They were trying to save a life, but in doing so they lost their own. Thirty years ago Tuesday, Maryland State Police Cpl. Gregory May, 31, and Trooper 1st Class Carey Poetzman, 28, died in a helicopter crash while returning from a medical transport.
The two had transported a shooting victim from Carroll County to Baltimore Shock Trauma Center, and it was on their way back home to Frederick when the helicopter they were flying in came crashing down in the early hours of Jan.19, 1986.
“It was almost like the perfect storm, no one had realized that the aircraft had never made it back to Frederick until the dayshift came in and the aircraft was gone,” said Bill Bernard, the director of flight operations for Maryland State Police Aviation Command.
Trooper 3 was discovered in Leakin Park roughly 10 hours after it crashed. Cpl. May and Trooper Poetzman did not survive. According to a NTSB crash report, investigators determined the cause of the accident to be the pilot's continued flight into deteriorating weather conditions. In addition, investigators cited a lack of instrument and flight training, as well as no flight tracking system as contributing factors to the crash.
“Everyone gathered around together to say, ‘What can we do to make the system better?’ And the first thing that came up was a more capable aircraft with twin engines, with an auto-pilot, certified for instrument flight, pilot's being certified for instrument flight,” said Bernard.
Maryland State Police upgraded the Bell Ranger helicopters in their fleet to the Dauphin aircraft. Additional changes included increased experience for pilots, upping the requirement to 2,000 helicopter flight hours, as well as a fully automated dispatch center and safety reporting system.
Bill Bernard, an aviation command serviceman for 36 years, welcomed the change but still wishes that the swift reform didn't mean losing two friends. He flew alongside Poetzman for a little over a year, until he was transferred to a new station. May took Bernard’s place at the Frederick base around six months before the fatal crash.
“Greg was a very quiet individual, real family man real quiet kind of guy, the guy you'd want as a best friend,” said Bernard.
He remembers Poetzman as a dynamic individual who was also a pioneer in the field.
“This was a male-dominated environment until she came along, and she was the first female medic in the command,” Bernard said. “And she fit so well, she could hold her own with anybody and that's what everyone liked about her. So, I didn't really think about ‘Oh yah, she was the first female medic,’ it was Carey that's who she was.”
May and Poetzman both died after trying to save a life but by dedicating theirs, Bernard believes Aviation Command has been able to save so many more.
“What my crews do is risky. People get killed doing what we do, they don't think about it but there's nothing like saving someone's life,” Bernard said.
Maryland State Police are now retiring the Dauphin aircraft and have purchased 10 new $12 million dollar AW139 helicopters. Bernard said they’re expensive, but worth every penny if it means someone going home to their family after surviving at Shock Trauma.