What: GE Engines in Sikorsky S-61N helicopter
Where: Portland Courtroom
When: Aug. 5, 2008 crash, March 28, 2012 Jury decision
Who: 9 crash fatalities
Why: The Aug. 5, 2008 crash occurred after a loss of power in the No. 2 engine shortly after takeoff from a nearly 6,000-foot-high mountaintop in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Co-pilot William Coultas of Cave Junction, his wife, Chris, and the widow of pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine were awarded $37 million and his wife $4.3 million by the jury, while the estate of Schwanenberg was awarded $28.4 million, according to The Associated Press. The jury placed 57 percent of the blame on GE, but also found the helicopter’s owner and its manufacturer partially at fault. Coultas is the only surviving crewman.
Fatalities include 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; U.S. Forest Service check pilot Jim Ramage, 63, of Redding, Calif.. Richard Schroeder Jr., Jonathan Frohreich and Michael Brown survived with injuries.
The case hinged on a problem with the engine’s fuel control valve. Evidence included a GE internal email from Aug. 6, 2008 discussing the size of the fuel filter, noting that the military version removes much smaller particles than the commercial version.
Official NTSB Report:
On August 5, 2008, about 1941 Pacific daylight time, a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter, N612AZ, impacted trees and terrain during the initial climb after takeoff from Helispot 44 (H-44), located at an elevation of about 6,000 feet in mountainous terrain near Weaverville, California. The pilot-in-command, the safety crewmember, and seven firefighters were fatally injured; the copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured. 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. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, and a company visual flight rules flight plan had been filed.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident 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.