SANFORD — A helicopter crashed Saturday morning at the Sanford airport, sending its pilot to a Portland hospital with severe injuries, authorities said.

The Robinson R44 helicopter – a light four-seat model – crashed next to the runway at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport at 10:24 a.m., according to the Federal Aviation Administration and local police.

Sanford police Sgt. Jason Wagner identified the pilot as Jack White, 50, of Bowdoinham. Wagner said White was the only person in the helicopter and was transported to Maine Medical Center with “severe injuries.”

A hospital spokesman said he had no information Saturday night about White.

Witnesses reported that the helicopter appeared to be practicing landing and/or near-ground maneuvers when it began rotating in an “uncontrolled spin” before hitting the ground, Wagner said in a statement.

Wagner said White’s flight was part of his helicopter licensing process. White had flown from the Sanford airport to multiple Maine and New Hampshire locations and was returning to Sanford to complete his flight, Wagner said.

“It is currently unknown the cause of the witnessed uncontrolled spin and resulting accident,” Wagner said. “Investigation into the incident will continue in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.”

Wagner told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that the helicopter, whose tail number is N21EH, had been rented, but he didn’t know from whom.

According to the FAA’s registry, a Robinson R44 helicopter, manufactured in 2000, with the same tail number is owned by Southern Maine Helicopter LCC, which is based in Sanford. The manager of the LLC is listed as James H. Knowles of Lee, N.H., who also lists a post office box in Sanford, according to records from the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

Knowles did not respond to a phone message left Saturday afternoon.

The Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport is home to York County Helicopters. The company’s website was down Saturday afternoon, but an archived version says the company offers introductory flights, flight lessons, scenic flights and photographing flights. The company’s Facebook page includes a photo of a red helicopter with the same tail number as the one in Saturday’s crash.

Kellie Beauchesne, general manager of Pilots Cove Cafe, which is situated alongside the airport fencing, said she caught a glimpse of the helicopter as it hit the ground. She called 911.

“Everyone was in shock,” she said, adding that the restaurant was full at the time.

Beauchesne said a crew from LifeFlight of Maine, which is stationed at the airport, arrived quickly at the crash site.

The FAA will investigate the crash and the NTSB will determine its probable cause, the FAA said in a statement.

Terry Williams, a public affairs officer with the NTSB, said it could take a year and a half to determine the cause of the crash.

“We are in the very early stages of this investigation,” Williams said Saturday evening.

Investigators are currently gathering facts, including eyewitness accounts, and looking into the weather conditions, the helicopter’s maintenance records and the pilot’s training, Williams said.

The NTSB will likely release a preliminary report in a week to 10 days that will include some of the early information gathered, but it will not contain any analysis or cause, he said.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection was due at the airport Saturday afternoon to monitor a fuel spill connected to the crash, Lt. Kristen Hagan of the Sanford Fire Department told News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ).

Robinson R44 helicopters are among the world’s popular civilian models, and also see use with police departments.

Robinson Helicopter Co. in recent years has come under scrutiny from the Los Angeles Times, which published an analysis indicating that the R44 model has a high rate of deadly accidents per hours flown. The aviation company disputes that analysis, saying the FAA undercounts the number of hours its helicopters spend in the air.

Staff Photographer Ben McCanna contributed to this report.

Emergency crews respond to a helicopter crash on Saturday at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

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