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Helicopter crash probe raises doubts

Members of Congress are questioning the thoroughness of a National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of a 2008 helicopter crash that killed seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties.

The NTSB will brief the House Committee on Energy and Commerce at its request on Wednesday.

In a letter sent to NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman on Nov. 24, four members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, observed that a report on the investigation released in September suggests the board rejected the possibility that fuel control units played a role in the crash.

That decision was made one day into the investigation without any detailed testing of the units, the letter noted.

"Several other incidents in which the FCUs are thought to have played a role have led Federal Aviation Administration field investigators to investigate the FCUs as a potential safety-of-flight issue," the letter continued. "In this case, the NTSB's rejection of the design and maintenance of the FCUs as a possible cause, without substantive explanation, has led some to question the adequacy of the NTSB investigation."

The committee also expressed concern that the board appears to have downplayed the significance of several missing FCU component parts.

"The report goes on to conclude that 'the lack of access to the missing fuel control units have not prevented the team from making analytical determinations related to the accident engines and fuel control units,'" according to the letter. "These conclusions do not provide the basis for the NTSB's conclusions that the missing parts are unnecessary to the accident investigation."

In addition, the committee wanted the board to address allegations that the accident investigators used extrapolated data gathered from weather stations located miles away from the accident site instead of data from the site. It also wanted to know the board's response to reports that its investigators refused offers of a fully witnessed and documented flight test to determine engine performance under accident conditions.

The letter requested the points raised be focused on at the briefing.

"They want to ensure there has been a thorough investigation by the NTSB," said Walden spokesman Andrew Whelan in Washington, D.C.

In addition to Walden, who is a member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, other lawmakers signing the letter include committee Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

In the report made public in September, board investigators said they were unable to 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.

The missing parts were all related to the fuel control units for the Sikorsky S-61 that crashed Aug. 5, 2008, during wildfires known as the Iron 44 Complex near Weaverville, Calif. In addition to the seven firefighters, a pilot and a U.S. Forest Service employee died in the crash.

Although the NTSB has released more than 1,000 pages of documents related to its investigation, it has not included any analysis of why the crash occurred. That information is expected to be released early next year.

Several lawsuits have been filed by family members of the firefighters who died. Grants Pass-based Carson Helicopters operated the helicopter while Columbia Helicopters in Portland did maintenance work for Carson.

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