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Nurse, pilot killed in medical helicopter crash in Brainerd

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Medical helicopter crashed
A nurse and a pilot were killed and a crew member injured when a medical helicopter crashed while on approach to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport early Friday morning.
Steve Kohls | Brainerd Dispatch

Updated: 9:05 p.m. | Posted: 7:04 a.m.

A nurse and a pilot were killed and a flight paramedic injured in a medical helicopter crash in northern Minnesota early Friday morning.

North Memorial Health said no patients were on board when the AgustaWestland A-109 helicopter crashed about 1 a.m. Friday at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office reported that the pilot and the nurse died at the scene. 

The paramedic was taken to St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd. Airport manager Steven Wright said the paramedic was initially in "severe but stable condition." 

"They were able to take him out of the helicopter, and at the time of departing the airport he was in stable condition," Wright said. "So keep praying for that crew member." 

The paramedic's condition was unknown as of Friday evening.

The names of the three crew members have not been released. The Associated Press reports that Gary Schott confirmed that his wife, nurse Debra K. Schott was killed in the crash. 

Schott, 58, was first licensed as a practical nurse in 1980, when she was 19 years old. The Minnesota Board of Nursing database says she first received a license to work as a registered nurse in 1994.

"We're caring for team members and the families of the employees who were involved in the crash is our priority, and just really focusing on making sure they're taken care of," said North Memorial Health spokesperson Katy Sullivan. 

The Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office, Brainerd police and fire departments and Baxter Police Department responded to the crash, Sullivan said.

Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport
A view of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Friday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Wright said the airport has continued to operate as usual, but the crash has left the community — all told, about 90 people work at the airport and the 13 businesses based there — shaken.

"We are a small airport community," he said. "We're all connected. So we consider them family." 

And while the names of the crew members have not yet been released, Wright said, it's safe to say that many of his colleagues at the airport knew them. 

"They come and go out of this facility ... we're family," he said. "When these types of situations happen ... it really hits home."

By Friday afternoon, as Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board investigators began their work, officials had few answers. 

The FAA reported that the crash had happened on the helicopter's approach to the airport. And Wright said that, while he couldn't confirm whether the helicopter was taking off or landing, he could confirm that it had crashed on the ground, next to the runway. 

The aircraft was mostly intact, Wright said, "but it does have some damage. There was definitely trauma there." He said most of the impact and damage was on the bottom of the plane, indicating that it had come down hard onto the ground. 

He also couldn't confirm how many people had been at the airport at the time of the crash, or if anyone had seen the helicopter go down. Each flight crew, he said, has staff at their bases 24 hours a day. 

Wright noted that there had been some fog in the area at the time of the crash. But it wasn't remarkable or out of the norm, he said, and shouldn't have had an impact on the helicopter's landing.

According to the National Weather Service in Duluth, fog in the area had reduced visibility to about a quarter mile. 

"We're still waiting," Wright said, "and a lot of the questions we had on the how and the why and the why did this happen will all be answered after those investigations are complete."

FAA investigators began their work at the crash site Friday, and the NTSB tweeted early Friday morning that it was also investigating the crash. Wright said he expects NTSB investigators to arrive and begin their work at the airport sometime Friday evening.

Medical helicopter crashed
Two crew members died and one was injured when a medical helicopter crashed while on approach to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Friday.
Steve Kohls | Brainerd Dispatch

"We have a helicopter on the field right now," he said. "It remains on the field and the airport remains operational. We have both of our runways open at this time, so aircraft can still come and go."

Gov. Tim Walz offered his condolences via tweet Friday afternoon.

"The medical professionals on board dedicated their lives to helping others and saving lives," he wrote. "Gwen and I send our deepest sympathies to their families and loved ones."

Wright said the helicopter that crashed Friday was based in Brainerd. Two medical helicopter companies operate out of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, he said — North Memorial Health Air Care and LifeLink III — and both operate 24 hours a day. 

"Our runways and our airspace system is set up to safely take traffic and all other situations around the clock," he said.

According to its website, North Memorial Health Air Care operates medical helicopters out of bases in Bemidji, Brainerd, Faribault, Princeton, Redwood Falls, Virginia and Siren, Wis., and takes more than 4,500 service requests a year across Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and North and South Dakota. 

The division issued a statement midday Friday: "To our community and friends, thank you, for your condolences in response to the helicopter accident last night. We would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to everyone who has sent messages of kindness, shared grief and sympathy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family members, friends and all of our colleagues who lost loved ones."

Since 2000 there have been four other medical helicopter crashes in Minnesota. According to a National Transportation Safety Board database, only one, on Sept. 17, 2016 and also involving a North Memorial aircraft, led to serious injuries. 

In that case, the helicopter left Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport at 1:37 a.m. and crashed into trees in a residential area near Chandler Field Airport in Alexandria 27 minutes later. The crew had been en route to pick up a patient at Douglas County Hospital.

According to the NTSB report filed two years after the incident, the pilot, Joshua Jones, was unable to see the airport's runway lights through the fog. He flew around and made another attempt at landing in the dark when he struck the trees. 

Jones, paramedic Miles Weske, and flight nurse Scott Scepaniak all survived the crash. Weske suffered the most serious injuries and had his leg amputated in 2017.

In 2005, a North Memorial helicopter taking off from North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale sustained major damage during an aborted takeoff. After 30 seconds in a five foot hover, the pilot reported hearing a loud bang. According to the NTSB report, the aircraft began rocking violently side to side before ending up on its left side with the blades still turning.

The pilot, a flight nurse, and paramedic escaped without injury. Investigators were unable to determine the exact cause. 

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik and The Associated Press contributed to this report.