MIAMIVILLE, Ohio – Oak Surber, a Clermont County homebuilder, was on a Canadian hunting trip. Capt. James E. Capps of Birmingham, Alabama, was flying an Army National Guard helicopter from Lunken Airport to Pennsylvania.
Only by the most unlikely circumstances would their fates collide.
A recent rash of military aircraft accidents brings to mind one that happened in the Tri-State nearly 38 years ago.
One of six heavy-lifting Sikorski Skycrane helicopters flying from Lunken fell out of the sky and crashed next to Surber’s exclusive home on Pheasant Run Drive on Sept. 29, 1979.
The pilot flying in formation next to Capps told WCPO he saw the six-bladed main rotor fall off as they flew 100 mph at 2,000 feet. The rotor almost hit the second helicopter in midair.
“Main rotor blade flung right in front of me,” said Chief Warrant Officer Ed Metcalfe of the Alabama Army National Guard, 307th Transportation Co., Birmingham.
“I was on the left side and we were coming over this area here when I noticed one of his blades flung off. He did a vibrations roll, turned upside down, burst into flames and crashed.”
Metcalfe said the vibrations shook the engine loose and burst the fuel lines. Engine exhaust ignited the fuel. The helicopters had refueled at Lunken and had flown about seven miles when the accident happened.
The four crewmembers were killed. Surber’s house, in a wooded, secluded area, burst into flames, but three people inside – his wife and daughter and their housekeeper - ran to safety.
Surber’s wife, Jane, said she couldn’t imagine what had happened.
“It sounded like an explosion. I had no idea it was a helicopter until we went to a neighbor’s house and they said it was a helicopter crash,” she told the Enquirer. “Everything we had is gone. I don’t even have a pair of shoes.”
Flaming debris filled the yard and splashed into the adjoining lake. Crews pulled the cockpit out of the lake while firefighters hosed down the burning house and wreckage.
Neighbors said they saw or heard the helicopter fall out of the sunny noontime sky. Fred DeBra, who lived nearby, said he and his 6-year-old son Joshua were throwing a softball in their backyard.
“I said, ‘Look at the helicopters, Joshua.’ Then all of a sudden I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” DeBra said.
That was Surber’s reaction, too, when he pulled into his driveway after driving seven hours from Canada. The $300,000 home he had designed and built was charred and in ruin. Not only that, his family’s collection of artwork, antiques and other irreplaceables was gone.
He appeared to be in shock as he listed what he lost.
“Belgian guns, family heirlooms, 300-year-old pieces from the Orient, a 100-and-some-year-old armoire … “ Surber told WCPO.
He estimated total damage at $600,000 (about $2 million in 2017 dollars).
The other flyers killed were Staff Sgt. Waymon Nixon, Capt. Paul F. Edgar Jr., and Staff Sgt. Allan K. Piatt. They were from units of the Alabama and Pennsylvania Army National Guards. The helicopters were being transferred from the Alabama unit in Birmingham to the Pennsylvania unit at Ft. Indiantown Gap because the Alabama unit was receiving newer models.
The other five helicopters were immediately grounded after the crash.