DELANO — Federal authorities are investigating a helicopter crash that killed a female pilot Wednesday morning.
The helicopter had been doing frost control work over nearby citrus groves when it dove into a grape vineyard just outside this north Kern County city.
The crash site was found at 9:50 a.m. a half-mile west of Famoso-Porterville Highway at Spangler Road, more than three hours after the helicopter went missing, according to Kern County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ray Pruitt.
A sheriff’s air unit spotted the wreckage with the help of the pilot of another helicopter that had been doing agricultural work along with the one that crashed at 6:21 a.m. That pilot had seen the woman, identified by the coroner’s office Wednesday night as Karen L. Johnson, 62, of Camarillo, go down.
The view of the area was obscured on the ground by trees and vineyards, and was shrouded in dense fog that made it hard to see from the air, so it took time to find the crash site, Pruitt said.
The helicopter that crashed and another helicopter in the area belong to San Joaquin Helicopters, company operations manager Erik Josephson confirmed Wednesday afternoon. The San Joaquin helicopters had been out since 2 a.m. and usually work until sunrise, Josephson said.
Other company employees were doing “as well as can be expected,” he said.
“It’s a reality check that aviation is a serious game,” Josephson said.
He said he wasn’t at liberty to name the owner of the property Johnson was working on. What caused the crash won’t be known until the National Transportation Safety Board completes its investigation.
“It could be one of six million different things,” Josephson said.
An official from the Federal Aviation Administration in Fresno took control of the investigation after local authorities found the wreckage.
Earlier in the morning, the FAA reported that three helicopters were conducting frost control in the area and only two returned to their base. Local officials later said there were two helicopters total. The returning pilot tried unsuccessfully to contact the missing pilot by radio, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
The helicopter departed from Delano Airport and was returning to the airport when it disappeared at about 6:15 a.m. between McComb Road and Quality Road, he said.
A witness, identified as the pilot of the other helicopter, reported seeing an aircraft go down in the area. Both the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Kern County Fire Department were involved in the search, which was hampered by low visibility.
Robin Rogers, vice president of Fresno-based Rogers Helicopters Inc., which was not involved in Wednesday’s incident, said frost control involves using helicopters to fly over crops and push the slightly warmer air at higher altitudes downward. It’s not a big difference in temperature, he said, but if the ground level air is at freezing or below and the higher air is above freezing, it makes a difference and keeps frost off the crop.
Rogers said frost control is done on citrus at this time of year, and on almonds, pistachios and cherries in the spring. Helicopters typically fly anywhere from 20 to 50 feet above the treeline, he said.
It can be a risky job, as the lower you fly you have obstacles such as telephone poles and transmission wires, Rogers said. Pilots perform reconnaissance during the day on the fields they’re going to fly so they’re aware of trouble spots.
“The hardest part this time of year is that the fog can form really fast,” he said.
Jon Zaninovich, owner of Jasmine Vineyards where the plane went down, said a foreman alerted him to smoke rising from the vineyards.
Zaninovich said he drove to the scene and found out from authorities what had happened.
He had workers on the ground pruning the vineyard, but fortunately none of them were hurt. Zaninovich said the helicopter was not doing work for him, but speculated that weather likely contributed to the crash.
“I think it was just fog and disorientation,” Zaninovich said. “Not a great way to start the new year, of course. I’m sure it was just an unfortunate accident.”