FATAL FLIGHTS Where's Trooper 2?
Md. Medical Helicopter Faced Problems in Air and on Ground Before Fatal Crash
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Tall and imposing at nearly 300 pounds, Stephen Bunker had a personality that matched his frame. Outgoing, proud of his three grown children, eager to share his love of flying, he had been a helicopter pilot for the Maryland State Police for more than two decades, making mostly trauma trips.
At 59, he wore bifocals and was slightly hard of hearing, but once he settled at the controls, he was the picture of confidence.
Bunker had a late lunch with his wife at Red Lobster on Sept. 27 before heading to the late shift on the Trooper 2 helicopter housed at Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs. As the night unfolded, it looked like it would be a washout for Trooper 2. Rain and ground fog were settling across Maryland. Helicopter requests were being assessed call by call.
When a State Police dispatcher in Baltimore called shortly after 11 p.m. asking Bunker whether he could fly to the scene of a car accident in Southern Maryland, the pilot hesitated. "Maybe they will change their mind," Bunker said of the local emergency crews.
"If you tell them you're going to go, they want you to go," said Cpl. George Noyes, the dispatcher. "That's up to you, man. Can you fly it?"
Bunker studied the weather reports. Word of another helicopter completing a mission came across the radio.
"If they can do it," he told Noyes, "we can do it."
Just 56 minutes later, Bunker and State Police paramedic Mickey C. Lippy were dead, along with a patient and a volunteer medic. The lone survivor, 18-year-old Jordan Wells, was hurled from Trooper 2 with too many broken bones to count.
The cause of the crash has not been determined. But nearly a year later, a Washington Post review of previously unreleased radio communications, along with dozens of interviews, points to failings in the air and on the ground.
Trooper 2 pushed through deteriorating weather, carrying patients with low-level injuries. Federal air controllers fed Bunker hours-old weather information. A few miles short of Andrews, Bunker asked for extra guidance to get him safely in. The controller told him that she couldn't help because she wasn't trained in what he needed.
In one of the most secure airspaces in the country, a helicopter vanished and no one immediately responded.
State Police eventually launched a fractured, scattered and misguided search across three counties.