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Parts missing from deadly helicopter crash

Federal investigators have determined that several parts have disappeared from a helicopter that crashed in August 2008, killing seven Southern Oregon firefighters.

The 106-page report made public Wednesday did not determine how the six parts vanished during the post-crash investigation. They were all related to the fuel-control units for the Sikorsky S-61 that went down on Aug. 5, 2008, during wildfires known as the Iron 44 Complex near Weaverville, Calif. A pilot and a Forest Service employee also died in the crash.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said they could not determine whether the parts were lost or taken during the engine teardown phase of the probe. They said the parts’ disappearance would not hamper their efforts to determine why the helicopter lost power shortly after takeoff.

NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak said Thursday the agency would not comment on the report.

The lost parts eventually could become an issue in the lawsuits that have been filed by family members of the firefighters who died, or in legal battles between Carson Helicopters, the Grants Pass company that operated the helicopter, and Columbia Helicopters, the Portland company that did maintenance work for Carson.

The companies have been competitors in the heavy-lift helicopter industry.

Andy Mills, Carson’s general manager, said Thursday he could not comment on the report because Carson is a party to the NTSB’s crash investigation.

In a statement issued last week, Tonya Van Valleghem, Columbia Helicopters general counsel, said Carson had made “unfounded and irresponsible” statements and insinuations about Columbia Helicopters in letters to the NTSB.

“We are fully confident that the final NTSB findings will completely exonerate Columbia Helicopters of any responsibility for this tragic accident,” the statement said.

NTSB released more than 1,000 pages of documents related to its investigation in mid-September, but did not include any analysis of why the crash occurred. That information may not be released until late this year or early in 2010, according to people familiar with NTSB investigations.

In documents filed with NTSB late in 2008, Carson alleged that problems with the fuel-control units may have been connected with the crash. Carson officials told NTSB they feared the loss of parts from those units could compromise efforts to find out why the helicopter went down. Carson also alleged the fuel-control units had been altered while they were with Columbia during the early phases of the investigation. Carson asked NTSB to look into the alleged irregularities.

NTSB staff interviewed 11 people, including representatives from Carson, Columbia, the U.S. Forest Service, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and GE Aviation, the engine manufacturer.

One interviewee surmised the parts simply went missing during the shuffle of all the pieces that were being examined and the process of shipping them to NTSB in Washington, D.C.

Investigators said they could find no evidence that the fuel-control units had been altered. They said the investigation would not be compromised by the missing parts because early theories that the fuel-control units were at fault were discounted as the probe continued.

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