PANAMA CITY BEACH — The pilot of a Robinson R22 helicopter that crashed in the Gulf of Mexico near Carillon Beach Resort made it to shore safe and uninjured Wednesday morning — thanks in part to a South Walton Fire District lifeguard.
David Vaughan, beach safety director for SWFD, said they received a call around 9:35 a.m. after a helicopter landed in the water and tipped over.
According to scanner traffic from the Bay County Sheriff's Office, EMS and other agencies, the caller said the helicopter had "descended rapidly" and hit the water near Pinnacle Port at 23223 Front Beach Road. Multiple agencies responded to the Carillon Beach area.
SWFD lifeguard Corey Crawford was called to the scene from his post in Rosemary Beach. A lifeguard on a personal watercraft was still 6 miles away, so Crawford drove the ATV to the scene. He had to push the vehicle through the beach washout, which was about 3 to 4 1/2 feet deep, before paddling out to the victim.
"It was epic," Vaughan said. "Corey is one of our special guys. He used good judgment."
There were two beach patrol units on the scene by the time he arrived. Crawford and other first responders paddled out about about 100 yards past the second sand bar before making contact with the pilot, the lone occupant in the helicopter who has yet to be identified.
"The information I gathered from him (the pilot) was that he had to make an emergency landing when something went wrong with the helicopter and maybe about 10 feet above the water, the helicopter flipped over on him, hence the crash," Crawford said.
"We treat it like any normal call," he said. "We train practically every day for scenarios just like this."
Witnesses reported seeing the R22, a light, single-bladed helicopter about 28 feet long, flying with another, larger helicopter moments before the crash. Shauna Rutt, who was laying on the beach with her mother, remembered seeing the larger helicopter flying up and down the beach the day before. Helicopters are a common sight in the area, ferrying tourists out for spectacular views of the Gulf.
When the R22 began to lose altitude, she didn’t think anything of it. The aircraft had buoys on its skids allowing it to float and for a moment she thought the pilot was attempting a water landing.
“At first I thought, ‘This is really cool, a landing right in front of us,” she said.
Then, she noticed the propellers were barely spinning. The helicopter took a nose dive into the Gulf and for several heart-stopping moments was submerged.
Less than a minute later, the helicopter popped back up to the surface with the pilot clinging to the buoy. Rutt said he climbed onto the helicopter, floating belly-up between the first and second sandbars, and waited for a rescue.
The crash triggered a massive emergency response, with multiple state, county and Panama City agencies answering the call. The pilot made it back on shore with “just a little salt water ingestion,” according to Bay County Sheriff's Office Lt. Chad King with BCSO.
Chriss and Monika Morrisson, who live nearby, ran down to the beach expecting the worst. They stood together on the white sand, nervously regarding the Coast Guard vessel keeping watch of the overturned helicopter.
“I am just so happy he walked away from it,” Chriss Morrison remarked.
After the excitement died down, the wreck attracted quite a crowd, with about two dozen bystanders out on the water line watching the upturned helicopter bob in the surf, a buoy emblazoned with “Boatpix.com” sticking up in the air.
With the help of its two buoys and a decent wind, the wreck floated about a half mile west down the beach before drifting in far enough to get stuck on the first sandbar while emergency crews waited for the Federal Aviation Administration to respond and begin their investigation. At one point, the helicopter’s door was pushed open the pilot’s belongings drifting away into the Gulf.
According to the FAA, the downed R22 Mariner was a commercial helicopter built in 1991 and was most recently registered in 2014. Also according to the FAA, an aircraft’s owner is responsible for removing an aircraft from a crash site. The FAA will be investigating the crash, and the National Transportation Safety Board will issue a probable cause.
When the R22 emerged from the Gulf later in the afternoon and was flipped rightside up, it was clear the crash could have been much worse. All of the glass had shattered in the impact, the snapped propeller hung at an awkward angle like a broken arm, and the tail lay several feet away, completely severed.
A pontoon on the helicopter indicated that it was associated with Boatpix.com, a West Palm Beach, Florida, aerial photography firm that specializes in photographing boats. A woman who answered the phone at Boatpix.com on Wednesday afternoon said she didn't know anything about, and hung up when asked if anyone at the business could comment on the incident.