'I did the best I could': Helicopter pilot suffers minor injuries after emergency landing in Prospect Heights
A helicopter pilot who made an emergency landing Wednesday on Milwaukee Avenue in Prospect Heights before the craft flipped onto its side credited his flight instructor and God for his survival and minimal property damage.
"I did the best I could in that situation," said 35-year-old Niles resident Ovidiu Astalus, who walked away from the wreck with a dislocated shoulder and minor injuries. "I did what I was taught to do."
The emergency occurred about 6:40 a.m. Wednesday, shortly after Astalus took off from the nearby Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling.
The helicopter was built earlier this year, federal aviation records indicate. Astalus was the craft's only occupant Wednesday.
When the helicopter, which is black and emblazoned with the company logo and website address, was 200 to 300 feet over the Dam No. 1 Woods forest preserve, its engine began racing and slowing uncontrollably, Astalus said.
"(It) was acting crazy," he said.
Whereas an airplane in trouble sometimes can glide to an emergency landing, a helicopter that loses engine power typically has only a few rotor spins before it plummets to the ground, said George Sakas, the airport's interim executive director.
Astalus chose a spot on Milwaukee Avenue at Apple Drive to land. He set down in the northbound lanes, later saying he tried to land far ahead of oncoming cars so they could see him in time and avoid hitting the aircraft. There were no collisions.
After landing, the helicopter's overhead rotor blades struck a nearby light pole, knocking down the pole and forcing the aircraft onto its right side, Astalus said.
Wheeling Deputy Fire Chief Steve Mella was on his way to fire station No. 24, which is on Milwaukee Avenue about one mile from the airport, when he saw the helicopter in trouble.
"I thought it was a little bit low, but that's not terribly unusual," Mella said.
By the time Mella got to the station, firefighters were heading to the landing site. Mella activated his vehicle's emergency lights and joined them.
The helicopter came down about 15 or 20 feet from a concrete barrier separating the road from the forest preserve and the Des Plaines River, Mella said.
"Whether it was luck or skill I don't know, but no cars were hit," Mella said. "He ended up in an open intersection and didn't end up in the river or hit any of the businesses (in the area)."
Astalus, who said he got his pilot's license earlier this year and has about 150 hours of flight experience, got out of the craft on his own before emergency crews arrived.
Firefighters from Wheeling, Prospect Heights and Des Plaines responded with trucks and equipment specially designed for aircraft-related disasters. There was no fire, and property damage was minimal.
Astalus was taken to Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview and released later in the day.
"Thanks to God and thanks to the instructor I had," he said.
A section of Milwaukee Avenue was closed for about three hours until the helicopter could be loaded onto a flatbed truck and taken back to the airport, Mella said.
The airport was closed for eight minutes after the landing Wednesday, Sakas said. The runway closest to the landing site remained closed for more than three hours as a precaution, he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are investigating.
A tweet from the airport's official account thanked local police and fire departments for their quick response.
"They work hard at drills and training year-round to be ready for these kinds of events, and it shows on days like this," the tweet reads.
The last aircraft-related emergency at Chicago Executive occurred in February, when a small business jet slid off a runway during a snowstorm. No one was hurt.
• Daily Herald staff writer Jake Griffin contributed to this report.