By Sharna Johnson: CNJ Staff Writer
Bryan Kos was planting wheat north of Melrose when the sounds of a low-flying helicopter caught his attention late Monday morning. As he watched, the chopper flew past him before crashing into a nearby maize field, he said.
Jumping from his tractor and running toward the cloud of dust and debris, Kos said he was amazed to see two men moving, one on the ground in front of the crash and one climbing out of the overturned chopper.
Officials said Tuesday that Don Whittington of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was piloting the helicopter when it crashed. A man who identified himself as a family member said Whittington was being treated for injuries at a Lubbock hospital, but would not elaborate or answer additional questions. The passenger was identified as Joseph Casanova. Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher said Casanova was in good condition, but he had no additional information.
“It scared me. You’re sitting on a tractor all day and your mind is really not in high gear until you see something like that, then everything happens so fast,” Kos said.
“The guys looked like they did a good job setting her down as best they could,” the 65-year-old farmer said.
Clyde Gunnels, Kos’ employer, called 911 and came to the scene when he received a call from Kos telling him about the crash. Gunnels said he put the pilot in his truck and rushed to meet an ambulance en route from Melrose. “He was bleeding quite a bit — we were in a hurry to get him the ambulance,” Gunnels said.
The helicopter was on its way to California, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Roland Herwig.
The chopper was a Bell UH-1, also known as a Huey, commonly used by the military, according to Herwig.
It is not uncommon for Hueys to be owned and flown by civilians, Herwig said.
Kos said the men said they were en route to Albuquerque when they crashed.
Sheriff’s deputies assisted only by securing the crash scene and did not have additional information on the investigation, Hatcher said.
Fort Lauderdale-based World Jet, a company that buys and sells private jets, is owned by a Don Whittington, but a receptionist at World Jet would not answer questions about whether the company’s owner was involved in the crash.
Herwig said previously wind gusts may have contributed to the crash.