Jury Finds GE Had Culpability In Crash Of Sikorsky Helicopter That Killed 9


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Jury Finds GE Had Culpability In Crash Of Sikorsky Helicopter That Killed 9

By Mike Mitchell

March 29, 2012 - A Portland, Oregon jury ruled on lawsuit Tuesday that the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter, N612AZ, that crashed killing the pilot-in-command, the safety crewmember, and seven firefighters during a wildfire in Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California on August 5, 2008, had a design flaw making the equipment unsafe.

The lawsuit, brought by a serving pilot and a widow of one who had died as a result of the crash, alleged General Electric knew the engine GE CT58-140 a turbo shaft engine had a design flaw making the equipment unsafe. GE countered and stated the aircraft was over its gross weight. The jury blamed GE (57 percent), the operator (Carson Helicopters) and the manufacture.  

Roark Schwanenberg was pilot-in-command and William Coultas was co-pilot. Four people survived the crash one of which was the co-pilot. The jury on Tuesday awarded $28.4 million to the estate. Coultas was awarded $37 million and his wife $4.3 million by the jury. 

On August 5, 2008, about 7:40 PM a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter, N612AZ, impacted trees and terrain during the initial climb after takeoff (about one minute after takeoff) from Helispot 44 (H-44), located at an elevation of about 6,000 feet in mountainous terrain near Weaverville, California.  

Impact forces and a postcrash fire destroyed the helicopter, which was being operated by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as a public flight to transport firefighters from H-44 to another helispot. The USFS had contracted with Carson Helicopters, Inc. (CHI) of Grants Pass, Oregon, for the services of the helicopter, which was registered to CHI and leased to Carson Helicopter Services, Inc. of Grants Pass.  

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable causes of this accident were as follows: The following actions by Carson Helicopters: 1) the intentional understatement of the helicopter's empty weight, 2) the alteration of the power available chart to exaggerate the helicopter's lift capability, and 3) the practice of using unapproved above-minimum specification torque in performance calculations that, collectively, resulted in the pilots relying on performance calculations that significantly overestimated the helicopter's load-carrying capacity and did not provide an adequate performance margin for a successful takeoff; and insufficient oversight by the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration. 


Contributing to the accident was the failure of the flight crewmembers to address the fact that the helicopter had approached its maximum performance capability on their two prior departures from the accident site because they were accustomed to operating at the limit of the helicopter?s performance. 

Contributing to the fatalities were the immediate, intense fire that resulted from the spillage of fuel upon impact from the fuel tanks that were not crash resistant, the separation from the floor of the cabin seats that were not crash resistant, and the use of an inappropriate release mechanism on the cabin seat restraints. 

GE Aviation spokesman Rick Kennedy said "Our position has been all along that this verdict completely contradicts findings by the NTSB." GE plans to appeal the verdict, but Kennedy said the company will need to first review this case.  

Carson Helicopters believed that the accident was caused by the loss of power to the #2 engine due to contamination in the fuel control. Six years before the accident, Carson notified GE, Sikorsky and Columbia Helicopters (the company that overhauls fuel controls) about its concern over fuel control contamination which caused engines to lose power. Two years before the accident, GE recommended that Sikorsky change the airframe filter for the fuel control from 40 microns to 10 microns to address this problem.  

Carson Helicopters had reported that the day after the accident, GE emailed Sikorsky asking what was being done about changing the airframe fuel filter. It wasn't until almost two years after the accident that Sikorsky issued a Service Bulletin changing the approved filter from 40 microns to 10 microns.

Along with pilot Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, those killed included Jim Ramage, 63, a U.S. Forest Service inspector pilot from Redding, Calif.; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.

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