WEST JEFFERSON-Jerry Lewis said he still remembers the day he glanced up from his breakfast and watched a helicopter come crashing down on West Jefferson.
“I was eating breakfast with my dad – it’s the spot where Hillbilly Grill is now but it was the Somerset Restaurant then – and I could just see this helicopter out of the corner of my eye,” Lewis, a former Ashe County Sheriff’s Office patrol officer and detective, said. “About the time I said, ‘That ain’t flying right,’ I realized it was going to come down. Hard.”
The accident occurred on a lazy summer morning in 1986, according to contemporary reports, and Lewis said he just knew the crash had claimed the life of everyone on board the chopper – and likely bystanders on the ground, too.
“That’s when I remembered (Ashe County Sheriff James Williams) was up in the air that morning,” Lewis said. “So I got on the radio to dispatch and started running that way. I just knew he wasn’t with us anymore.”
By the time Lewis climbed on the roof, he could hear screams coming from the shattered aircraft – those were coming from Boone Police Department Pilot Robert Kennedy – but Lewis said Williams was nowhere to be found.
“All of a sudden I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see James there,” Lewis said. “He was wobbly and he grinned and said, “I fell down and go boom.”
Lewis said that’s the point Williams collapsed.
Just a routine flight
Williams told the Jefferson Post there’s a lot of things he’s forgotten over the course of his law enforcement career, but that flight with Kennedy in the mid-1980s isn’t one of them.
Williams, at the time a sheriff’s deputy, had hitched a ride with Major Kennedy – an experienced rotary wing pilot – as part of a cooperative drug eradication effort between Ashe and Watauga County law enforcement.
Every summer, before illegal marijuana plots can be harvested, law agencies take to the skies in a bid to catch clandestine pot growers when they’re most vulnerable. Williams said his flight with Kennedy started just like all the others before it.
“We’d just finished fueling up and were just coming over town about the point where Taylor Collision is now when the ride started to feel a little funny,” Williams said.
Williams estimated he and Kennedy were somewhere around 1,000 feet above the ground when the helicopter’s single engine quit inexplicably. The disabled craft began to fall from the sky and Williams said the only thing the pair saw beneath them was lots of concrete and plenty of buildings.
“I’ve said before when the engine started shutting down it converted from a helicopter to a brick,” Williams said. “I don’t recall being out of my mind with fear or anything because everything about you right then is trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do next, and do it calm.”
‘I could see the bone sticking from his leg’
Williams said Kennedy planned an auto-rotation landing, a kind of controlled emergency landing helicopters can take advantage of under certain emergency conditions. The altitude, airspeed and location of Williams’ and Kennedy’s engine failure left them with only a handful of bad next moves, however.
Williams said Kennedy ultimately made the call to point the wounded craft toward a gravel parking lot along West Jefferson’s backstreet, near the buildings Hart Power and the Jefferson Post now call home.
“As we came down, we realized, shoot, here’s all these power lines,” Williams said. “Now the idea in an auto-rotation is to control the helicopter on the way down and flare it right before you touch down to bleed off some speed and come in a little easier, but you’ve only got one shot at it.”
The power lines meant Kennedy was forced to flare the craft earlier than expected and Williams said the pair lost all hope of reaching their intended landing spot. Instead, they were coming in fast atop the flat roof of the Nationwide Insurance building.
“It was funny. It felt like the helicopter stopped and somebody threw a building at me,” Williams said. “God, the impact was hard, followed by all the noise and the crash and things are breaking and the rotor is flying and I remember feeling that roof give just a little and it broke through with us.”
Williams said he remembers two things vividly: the overwhelming smell of aviation fuel when he came to, and his pilot’s agonizing screams.
“My foot was folded over and trapped in the floorboard, but I could see what Bob was yelling about instantly,” Williams said. “He had a compound fracture, and I could see the bone sticking out of his leg. His foot was twisted completely in the wrong direction.”
Back in the air
Williams said it wasn’t long before emergency responders had climbed the building’s roof, lowered both men to the ground and transported them for treatment.
“It felt like an eternity, but the guys were quick about it,” Williams said. “They came into a chaotic situation and went to work and got us out of there pretty fast, considering.”
He and Kennedy later learned exactly how fortunate they’d been. Williams said crash investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board told him later the rooftop they crashed into turned out to be a much softer site than the gravel lot they’d aimed for – and missed.
“There would have been no give to that gravel lot,” Williams said. “He told us we would have been killed on impact.”
The other lucky fluke? The upper floor of the building Williams had careened into housed an apartment for a retired couple who were in the process of brewing their coffee at the time of the accident.
“So here we come crashing into his apartment – fuel going everywhere – and Mr. Lyle had just been about to turn the burner of his stove on,” Williams said. “We threw off his coffee break.”
Later, Williams said the duo learned the helicopter’s fuel switch had broken and simply vibrated into the off position, but that mishap was enough to send the bird crashing from some 400 feet in altitude to the earth. That altitude estimate came from a report filed by Phillip Powell of the NTSB.
No one was killed in the crash, or even irreparably injured, and Williams said he and Kennedy later took to the skies together again.
“I think we wanted to kind of thumb our nose at fate a bit,” Williams said. “Bob was a great man, just the nicest guy, but he was later killed in a fixed wing crash some years later down east. To survive one crash but be killed in another – to lose him hurt. But that crash, that’s 30 seconds I’ll never forget.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.