Carson Helicopters' deliberate understatement of the weight of its Sikorsky aircraft and lapses in safety oversight by federal agencies led to the Aug. 5, 2008, crash that killed nine people — including seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties — a federal transportation board has concluded.
The National Transportation Safety Board released its 500-page final report Tuesday on the Northern California crash during an all-day meeting in Washington, D.C.
NTSB investigators said Merlin-based Carson Helicopters deliberately understated the helicopter's weight by more than 1,000 pounds in order to make it appear the aircraft could safely carry a heavier payload. That helped the firm win a Forest Service firefighting contract, they said.
NTSB has alerted the Department of Transportation's inspector general that Carson's actions may merit a criminal investigation, board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said.
In a statement made available Tuesday afternoon, Carson Helicopters indicated that faulty fuel parts and other issues were responsible for the crash. The firm also laid the blame for deliberately underestimating the weight of the aircraft on the actions of an unnamed single manager.
The parents of fallen firefighters called for holding Carson accountable for its role in the crash.
"There needs to be a criminal investigation into this," said Ashland resident Paul Steele, whose son, David, 19, was one of the firefighters killed in the crash.
"If Carson is correct, it doesn't excuse their employee's action or the company from taking responsibility for that action," he added. "And I'd like to know who is responsible, rather than some nameless manager. If it is true, that person should be punished."
The NTSB report concluded that both the Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration failed to notice a deliberate understatement by Carson of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter's weight.
The aircraft was more than 500 pounds overweight when its pilots attempted to take off from a 6,000-foot-high mountaintop near Weaverville, Calif., while ferrying firefighters battling the Iron 44 fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, the report said.
Firefighters "must be able to trust the system that supports them," Hersman said during the NTSB meeting. "This accident represents a failure of that system."
The Forest Service and the FAA did not sufficiently oversee Carson and failed to "detect fatal errors and discrepancies that should have been identified, and corrected, before the accident," she concluded.
NTSB investigators also say the FAA inspectors received complaint letters about the weight problem from two pilots two months after the crash but did not forward the letters to the board until a year later. The FAA had dismissed the allegations, according to NTSB investigators.
An FAA spokeswoman declined to comment, according to The Associated Press. A statement released after the meeting stated that Carson has surrendered its FAA certificate, the equivalent of an operating license.
In its statement, the Forest Service said it is committed to learn from such tragedies and has "aggressively pursued opportunities to improve its operations from the onset of this accident."
In addition to David Steele, firefighters killed in the crash included Shawn Blazer, 30, Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, Phoenix; Matthew Hammer, 23, Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, Medford; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, Cave Junction.
Pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, and check pilot Jim Ramage, 63, of Redding, Calif., also died. Injured were co-pilot William Coultas and firefighters Richard Schroeder Jr., Jonathan Frohreich and Michael Brown. All of the firefighters were employed by Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin.
The accident was the deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history.
According to witnesses, the aircraft seemed to hover just above the tree line, then came crashing down about 150 feet away from the landing pad and burst into flames. They said the helicopter appeared to be having a difficult time getting off the ground and didn't appear to be fully powered.
Renno's mother, Katherine, of Cave Junction, was in Washington to witness the NTSB meeting and complimented the board for its investigation.
She also agreed with Steele's concern about documents falsifying the aircraft's weight.
"The whole weight thing is very disturbing, very disturbing," she said. "We knew this was bad but this was intentional. We're hoping it will be pursued at the criminal level.
"We definitely will pursue justice," she added. "What is so sad for us is that this was so preventable at so many levels. It's hard for parents to know our sons could have survived that crash."
Paul Steele and his wife, Susanne, also applauded the NTSB's report and findings.
"They did an outstanding job of addressing our concerns," Paul Steele said.
However, observing the NTSB doesn't have the authority to enact its findings, he said he hopes the FAA takes the recommended steps to avoid another accident like the one at Iron 44.
"The only good thing that can come out of this tragedy is that someone else's son or husband doesn't end up in the same place like this," he said. "The whole point of this is to make sure something like this never happens again."
In its statement, Carson Helicopters said a clogged fuel control unit likely caused one of the helicopter's engines to lose power seconds before the crash.
Noting its two pilots had nearly 26,000 flight hours of cumulative experience, Carson maintained the actual weight of the helicopter was several hundred pounds less than what the NTSB determined.
Moreover, the firm said that even if the loaded helicopter weighed as much as federal authorities contend, it could have flown safely if both engines worked. The company maintains that NTSB investigators lost custody of several fuel control parts and conducted a filter inspection incorrectly. The board further ignored evidence and testimony related to the failure of the fuel-control device and engine, the firm argued.
According to the report, the helicopter weighed 19,008 pounds when pilots tried to take off from the mountaintop. However, the maximum weight to lift off at full power with no margin to spare was 18,445 pounds, they noted.
Furthermore, Forest Service guidelines that include a safety margin warned that the full weight in those circumstances should not have exceeded 15,840 pounds, investigators said.
Besides the accident helicopter, Carson also underestimated the weight of about eight other helicopters in an identical fashion when submitting bids to the Forest Service, investigators said.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.