Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Sikorsky S-61N, N612AZ: Accident occurred August 05, 2008 in Weaverville, California

Two southern Oregon men face criminal charges for their roles in an alleged conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Forest Service in 2008 as they provided helicopters to fight wildfires, including one that crashed in Northern California and killed nine people. 
A federal grand jury in Medford indicted Steven Metheny, the 42-year-old former vice president of West Coast operations for Carson Helicopters, then based in Grants Pass, and Levi Phillips, 45, his former maintenance director. The charge carries a potential 20-year prison term. 

The company suspended Phillips on Monday. 

The indictment, handed up Friday, accuses the two men of falsifying the weight and takeoff power of the helicopter that crashed and other helicopters that were part of a "call-when-needed" contract worth up to $20 million to Carson Helicopters. 

The 25-page charging document alleges that Metheny, aided by Phillips, submitted contract bids to the Forest Service knowing that they contained false helicopter weight and balance charts and falsely altered helicopter performance charts to be used in determining if the choppers met minimum contract specifications. 

Metheny additionally faces charges of mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight and theft from an interstate shipment. Some of those charges carry potential 20-year sentences. 

Metheny did not return a phone call left for a number associated with him. 

The falsified charts made their way into the hands of flight crews, and pilots used them on firefighting missions, the indictment alleges. 

Those operations included "calculating the helicopter's maximum payload capacity during firefighting operations thereby endangering the safety of the helicopters in flight," the indictment says. 

The 2008 crash killed seven firefighters from Oregon, the pilot, also from Oregon, and a Forest Service inspector pilot from California. Four other Oregonians were injured in one of the nation's worst firefighting air crashes. 

As the Sikorsky S-61N tried to take off at 7:41 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2008, it weighed 19,008 pounds -- 3,168 more than recommended for safe flight and 563 heavier than the maximum allowable weight, National Transportation Safety Board investigators said. It was also 1,647 pounds heavier than the pilot thought, which affected his decision to take off as well as how to fly, agency officials said. 

Instead of climbing up from its launch site near Weaverville, Calif., the helicopter went forward, clipped the tops of trees and crashed. Witnesses to the air disaster on the front lines of the 83,000-acre Iron 44 wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest told investigators that the aircraft rose only 40 to 50 feet before going down. 

In March 2012, a Multnomah County jury awarded more than $70 million to a pilot who was injured and to the family of a pilot who was killed in the crash. 

The jury found that General Electric was liable, agreeing with the plaintiff's attorneys that a GE fuel control valve failed in the Sikorsky that was carrying the firefighters, shutting power to one of its two engines. 

GE attorney Kevin Smith had argued that the crash was caused because the helicopter was overweight at takeoff, and that the pilots were relying on inadequate weight data and inadequate power data of the helicopter's lift capacity provided to them by Carson. 

Carson closed its Grants Pass facility and has consolidated its business operations in Perkasie, Pa. In a statement Monday, the company said it has fully cooperated with the federal investigation. As a result of what they learned, Carson fired Metheny in 2009, said Terril  Carson, the company manager.
The NTSB's findings weren't allowed in court because federal law forbids the use of the board's findings in lawsuits. 

Story and Reaction/Comments:   http://www.oregonlive.com

NTSB Identification: LAX08PA259 
 14 CFR Public Use
Accident occurred Tuesday, August 05, 2008 in Weaverville, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 01/25/2011
Aircraft: SIKORSKY S-61N, registration: N612AZ
Injuries: 9 Fatal,4 Serious.

NTSB investigators traveled in support of this investigation and obtained data from various sources to prepare this public aircraft accident report.

The Safety Board's full report is available at http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/A_Acc1.htm. The Aircraft Accident Report number is NTSB/AAR-10-06.

On August 5, 2008, about 1941 Pacific daylight time, a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter, N612AZ, impacted trees and terrain during the initial climb after takeoff from Helispot 44 (H-44), located at an elevation of about 6,000 feet in mountainous terrain near Weaverville, California. The pilot-in-command, the safety crewmember, and seven firefighters were fatally injured; the copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured. Impact forces and a postcrash fire destroyed the helicopter, which was being operated by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as a public flight to transport firefighters from H-44 to another helispot. The USFS had contracted with Carson Helicopters, Inc. (CHI) of Grants Pass, Oregon, for the services of the helicopter, which was registered to CHI and leased to Carson Helicopter Services, Inc. of Grants Pass. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, and a company visual flight rules flight plan had been filed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be:
The following actions by Carson Helicopters: 1) the intentional understatement of the helicopter's empty weight, 2) the alteration of the power available chart to exaggerate the helicopter's lift capability, and 3) the practice of using unapproved above-minimum specification torque in performance calculations that, collectively, resulted in the pilots relying on performance calculations that significantly overestimated the helicopter's load-carrying capacity and did not provide an adequate performance margin for a successful takeoff; and insufficient oversight by the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Contributing to the accident was the failure of the flight crewmembers to address the fact that the helicopter had approached its maximum performance capability on their two prior departures from the accident site because they were accustomed to operating at the limit of the helicopter’s performance.

Contributing to the fatalities were the immediate, intense fire that resulted from the spillage of fuel upon impact from the fuel tanks that were not crash resistant, the separation from the floor of the cabin seats that were not crash resistant, and the use of an inappropriate release mechanism on the cabin seat restraints.