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Blade from copter crash is buried treasure for diver

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:58 AM
TAMPA -

A Pinellas Park man who already has found one submerged blade from a helicopter that crashed into Tampa Bay in November is going on another voyage to retrieve the second blade, or parts of it.

The incentive: a $1,000 reward posted by the helicopter's manufacturer.

Pete Smitt, 60, and diving buddy Richard Londree found the first blade just west of the Apollo Beach shoreline on Dec. 28 after seeing the reward posted on a treasure hunter's website.

"He called me up and said he saw the reward and asked, 'You want to go diving?' " Smitt said Thursday.

He said Londree runs a business supplying live rock to aquarium businesses and his boat is equipped with side-scan sonar.

"We went back and forth and it was real easy," Smitt said. "It took about an hour. It was 150 feet away from where the chopper went down."

The blade showed up on the scanner just like a picture, said Smitt, a tool-and-dye maker who also is a dive instructor. It rested on the sandy "flat-as-a-pancake" bottom in 12 feet of water, he said.

They grabbed the blade, which appeared to be about intact, and secured it on the boat. They began a search for the second blade and located it, or at least parts of it, about 100 feet away but ran out of air, Smitt said.

The second blade was in broken segments, a foot or two long, he said. There were only a couple pieces, he said.

The spot is marked on his GPS, and he plans to head out Saturday morning to pick up whatever pieces he can find.

The blades are from a Robinson R22 Beta II helicopter that crashed on Nov. 30, killing John Lawrence Ward, an experienced pilot and helicopter flying instructor, who was the chopper's sole occupant.

An investigator with the manufacturer posted the reward – $1,000 for each of the two blades – in hopes they will give clues as to what caused the helicopter crash.

Witnesses said they heard a bang and saw the rotors separate from the aircraft just before it nose-dived into the water.

A preliminary report filed by the National Transportation Safety Board said the chopper crashed "following a main rotor blade separation in flight."

The report said Ward experienced trouble after taking off from Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands and headed south along the eastern coast of the Bay, flying about at an altitude of about 500 feet.

The helicopter rolled right and crashed nose-down into the bay, about 200 yards from shore.


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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