An Army helicopter narrowly missed a 230,000-volt transmission line last night over the Capital Beltway in Springfield and severed two other wires before making an emergency landing in a nearby softball field.
The three crewmen, Army reservists on a routine training mission from Fort Meade Army Airfield in Maryland, escaped with minor injuries in the 8:30 p.m. incident
"We were very lucky" the helicopter did not hit the high-tension wire, said a spokesman for Virginia Electric and Power Co., adding: "Actually, the pilot was lucky" because the helicopter might have exploded had it hit the power line.
The single-rotor Bell Jetranger, which had only minor damage, sparked a brief but spectacular light show that observers compared to Fourth of July fireworks, and the sparks apparently ignited a small brush fire near the site just off the beltway at the Van Dorn Street exit.
The two severed wires hung from the 120-foot tower and prompted police to block traffic on the beltway for an hour and a half.
A Vepco spokesman said the wires were not charged with electricity and posed no danger to motorists. The severed "static wires," located just above the power lines, are meant to dissipate static. He said the lines dangled within 18 inches of the power lines and could have knocked out up to four substations and 60,000 customers had they touched.
Instead, Vepco estimated that while lights may have flickered in a wide area, fewer than 25 customers lost power.
"I felt a crash was imminent," said Dennis Webster, who served as a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam and happened to glimpse the accident from his car on the beltway. Webster said he drove to the site where the helicoper landed and congratulated the pilot, saying "You did a fine job getting here."
He said the pilot responded, "If I was doing a fine job, I wouldn't have been flying that low."
The Army pilot, a major, and his two passengers, would not identify themselves to reporters who gathered at the landing site, a softball field owned by Washington Gaslight Co. The pilot suffered a cut chin and the two others had minor injuries. The helicopter had a broken windshield and minor body damage.