after a man died when his helicopter crashed into Tampa Bay near Apollo Beach, investigators say a key part – the helicopter blade - might shed light on what went wrong.
One problem: They can't find it.
The manufacturer of the helicopter now is offering a $1,000 reward for retrieval of the blade.
Witnesses said they heard a bang and saw the rotors separate from the aircraft just before it nose-dived into the water on the afternoon of Nov. 30.
The crash killed John Lawrence Ward, an experienced pilot who once flew for the Navy and was certified on many aircraft, including large commercial passenger jets such as the Boeing 777. No one else was on board.
According to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report, the the Robinson R22 Beta II helicopter crashed "following a main rotor blade separation in flight near Apollo Beach."
The report said Ward initially took off from Clearwater and landed at Peter O. Knight before taking off again, heading south along the eastern coast of the Bay.
"Witnesses reported that the helicopter was flying along the beach, from north to south, about 500 feet above ground level," the report said. "The witnesses heard a bang, followed by a main rotor blade separation. The helicopter then immediately rolled right and descended nose down in to a bay, about 200 yards from shore."
The helicopter was recovered from the bay two days later.
The engine, rotor mast and rotor hub was still attached to the airframe, the report said, "however, both spindle assemblies and their respective main rotor blades had separated from the hub and were not recovered."
According to the Robinson Helicopter Company website, an initial search of the area just west of Apollo Beach was unsuccessful, though one of the submerged blades was found around Christmas.
Tom Webster, an investigator with Robinson, said finding the second blade is critical in determining what happened.
"What it does is rule them out as being a factor in the crash or not," he said. "We don't know if something happened to them, until we can actually see them."
Offering such rewards is unusual, he said.
"This is actually a first for us," he said. "This is an opportunity to get the local people involved and maybe find the blade quicker. It's metal and corrodes and we could lose evidence if it stays in the water too long. So time is of the essence."
The company will pay $1,000 to anyone who finds it. The company already has paid $1,000 to the person who recovered the first blade, he said.
"The location of each blade must be recorded," the website said, "preferably with GPS coordinates."
The blade must be turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration inspector to be eligible for the reward.
Ward, whose friends called him Larry, held both U.S. and international airline transport licenses and was a licensed helicopter instructor, according to a statement released by his family a day after the crash. He had just turned 60 and had lived with his wife, Karen, on Davis Islands for the past 20 years.