The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the Sunday evening crash of a small, helicopter-like aircraft at St. John the Baptist Parish Airport in Reserve that killed a Metairie man and his 13-year-old passenger.
The experimental aircraft, called a gyrocopter or an autogyro, veered to the side shortly after taking off about 5 p.m. when the overhead blades folded upward. It then crashed into a nearby canal.
Darren Mahler, 47, and a family friend from his neighborhood, Payton Wilt, 13, were pronounced dead at the scene.
Joey Murray, a commissioner with the Port of South Louisiana and chairman of its Aviation Committee, was at the airport and saw the crash from about 600 yards away.
He said the gyrocopter got up to about 300 feet and banked to the west before it crashed into the nearby West Canal.
Murray said it appears something went wrong with the fan behind the cockpit that blows air backward across the tailfin, pushing the copter forward.
He said a gyrocopter’s overhead blade isn’t intended to hold the craft aloft, and that once the aircraft loses its forward propulsion, it cannot stay up in the air.
Mahler brought Wilt along with his own son to ride in the copter. Wilt went up with Mahler first while Mahler’s son stayed on the ground, Murray said.
Relatives of the victims could not be reached Monday for comment.
According to the Port of South Louisiana, which manages the airport, the rotor above a gyrocopter is unpowered, while the rear-facing propeller is powered by an engine. As that propeller pushes the craft forward, the air underneath the overhead blades rotates them, creating the necessary lift.
Gyrocopters need a runway to take off and can fly as fast as 60 miles per hour, usually at less than 3,000 feet in the air.
According to Mahler’s registry certificate filed with the FAA, the gyrocopter was built from a kit made in 2003 with an engine manufactured by Subaru.
Mahler’s certificate was issued June 16 and was good for three years.
Airport Director Vincent Caire said Mahler’s gyrocopter was the only such aircraft housed at the airport but that he was not sure how long Mahler had kept it there.
He said the FAA performs random checks to make sure licensed and certified aviators are qualified and their craft meet the proper requirements. He said he had never met Mahler and knew nothing about his qualifications or the craft.
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