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Report finds discrepancies in helicopter's reported weight

A report issued Wednesday on a 2008 helicopter crash that killed seven Southern Oregon firefighters revealed discrepancies in documents that recorded the weight of the helicopter.

The weight of an aircraft is one factor that determines how much cargo it can carry safely. Other variables, such as the weight of fuel on board, air temperature and altitude above sea level, also influence carrying capacity.

The 72-page National Transportation Safety Board report summarizes information gathered by investigators during the 13 months since the Aug. 5, 2008, crash in the mountains near Weaverville, Calif. A Sikorsky S-61N owned by Carson Helicopters of Merlin crashed moments after takeoff as it was ferrying firefighters battling the Iron 44 Complex in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Nine people died; four survived.

The report is part of NTSB's "public docket" on the crash investigation, which includes more than 1,000 pages of company documents, maintenance records, correspondence and interviews with crash survivors and others connected with the accident.

The docket was opened to the public Wednesday. Documents can be reviewed online at www.mailtribune.com/ntsbreport.

The report includes only facts collected during the investigation. A final report, which will offer an analysis of why the crash occurred, may not be available until January, said Art Johnson, a Eugene attorney representing several families who lost loved ones in the crash.

Johnson said he had not had enough time to fully review the report, which covers a number of issues, including the qualifications of the pilots, the weight of the aircraft and the load, and all the information the pilots did or didn't have.

"It's not something you digest very quickly," he said.

Johnson said lawsuits in connection with the crash that had previously been filed by survivors' families in several jurisdictions have all been directed to U.S. District Court in Portland, where they will be reviewed by Judge Michael Mosman.

Andy Mills, general manager of Carson Helicopters, said he could not comment on the report because Carson is a party to the investigation. In a press release he said the opening of the docket is "one step in the investigative process, and the overall investigation is ongoing."

While Mills would not comment on the report, documents in the docket include some 60 pages of correspondence from Carson to the NTSB challenging many of NTSB's facts in early drafts of the report. The letters acknowledge the discrepancies in the helicopter's weight, but contend those anomalies did not contribute to the sudden loss of power that caused the helicopter to crash.

In its comments to the NTSB, Carson contends that faulty fuel regulators serviced by Columbia Helicopters in Aurora are a likely cause of the crash.

The firefighters were working for Grayback Forestry of Grants Pass when the Sikorsky S-61N crashed during the initial climb from a landing site at about 6,000 feet above sea level.

Firefighters who died included Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix; Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.

Carson Helicopters pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine in northeast Oregon, also died, along with James N. Ramage, 63, of Redding, who was flying for the U.S. Forest Service.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.