the Nevada Democratic caucuses, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Democratic caucus-goers lined up to register at Liberty High - VIDEO
Democratic caucus-goers lined up to register at Liberty High in Henderson, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Thousands gather for Trump rally
Thousands showed up for President Donald Trump’s rally Friday morning, forming a line that stretched nearly a quarter mile around the Las Vegas Convention Center.
President Trump speaks to the graduates of the Hope for Prisoners program in Las Vegas - VIDEO
President Donald Trump, along with the founder/CEO of Hope for Prisoners, John Ponder, and Las Vegas Metro Police Department officials, spoke to the graduates of the program, encouraging them to get back into society to be successful, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. (James Schaeffer and Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Presidential candidates go after Michael Bloomberg
Tonight’s 2020 Democratic Debate was a full-blown attack on former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Candidates attacked his past policies, his record with stop and frisk and his billionaire status garnishing him a spot on the presidential trail, all while defending their own policies. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pigeons wearing MAGA hats in Las Vegas - VIDEO
A flock of pigeons wearing Make America Great Again hats and one sporting a Donald Trump hairdo invaded downtown Las Vegas late Tuesday, following their release by an anonymous group: P.U.T.I.N. (Pigeons, United to Interfere Now). (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tuesday is last day to early vote in Nevada Democratic caucuses - VIDEO
Early voting in the Nevada Democratic caucuses ends Tuesday, with sites open throughout Clark County. (Michael Quine and James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Senator Amy Klobuchar Interview with RJ Editorial Board
Sen. Klobuchar speaks with the Las Vegas Review Journal Editorial Board regarding key points to her campaign strategies for Nevada and for the country.
North Las Vegas school holds vigil for 2 children hit by pickup - VIDEO
Dozens of parents and students took part in a candlelight vigil at a North Las Vegas school Saturday night on behalf of two young students struck by a truck at a nearby crosswalk. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Two years until “I Do” - VIDEOY
Las Vegas locals Sam Cruz and Jeff Gaglione discuss their engagement, in their future wedding venue at Emerald at Queensridge in Las Vegas, on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @elipagephoto
Visible progress on Henderson community ice arena
Construction crews are making visible progress on a Vegas Golden Knights community ice arena in downtown Henderson.
Video shows man stealing money gifts from Las Vegas wedding - VIDEO
A man sneaked into a wedding Saturday in the western Las Vegas Valley and stole most of the monetary gifts, according to the groom’s sister. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fire closes Nellis Boulevard in northeast Las Vegas - VIDEO
Authorities said a vacant mobile home caught fire Tuesday afternoon and spread to adjectment mobile homes, according to a news release from the Clark County Fire Department. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Alpine Motel Apartment residents want belongings left behind in fire
District Judge Rob Bare began hearing arguments Tuesday afternoon to decide if former residents of the Alpine Motel Apartments can finally collect the belongings they were forced to abandon as they escaped a deadly December fire.
Missing hiker's sister on staying hopeful - Video
Karsta Lucas, the sister of Ronnie Lucas, a hiker missing at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, said Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, that family members remain hopeful the 33-year-old diabetic will be found safe despite spending two nights in the open without his insulin. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Search continues for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Volunteers come out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area west of Las Vegas to help find a hiker, Ronnie Lucas, who went missing on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas High School Alumni Association helps historic school - VIDEO
Rollie Gibbs, a 1954 graduate and president of the Las Vegas High School Alumni Association, talks about the school's history and his group's donation to help preserve what is now called Las Vegas Academy. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Search for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Red Rock Search & Rescue is looked for the missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on Monday, Feb. 10, 2010. The man was reported missing on Sunday. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CITYPAK distributes backpacks to homeless people in Las Vegas - VIDEO
The CITYPAK Project held a backpack distribution event at the Las Vegas Rescue Mission. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fire injures one at Bridger Inn Hotel in downtown Las Vegas - VIDEO
Anna Ramirez, a resident the Bridger Inn Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, tells her experience of getting out of the building during a fire early Friday morning, Feb. 7, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County Fire Department change of command ceremony - VIDEO
Outgoing Clark County Fire Department Chief Greg Cassell turns over command of the department to incoming Chief John Steinbeck during a ceremony at the Clark County Government Center in Las Vegas Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
South Korea flight lands in Las Vegas after first diverted to L.A. - VIDEO
Three passengers aboard a Las Vegas-bound flight from Seoul were screened in Los Angeles after customs officials flagged them for traveling through China recently amid a global reaction to the coronavirus. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police briefing about Excalibur fire
Las Vegas police say a sexual assault and hotel fire Wednesday morning at the Excalibur are connected. (Alexis Egeland/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Coronavirus medical supplies sent to China from Las Vegas law office
Legal assistant Michelle Zhang, who has family in China working in hospitals affected by the coronavirus, talks about responding to requests for medical supplies during an interview at the law offices of Eric K. Chen in Las Vegas Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas Fire spokesman brief media on apartment fire
Las Vegas Fire and Rescue Spokesman Tim Szymanski updates news media about apartment fire. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Teens burglarize Summerlin home
Dr. Paul Wilkes’ Summerlin home was robbed while his realtor gave a group a tour during an open house on Sunday. The crime was captured on his home surveillance system.
Fire at Las Vegas Apartment
A fire caused heavy damage to an apartment building in the west Las Vegas Valley on Tuesday afternoon, officials said. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
More on the alleged Las Vegas sex doll brothel
RJ video anchor Renee Summerour interviews RJ reporter Max Michor about the latest details of the "Sex Doll Experience" establishment and his upcoming interview with the owner of The Studios. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1 person dead in 2-vehicle crash in central Las Vegas - VIDEO
Las Vegas police say one person died in a two-vehicle crash on Rainbow Boulevard just south of Sahara Avenue on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rollover crash closes intersection - VIDEO
A two-vehicle rollover crash at Desert Inn Road and Jones Boulevard is blocking the intersection Monday morning, Feb. 3, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas ready to enforce homeless camping ban - VIDEO
Las Vegas police will begin enforcing a controversial camping ban on city streets on Saturday, but officials say they expect to impose the penalties available under the new ordinance only in rare instances. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officials celebrate opening of Las Vegas park named for slain officer - Video
Top public officials came together Friday morning to celebrate the grand opening of Officer Alyn Beck Memorial Park in the northwest valley, named after a police officer killed in the line of duty in 2014. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wrong-way driver causes fatal crash near Las Vegas airport, authorities say - VIDEO
A suspected impaired motorist driving the wrong way on the Airport Connector caused a crash that killed another driver near McCarran International Airport early Friday morning, Jan. 17, 2020, according to law enforcement. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The car that Tupac was shot in is for sale - VIDEO
The vehicle that legendary rapper Tupac Shakur was riding in when he was shot after a boxing match in Las Vegas is up for auction. The black 1996 BMW 7 Series is listed by Celebrity Cars Las Vegas for $1.75 million. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rain continues in Las Vegas Valley

The caucus came and went in the Las Vegas Valley, but the rain and mountain snow that fell Saturday was expected to stick around into the evening, according to the National Weather Service.