COMPTON – A medical chopper hit bad weather Monday night and was returning to its base at a Rockford hospital when it crashed in a cornfield, killing all three aboard, officials said Tuesday.
Pilot Andy Olesen, 65, and flight nurses Jim Dillow, 40, and Karen Hollis, 48, were experienced REACT responders, and this was the aircraft’s first crash in its 21 years with the program, Rockford Health Systems officials said.
National Weather Service observations showed light snow, 7-mile visibility and light winds in the area around the time of the crash, meteorologist Jamie Enderlen said.
The NWS usually worries about visibility of a mile or less, “but there could have been localized” weather at the point the helicopter turned around, Enderlen said.
A witness who saw and reported the crash said it was sleeting at the time.
“It was really crappy out,” said Micheal Bernardin, a Viola Township highway commissioner who lives about a half-mile away. “It sounded like it was going to hit the house. All of a sudden I saw this red light come out of the sky and nosedive right into the ground out here.
“I thought it was going to hit the house, but evidently the guy steered her clear of everything.”
The REACT crew had left Rockford Memorial Hospital about 7:30 p.m. to pick up a critically ill patient at Mendota Hospital, Rockford Memorial spokeswoman Laura Maher said.
While en route, Olesen radioed that the helicopter had “encountered weather” and was turning back. The hospital lost contact with the helicopter a short time later, Maher said.
Eric Weiss, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation, says initial reports show the helicopter left Rockford in freezing rain that “impacted the terrain southwest of Rochelle.”
A preliminary report on the crash will be available within 10 days and the full report will be completed in the next 12 to 18 months, Weiss said. The Federal Aviation Administration is assisting.
Lee County Sheriff’s deputies were called about 8:30 p.m., after Bernardin reported the crash in a cornfield around U.S. Route 30 and state Route 251, near Melugins Grove Road and several miles south of Rochelle.
Deputies received a call 15 minutes earlier from Rockford after the hospital lost radio contact with the crew somewhere over the southeast part of the county, Varga said.
Deputies and state police, and Compton and Paw Paw fire, responded to the scene, Varga said.
The wreckage covered an area about the size of one and a half football fields, he said.
Rockford Health Systems started its REACT program in 1987 and bought the MBBK 117 in 1991. This is the program’s first crash since, after more than 10,000 transports, Maher said.
Olesen was employed by Colorado-based Air Methods, the hospital’s contracted provider of aircraft services, since 1994 and had been a pilot for REACT for about 5 years.
Air Methods Vice President Craig Yale said the helicopter was “a very reliable aircraft” and a “workhorse in our industry.”
He also said that Olesen was an experienced pilot who had worked for the company for 19 years, after flying for the Army for 23 years.
“We are trying to recognize his professionalism,” Yale said. “(Olesen) was a seasoned and professional pilot.”
He was planning to retire next week, his pastor, the Rev. Ralph Kuespert of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Rockford, told the Journal-Standard in Peoria.
Dillow started at Rockford Memorial in 1996 and was an experienced critical care nurse and emergency room nurse. He had more than 10 years experience as a flight nurse.
Hollis has been with the hospital since 1986 as a critical care nurse. She was a clinical resource coordinator and trauma nurse coordinator and also had more than 10 years experience as a flight nurse.
The Associated Press and SVM wire services contributed to this report.