Las Vegas Delwin and Tamara Chapman were in Las Vegas to renew their wedding vows after 25 years of marriage when a luxury helicopter tour of the twinkling Las Vegas Strip and the iconic Hoover Dam caught their attention. Delwin loved to fly.
The sunset tour ended in a smoky crash Wednesday night, killing the Chapmans, a 31-year-old pilot and two other passengers in an accident that scattered helicopter debris across the River Mountains bordering Lake Mead.
Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said the bodies were not easily recognizable and identifying the victims would likely involve the use of DNA, fingerprint and dental records.
Ron Solze, whose son is married to one of the Chapmans' four daughters, identified the couple, saying they were well known in their small hometown of Utica, Kan., 75 miles southwest of Hays. Delwin ran a construction company and his wife recently closed her hairstyling shop in the town of about 160 people.
"It's a small town, so this affects a lot of people," Solze said. "They were good people."
Howard Bever, the Chapman's pastor, said Delwin Chapman was the property chairman of the church in Utica and used his repair and maintenance skills to keep the church in immaculate shape.
"Someone said if (Delwin) thought he was going to go, though, he would want to go in something like a helicopter," Bever told the The Hays Daily News. "He had flown in power parachutes up to helicopters. He loved the sensation of flying."
Pilot Landon Nield, 31, meanwhile, was a devout Mormon and the father of two who married in June in a Las Vegas church.
"He was a good pilot," said his wife, Gabriela Orozco, 38. "He loved what he was doing. His dream was to be a pilot."
Orozco told The Associated Press her husband had flown for roughly seven years, and was taking tourists along a typical twilight route when the helicopter crashed.
It's unclear what might have triggered the Nevada crash. The weather was mostly clear near Lake Mead on Wednesday, with a low temperature around 29 and winds around 5 mph. Investigators expect to be on the scene three to five days, said Mark Rosekind with the National Transportation Safety Board.
He said the helicopter crashed near the bottom of a V-shaped canyon about 150 feet deep. Investigators had to climb ladders into the canyon to survey the scene.
Investigators have identified both tail rotor blades and parts of the engine, Rosekind said at a news conference Thursday night. There's evidence that the main rotor blades remained attached to the rotor hub of the ill-fated aircraft, he said.
The crash was the latest involving tour helicopters across the country in recent years and comes amid concerns about the safety of the air tour industry. From 1994 through 2008, there were 75 commercial helicopter accidents in the U.S., excluding air ambulances, resulting in 88 fatalities.
Helicopter-crash trial lawyer Gary Robb said tour pilots are encouraged to push the aircraft's limits.
"There is an incentive for the pilot to provide a 'flight thrill' to passengers," Robb said.
The tour operator, Sundance Helicopters of Las Vegas, had at least five accidents and was the subject of 10 federal enforcement actions since 1994.
CEO Larry Pietropaolo noted there was no distress call before a GPS monitoring the location of the helicopter went silent. He said the company was turning over pilot and mechanical records to the NTSB and FAA. The company offers daily tours to the Grand Canyon and boasts a 22-helicopter fleet.
"We work every day to prevent this from happening," Pietropaolo told the AP. "We don't know what happened."
Pietropaolo downplayed the previous accidents and safety violations, saying he would measure Sundance's accident rate per hours flown against any other company. According to data from the Clark County Department of Aviation, Sundance flew 167,182 passengers during the first 10 months of this year — nearly 17,000 per month.
"Sundance has an excellent safety record relative to the industry and general aviation," Pietropaolo said.
Nield had no history of accidents or violations, according to the FAA. He and his 13 siblings grew up on farms in Wyoming and Utah, said his sister Angalena Adams.
"We all learned to work hard and love each other and appreciate each other," Adams said. "He loved everyone. He was an awesome brother and an awesome son."
Nield was hired by Sundance nearly three years ago. Pietropaolo called him a solid pilot and a "very nice young man."
Critics argue Sundance's troubled past is a symbol of relaxed safety practices enforced by helicopter tour companies nationwide.
Robb said chopper tours are the most dangerous form of aircraft travel because the pilots are expected to guide the aircraft and entertain passengers.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, repeatedly asked the FAA to address public complaints about helicopter safety issues, most recently in October, when a private aircraft crashed in the East River off Manhattan.
"Helicopter traffic is the wild west of aviation," she wrote to Federal Aviation Administrator Randolph Babbit in October. "Helicopters are subject to much less scrutiny than other types of aircraft."
The FAA requires that pilots be certified. Pilots must fly safely but are not restricted to specific altitudes. Gregor noted the FAA does random surveillance on air tour companies, "both overt and covert," to ensure they're operating safely.
Jen Boyer, executive director at Tour Operators Program of Safety, said Sundance Helicopters' membership has been in good standing with the industry group since 1997. That means it has passed thorough annual audits, most recently in July.
"We truly believe this is a sector of the helicopter industry that can be done safely," Boyer said.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michelle Rindels and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas, and Margaret Stafford in Kansas City, Kan.