Los Angeles police helicopters took to the skies again Saturday after officials investigating last week's fatal crash determined that at least half the fleet was flight-worthy.
The entire fleet had been grounded since a French-made Aerospatiale AStar helicopter plunged into a southwest Los Angeles parking lot Thursday, killing the craft's two-man crew and an unidentified man standing on the street.
Though investigators still do not know whether the crash was caused by tainted fuel or a defect in the Aerospatiale engine, police officials gave the green light to the fleet's nine Bell Jet Ranger helicopters--but only after a new fuel shipment arrived from an outside source, said Police Air Support Division Officer Robert Harkins, a helicopter observer.
Officials gave final approval for the flights after several Bell Jet Rangers were sent up late Friday and early Saturday to respond to emergency calls. "We had a couple of spot responses last night and it showed we still have the ability to respond," Harkins said.
The fleet's five Aerospatiales remained grounded Saturday while investigators continued examining debris at the crash site and waited for the results of tests conducted on the department's fuel supply.
Investigators want to determine whether the police fuel supply had been contaminated by water or other substances. Harkins said there were no immediate plans to send the Aerospatiales up soon.
"When we feel they're safe and there's no general problems with the AStars. They'll go up again," he said.
Normally, three Air Support helicopters are flying at any given time during the day. Despite the temporary loss of the AStars and four other department helicopters, Harkins said the unit would still be able to field three helicopters at a time.
Harkins said a memorial service for police pilot Gary Howe and his observer, Charles R. Champe, is set for next Thursday morning at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills.
The two men will be given a burial with full police honors. Helicopter crew members from other police departments will be among the mourners, as well as representatives from the Marine Corps and the Army. Champe had been a Marine and Howe had served in the Army.
Meanwhile, a coroner's investigator said that medical examiners were still having trouble determining the identity of the third crash victim. The man, believed to be a middle-aged male Latino, was killed by the falling helicopter as he stood near a car at Vernon and Raymond avenues.
The victim was severely burned, making fingerprint identification impossible, said coroner's investigator Nils Linder. If the man does not have relatives locally, Linder said, investigators may have trouble learning his identity.
"A lot of people saw that crash," Linder said. "If he was from the neighborhood and had family, I think we would have heard from someone by now."