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Carson Helicopters Inc. inks deal for Afghan supply hauls

Carson Helicopters Inc., has signed a contract with a partner company to provide seven helicopters to haul supplies for the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Andy Mills, Carson's director of helicopter operations, declined to identify the partner, but court documents and Department of Defense records indicate the contract is with Presidential Airways Inc., a subsidiary of the company that was known until last week as Blackwater Worldwide.

Carson's headquarters are in Pennsylvania, and it maintains an office in Merlin. Mills said the agreement could be worth up to $80 million over the next five years.

In December, U.S. Transportation Command, often called TRANSCOM, awarded Presidential Airways a contract worth up to $605 million for passenger and cargo helicopter services in Afghanistan through November 2013, records show.

Mills said Carson will provide seven Sikorsky S-61 helicopters, along with parts and maintenance support services. Two of the seven helicopters have been sold to the partner and the contract terms remain open on whether the other company will pay to use or buy outright the rest of the aircraft.

"These are for flying supplies, not combat," Mills said. "We won't operate them, but we will do maintenance and support."

Carson will train and serve as a resource for its partner, but doesn't plan to send employees to Afghanistan, he said.

Employees at the company's Merlin outpost have already started painting and installing seats and radio equipment for the helicopters that will head to Afghanistan. Mills expects them to depart in April.

He said the contract "is in the normal scope of business" for Carson, which buys, refurbishes and sells helicopters, and uses heavy-lift helicopters in firefighting and construction.

"This is not a fire sale for us," Mills said, noting that the company still owns nine helicopters.

Carson faces a string of lawsuits stemming from an Aug. 5, 2008, crash that killed nine of 13 people aboard a Carson firefighting helicopter in a Northern California wilderness. In one of those suits, Columbia Helicopters Inc., of Aurora, which also faces liability claims from the crash, alleged that Carson's military subcontract was a fraudulent transfer of assets to block creditors and plaintiffs.

Mills said Columbia's suit ultimately would be decided in court and he couldn't comment further.

"The victims' families have the right to sue and I can't comment on that," he said, "but our thoughts and prayers are with them."

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.