How we got the story: Digging for clues after helicopter emergency led to critical interview with pilot

  • Russell Lissau

    Russell Lissau

Updated 9/7/2021 8:23 PM

When reports came in on Aug. 11 of a pilot walking away from a helicopter that had crashed onto Milwaukee Avenue in Prospect Heights, I had two primary missions upon being assigned the story.

The first was to get all the available information from the police and fire departments and any other agency involved in the incident or the investigation. That part was relatively easy, as news releases are expected for a high-profile emergency like this one. Plus, the Daily Herald's Jake Griffin had accomplished that task earlier in the day, so all I had to do was gather any updates.


My second mission was tougher: Find the pilot and get his story.

I'll be honest: I had little confidence I'd be able to find the pilot. Reporters used to be able to get the names, ages and hometowns of people injured in car crashes or in other ways from police and fire departments with little effort, but federal law now restricts the release of such information because of privacy concerns.

But being a reporter is a lot like being a detective. Seeking information is like seeking clues. And if you pay attention to details, sometimes you can spot the right clues and solve the mystery. That's what happened in this case.

That morning, Daily Herald photojournalist Mark Welsh made a video of Wheeling Deputy Fire Chief Steve Mella's news conference at the scene. The helicopter was behind Mella, and Mark edited some footage of the aircraft lying on its side into the video.

I spotted white text on the underside of the fuselage. It looked like a website address -- but the text was upside down because of how the helicopter was resting.

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So, I picked up my laptop and turned it upside down -- and sure enough, the text was a corporate website address,

I righted my computer, typed the URL into a web browser and discovered it led to the website of a Morton Grove repair business. I searched for the phone number, called and asked for the owner or manager, hoping they could connect me with the pilot.

Owner and CEO Ovidiu Astalus eventually got on the line. He was the pilot. And for the next 10 minutes or so, we talked about his experience in the air that morning and how the decisions he made prevented serious property damage or any loss of life.

It turned out the helicopter didn't crash -- Astalus landed it on the roadway, but upon landing the main rotor blades struck a nearby light pole, which forced the craft onto its side.

Astalus even supplied photos of himself with the helicopter in question.

As a result, the Daily Herald had a gripping narrative of what happened that morning, one that was far more thorough and dramatic than the reports filed by our competitors.

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