by Kimberly Rubio, assistant editor
The pilot and a newlywed couple aboard a helicopter early Sunday morning died at the scene after the aircraft crashed into a hillside in northwest Uvalde County.
Gerald Douglas Lawrence, 76, an experienced pilot with more than 24,000 flight hours, was operating the helicopter. Lawrence is said to have served as the Byler family’s pilot for more than 20 years.
He was taking Sam Houston State University seniors Bailee Raye Ackerman Byler and William Troy Byler to San Antonio, just hours after their wedding on the groom’s family ranch.
Will Byler was majoring in agriculture engineering and was scheduled to graduate in May, while Ackerman Byler was studying agricultural communication and was set to graduate next month.
Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife Game Wardens were able to find the crash scene just after 7 a.m. Warden Rachel Kellner described seeing debris scattered along the side of the mountain, where the destroyed helicopter was precariously situated on the steep hill.
“When we came, a lot of the family was there. They had been dropped off by a private helicopter,” Kellner said during a press conference organized by the National Transportation Safety Board on Monday afternoon at the Emergency Operations Center at Garner Field Airport.
“And so we helped them to secure the scene. We discussed with [Federal Aviation Administration] that we would stay on the scene until they could get there. We spoke to the family and said we would stay with their loved ones and so we did,” Kellner said, noting that the wedding took place on a family-owned ranch, but the family does not reside in the area.
The Byler Ranch is located 10-20 miles from the crash site.
The press conference was lead by Craig Hatch, air safety investigator with NTSB. The agency is headquartered in Washington, D.C. Hatch is stationed in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Hatch said a preliminary report will be released within two weeks. The more in-depth factual report will be released within a year, and a probable cause will be determined 60 days after the release of that report.
Hatch said he is considering weather conditions and pilot qualifications, including the pilot’s 72-hour history leading up to the crash. Hatch noted that the helicopter remains on the the side of hill while a a recovery team determines how to extract debris.
“… If we move it, it and we are going to come tumbling down the side of the hill, as well,” Hatch said.
Hatch estimated the helicopter was in flight for 5-10 minutes before it crashed. There was no resulting fire.
Following the crash, which occurred just after midnight, game wardens, United States Border Patrol and Texas Department of Public Safety attempted to make the location.
“The terrain was terrible. The side of a mountain; it was pitch dark,” Kellner said, adding that first responders decided to wait until daybreak to attempt to locate the crash site.