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Carson Helicopters president contests government report

Charging the National Transportation Safety Board with trying to make Carson Helicopters Inc. a scapegoat for the 2008 helicopter crash which killed nine people, the company's president rejected the board's conclusion that excess weight and lack of oversight caused the accident.

In an open letter released this morning, company President Franklin Carson in Perkasie, Pa., said the firm has, until now, maintained silence to allow the investigation to proceed.

But the board's "arbitrary and one-sided" hearing last month in Washington, D.C., forced the company to go public, he said.

"Carson is extremely sorry this accident occurred and grieves for the accident victims and their families," he wrote. "We have done our best to do the right thing by the families and will continue to do so as we pursue the root cause of this accident.

"We will not, however, stand silently by while the NTSB ignores an ongoing safety of flight issue by trying to make Carson a scapegoat," he added.

The Aug. 5, 2008, crash in northern California killed nine people, including seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties. The accident occurred on a nearly 6,000-foot-high mountaintop near Weaverville, Calif., while the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter was ferrying out firefighters battling the Iron 44 fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

Carson said the board ignored testimony by co-pilot William "Bill" Coultas, 46, of Cave Junction, that the crash was caused by the loss of power in the No. 2 engine shortly during takeoff. They also ignored Coultas' actual air temperature at the scene to fit "their preconceived narrative," he wrote.

Coultas, the only surviving crew member, expressed similar concerns in an interview with the Mail Tribune immediately following the NTSB hearing last month.

Moreover, the NTSB lost the aircraft's fuel control unit early in the investigation and failed to investigate that loss, Franklin Carson wrote.

However, the NTSB stands by its full report and completed investigation, board spokeswoman Bridget Serchak indicated in an e-mail to the Mail Tribune.

" . . . these materials together represent the sum of NTSB's response and position on this investigation," she wrote.

"Any party to an NTSB investigation is permitted to file a petition for reconsideration and we would respond through standard NTSB procedures," she added.

The board's investigators said the helicopter firm 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.

The NTSB report concluded that both the Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration failed to notice a deliberate understatement by Carson of the helicopter's weight.

The NTSB concluded that the firm, whose Pacific Northwest office is in Merlin, deliberately understated the weight of its Sikorsky. That, along with lapses in safety oversight by federal agencies, resulted in the crash, it said.

The NTSB's full accident report, covering some 500 pages, was recently posted at: www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2010/AAR1006.pdf.

— Paul Fattig