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Rocky Spencer v. Northwest Helicopters

Rocky Spencer had ridden in helicopters for decades before his fatal accident.
Rocky Spencer had ridden in helicopters for decades before his fatal accident.

Rocky Spencer, a highly regarded wildlife biologist for Washington State, was killed on September 8, 2007 when a main rotor disc blade on a Northwest Helicopters Hughes 500 struck him in the head and decapitated him.  SKW’s aviation accident legal team represented the Estate of Spencer and Scott Spencer.

Rocky had flown bighorn sheep netting missions in the same Jet Ranger helicopter for 25 years.  He was quite familiar with its dimensions and blade clearance.  On the morning of September 8, 2007, a Northwest Helicopters pilot picked him up for sheet netting, but was using a different helicopter (Hughes MD 500, 1977 Hughes Model 369D) that, it turns out, had a lower rotor height.

The WA Department of Fish & Wildlife rules require that the pilot conduct a safety briefing for passengers who may exit the aircraft on uneven ground.  Northwest Helicopters was, in fact, written up by the National Transportation Safety Board for the failure of its ACETA policy manual to provide any direction on pre-mission briefings, including how a gunner was to egress the helicopter.  While  the pilot of the helicopter thought that he mentioned that the Hughes was a little lower, an eyewitness stated that “[the pilot] did go over 99% of the safety things at site about the Hughes, but not the height difference” (emphasis added).

The Northwest Helicopters pilot put the helicopter in a toe-in position up against a hill, a disfavored hovering maneuver because of the reduction in front end clearance between the ground and rotor blades, diminishing the safety zone as one proceeds toward the front of the ship.

Rocky had netted two sheep.  The capture required a prompt response.  He disembarked the left side of the helicopter and headed toward the netted sheep.  Suddenly, and without any warning from the pilot, virtually invisible rotating blades struck Rocky’s forehead with such force that, even with his helmet in place, the top of his head was severed.

Rocky Spencer: One of WA State’s most respected wildlife biologists

Spencer was a respected wildlife biologist.
Spencer was a respected wildlife biologist.

In addition to his family, many in the Northwest news community had deep affection and respect for Rocky.  Spencer had joined the WA State Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1978 and established himself as one of the state’s best wildlife biologists. He loved opportunities that allowed him to remind us that the animals were here first, like the day he took a small group to follow him track cougar kittens near Enumclaw.

After his tragic and untimely death, there was an outpouring of grief with hundreds of friends gathering to remember Rocky’s life and work. Gary Chittim, KING 5 environmental specialist, gave a moving speech at Rocky’s memorial service, closing with “Rest in peace old friend. We’ll all miss you.”

Liz Rocca of KOMO 4 News explained, “Rocky had a love for wildlife. You could feel it just being around him.”

Glenn Farley, KING 5 aviation news reporter, shared,

I was watching KING 5 news at 10 on KONG a week ago when the news broke, that Rocky Spencer had been killed instantly in a helicopter mishap. It was stunning, and sickening news to receive. By the 11 p.m. show, the writers had pulled up some file footage of Rocky. It was of my last interview with him in July … a story about how he and a graduate student assistant were using high-tech tracking methods to map out how cougars were slinking in and out of suburban neighborhoods, usually unnoticed. His mission was trying to get people and wildlife to get along and keep out of each other’s way … because it was usually the cougar or the bear who lost out in a confrontation with people, and those conflicts are rising as housing developments continue to push into wildlife habitat. I wish I had gotten to know Rocky Spencer better. KING 5 Environmental Specialist Gary Chittim had that opportunity more often that I did. But in this business, as journalists, our jobs often overlap to some degree. My love for the outdoors and interest in wildlife brought me in contact with Spencer on a number of occasions, even it if was just a chat on the phone…

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