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Carson Helicopters breaks silence about NTSB accident report

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

In an open letter released Wednesday 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. Higher temperatures can reduce a helicopter's lifting ability.

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.

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

"... 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's full accident report, covering some 500 pages, can be viewed at www.mailtribune.com/ntsbfinalreport.

Franklin Carson countered that the NTSB did not properly explore contaminants inside the fuel control unit and refused to participate in flight tests which demonstrated the aircraft had sufficient power to fly that day.

Further, the primary NTSB investigation team had no relevant helicopter experience to properly investigate the accident, he wrote.

"For months, Carson believed that important evidence had been mishandled and was then ignored by the NTSB investigators in order to close the investigation as quickly as possible," he wrote. "We brought our concerns to the NTSB's attention on numerous occasions."

When the board held a news conference on Dec. 7, 2010, stating that the main cause of the accident was Carson's alleged use of false charts and weights, "I knew that my faith in a fair and impartial investigation had been ill-founded," he added.

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 deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history killed firefighters David Steele, 19, Ashland; 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 U.S. Forest Service employee.

Coultas 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.

Both the Coultas and Schwanenberg families have sued General Electric and its parent company, United Technology, as well as Sikorsky and Columbia Helicopters, citing engine failure, among other things, as the cause of the deadly crash.

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