Helicopter crash families attend NTSB safety forum

Representatives of four southwest Oregon families who lost loved ones in the 2008 crash of a firefighting helicopter will attend a National Transportation Safety Board forum that begins today in Washington, D.C.

Although they won't be allowed to testify, they will meet with the NTSB director and have been allowed to submit questions, said Ashland resident Paul Steele, father of fallen firefighter David Steele, 19.

The young man was among seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties who died in the Aug. 5, 2008, crash near Weaverville, Calif.

"This is about safety for the next crews on these flights — that's the bottom line," Paul Steele said.

"If we don't learn and make safety improvements, this will happen again," he added during a telephone interview from the Los Angeles airport Tuesday afternoon.

.The NTSB's two-day Public Aircraft Oversight Safety Forum: Ensuring Safety for Critical Missions will be headed by board chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman.

In addition to the 2008 tragedy, other deadly helicopter accidents investigated by the NTSB that will be discussed in the forum include a Sept. 27, 2008, accident in Maryland involving the Maryland State Police, and a June 9, 2009, accident on a helicopter operated by the New Mexico State Police in that state.

"Our accident investigations have demonstrated the risks of inadequate safety oversight and identified persistent confusion as to the role of the FAA when it comes to public use aircraft," Hersman said in a prepared statement.

"During the forum, we will gather information on the roles and responsibilities of the entities engaged in public aircraft operations and hear about methods for ensuring effective safety oversight," she added.

Panelists participating in the forum will represent federal, state and local governments as well as aviation industry associations and civil operators contracting with the government, according to NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak.

Nine people died in the 2008 crash that occurred on a nearly 6,000-foot-high mountaintop just west of Weaverville. The Sikorsky S-61N helicopter, owned by Carson Helicopters Inc., was ferrying out firefighters battling the Iron 44 fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

In addition to David Steele, the deadliest helicopter crash involving wildland firefighters in U.S. history also killed fellow firefighters 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.

Command pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, and check pilot Jim Ramage, 63, of Redding, Calif., also died. Ramage was a Forest Service employee.

Co-pilot William "Bill" Coultas of Cave Junction was seriously injured along with local firefighters Richard Schroeder Jr., Jonathan Frohreich and Michael Brown. All of the firefighters were employed by Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin.

Members of the Charlson, Gomez and Renno families are joining Paul Steele in attending the NTSB forum.

"This forum brings it back into the public eye," Steele said, adding that the families of the fallen firefighters applaud the NTSB's extensive work in investigating the accident.

The NTSB concluded that Carson Helicopters, whose Pacific Northwest office is in Merlin, deliberately understated the weight of its Sikorsky 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, investigators concluded.

However, company president Franklin Carson in Perkasie, Pa., has rejected those charges. The company has cited engine failure as the cause of the crash.

NTSB investigators also found that lack of adequate oversight by the U.S. Forest Service and the FAA contributed to the crash. The NTSB has recommended changes to the seats, harnesses and fuel bladder safety systems of similar aircraft.

"There are upgrades that can be made," Steele said, adding, "It is a matter of getting action taken and adjustments made so this doesn't happen again. But those responsible for this also need to be held accountable."

The forum can be viewed by webcast at www.ntsb.gov.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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