Former employees of Carson Helicopters indicted over fatal Iron 44 Fire crash

Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson

Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson

Two former employees of Carson Helicopters are facing 20 years or more in prison for charges related to the crash of a helicopter August 5, 2008 that killed nine people (seven firefighters and two crew members) as it attempted to take off from a remote helispot on the Iron Complex or Iron 44 Fire in northern California.

Last week a federal grand jury in Medford, Oregon indicted Steven Metheny, 42, former Vice President of Carson, and Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of the company, for charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States which could earn them up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Metheny was also indicted in 22 other counts of mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight, and theft from an interstate shipment. In addition to the 20 years for conspiracy to defraud charges, he could get a maximum sentence of 20 years for every mail and wire fraud count, 20 years for each endangering the safety of aircraft in flight count, 10 years for the interstate theft count, and up to five years for each false statement count.

According to the findings of  the National Transportation Safety Board in 2010, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the USFS when bidding on $20 million in firefighting contracts for seven helicopters. As a result, when the helicopter attempted to take off from the helispot on the Iron 44 Fire with firefighters and a flight crew of three, it was over the allowable weight even before the firefighters boarded the ship. The helicopter crashed into some trees and caught fire, just after lifting off.

Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54; USFS check pilot Jim Ramage, 63; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charlson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21. The copilot and three other firefighters were seriously injured.

In March of 2012, a jury ordered the manufacturer of the helicopter’s engines, General Electric, to pay $69.7 million to William Coultas (the surviving pilot), his wife, and the estate of Roark Schwanenberg (the pilot who was killed).

After the crash, between September 26 and October 3, 2008, the USFS suspended the contract for some of Carson’s helicopters. On February 18, 2009, the USFS canceled their contract (copy of the contract) with Carson (copy of the termination letter) based on inaccurate claimed weights of the helicopters. The company then surrendered their FAA Certificate which is equivalent to an operating license. After that they received a contract for seven S-61s to fly for the military in Afghanistan as a subcontractor for the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide, which was renamed “Xe”. In February 2010, Sikorsky announced a joint venture with Carson to supply up to 110 modernized S-61T helicopters to the U.S. government, primarily for the State Department.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Oregon is working with the Offices of Inspector General for both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, and the FBI and the IRS in Medford, Oregon in the investigation and prosecution of this case.

Thanks go out to Joseph and Kelly.

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

44 thoughts on “Former employees of Carson Helicopters indicted over fatal Iron 44 Fire crash

  1. this will be an ABSOLUTELY fascinating case to follow. unless the offer’s been already made, Metheney will be pressed to give all manner of testimony on whether or not he was pressured to falsify doc’s, change performance charts, manipulate data including flight manuals. i think this shuts the door on the GE / Sikorsky culpability question. you simply don’t present an overweight (well over max-gross weight), performance-data-manipulated aircraft as “airworthy” and expect it to fly beyond the envelope ! amazing.

    the NTSB report, although dry in spots, is well worth the read if you’re following the case. the fact that this incident happened in the first season of this contract, and the exact moment when maximum-lift was needed by this airframe, is proof-positive that the NTSB report was spot-on. . . and that what prevailed in Portland, finding against GE and Sikorsky, was mis-leading. looking forward to getting to the bottom of this.

  2. As Former Helitack crewmember..I hope the departed Firefighters families also get a cut of these dollars in this lawsuit.

    • @Bella, if i’m correct, the remaining families have all settled out of court w/ GE and Sikorsky. and i believe they received cash-in-hand, so i think they did get “compensated”. but, yes, if there are future fees and penalties, then they should certainly receive benefit first and foremost. agreed.

      • My son was killed in this tragedy. Money is not at all what we are about but money is what big business is about. In order to try to send the message for corrective actions we do need to hit them in the money belt. While we had lawsuits against 5 entities and got compensated by all 5 the Federal Government also has a cap of $500,000 to be paid to surviving families. This includes the sum amount for all five entities not per entitiy. The Federal Judge could have ruled over the 500,000 cap but he did not. So no company has paid more than coffee money on this tragedy while 9 families have lost loved ones and many, many others have suffered emotionally.

  3. If nobody was killed, this is purely attempted murder. Because somebody was, it is clearly premeditated murder with an A & P License(s) attached to it. It was known dereliction of duty and any easily forseen outcome was abhorent.

  4. This is a hideous example of “privatizing” gone wrong. Cuff ‘em, stuff ‘em, book ‘em, and ban the company from ever doing business with anyone, government or otherwise, again! Murderers!

    • Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Carson turn right around and get these same aircraft awarded contracts or subcontracts to a different federal agency, the State Department, overseas? The feds right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing, or had done.

      • Hunter, as it says in this article:

        “The company then surrendered their FAA Certificate which is equivalent to an operating license. After that they received a contract for seven S-61s to fly for the military in Afghanistan as a subcontractor for the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide, which was renamed “Xe”. In February 2010, Sikorsky announced a joint venture with Carson to supply up to 110 modernized S-61T helicopters to the U.S. government, primarily for the State Department.”

  5. Some interesting parallels with the BP oil rig disaster where 11 men died: BP paid a $4 Billion criminal fine (about 5 days worth of their profits) but no one in the company faced actual criminal charges or jail time. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling in “Citizens United” that “corporations are people. entitled to freedom of speech in political races”, it’s hard to see Justice viewing these 2 event thru the same looking glass? And both BP and Carson continue to feed at the Public Trough while workers/firefighters die!

  6. Our current aircraft contracting model is severly flawed. We trust the companies to provide accurate information and then enforce policy based on that same vendor provided info. Inspections have been increased, but the model has remained the same. How about goverment owned aircraft with contracted crews and maintenance. At least we would know what the aircraft history truly is.

    • Regardless of contracting, gone by the wayside is any personal integrity, followed by responsibliity, accountability and leadership. This is a horrible dis-service to the mulitiudes of dedicated folks in the industry that do retain and maintain those qualities.
      Gee, shouldn’t this remind us of where we came from in the late 60s and 70s???!!!

      • There are many air companies that regard high integrity as a part of their business. We attended a Public Aircraft Safety Forum at NTSB in Washington DC and there are many high caliber professionals in the aviation business. But in Carson’s case the USFS and the FAA did not do their job of inspecting and cross-checking as they should have. They sat in their offices and signed off on the paperwork. Had they seen with their eyes in several cases the tragedy of this case could have been minimized and even prevented.

  7. If overweight is the cause of the crash, why did the co-pilot lie about the #2 engine failing? Didn’t the pilots have SOME responsibility when they see the “empty” weight of a S-61 with a tank, seats, hoist etc was the same as the empty weight of a stripped version? They were both experienced. Why did they try to lift off seeing both engines were at topping? Doesn’t excuse Metheny, but there were many opportunities for others in the chain ( pilots and mechanics who signed the load calc and logs every day) to stop this tragedy. If the cause was an engine failing, then the overweight and inaccurate paperwork didn’t really cause any harm. I don’t understand the conflicting fundings…

    • @ Dan, this would be a great discussion, if it weren’t so tragic. There certainly are many, many “causal factors” in the incident. but the USFS had many written and established contract requirements for the operation of personnel carrying / fire-fighting aircraft. Carson employees, and is greatly suspect there were more than just these two, were complicit in the creation of falsified documents from the outset. These airframes did not meet contract specs, and they falsified those very doc’s, cut and pasted performance charts (including on to different letter-head) to get these lucrative contracts. it’s all in the NTSB report. what confounds me is how and why the court in Portland refused to allow the NTSB report as evidence in the civil proceeding there. i’m sure someone can explain it to me, maybe the NTSB report was drafted w/ immunity towards recourse by individuals, something like that, but i just don’t know. NOW, however, someone is going to pay. and they should. i just now saw the tribute, both in CA and OR of the Iron 44 memorials. it’s touching. especially in how unnecessary the whole incident was. regards, mark c.

      • The NTSB report as such cannot be used in court but the information they collected could certainly be pursued by lawyers. The firefighter families who lost their beloved firefighters were shocked and “rocked” by the findings of the Portland Court too. We knew nothing of these proceedings until the verdict was announced.

  8. Helicopter shows up to helibase, we assume and insure to our abilites that it wont be used outside its envelope.

    Seems that agency or third party observed/verified power tests should be a required SOP..

    Am I missing something?

    • @Weikko, yes, you are missing something. a valid engine test would be done, and i think it was documented in the NTSB, but if the charts from which the test was performed are bogus to begin with, then what do you have ? you’ve got a valid test based on false performance charts. means nothing. the helo was way over gross, but not if you used the bogus charts submitted to USFS for contract-award. so, when the crew believed they were operating at the top of the weight charts, they were already well over that weight limit. it was doomed from takeoff. and there-in lies the fault, the guilt. but i’m very suspicious that these two-charged are the only ones who knew about it. very doubtful.

  9. The whole thing stinks, and Im glad they are being held accountable. that season my helicopter crew had the sister ship to the one that crashed. Each helo was configured different, and yet I believe they had the same performance charts. Corners were cut to get the contract and “best value to the government”. It shows that best value doesnt always come from the lowest bidder. Fighting fire is expensive, and with an aging tanker fleet, questionable helicopter contracts and ongoing budget cuts to the agency’s responsible for fighting fires, coupled with the perlonged droughts and historic fire seasons that we are seeing today… what are we to do? Privatize wild land fire? take up the view of the canadians, where its cheaper to let it burn and pay home owners for loss of property? time will only tell.
    One last thing, if there is a multi million dollar settlement package on the table… what about those who died working at $13 an hour?

  10. You people fricken clueless. The accused actions had not one thing to do with the accident. The engine quit over inhospitable terrain, the 61 is not a cat a aircraft, the pilots botched the procedure and they crashed. Only reason this is blown up is because they were public sector employees. Maybe if the USFS weren’t bottom feeders themselves they wouldn’t bring the lie bidders, and the competition. You morons think Carson is the first company to mess with figures to get a contract. Laymen are clueless idiots. The Feds went looking for heads on a platter and they found some dirty paperwork, had nothing to do with the accident. The weight difference is negligible for the 61. Keep drinking the koolaid.

    • Feyd: you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Even a “clueless” person who has read the NTSB report would realize that the NTSB concluded the accident was caused by Carson Helicopters’ actions related to the company 1) falsifying the empty weight, 2) falsifying the power available chart of the helicopter, and 3) the company’s procedure of using above-minimum specification torque.

      Here is what we wrote on December 8, 2010:

      ****

      According to the NTSB, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the helicopter and over-stated the performance of the helicopter in the documents they provided to the USFS when bidding on their firefighting contract. The NTSB estimated that the actual empty weight of the helicopter was 13,845 pounds, while Carson Helicopters stated in their contract proposal that the weight was 12,013 pounds. For the purpose of load calculations on the day of the crash, the pilot assumed the weight to be 12,408 pounds, which was 1,437 pounds less than the actual weight estimated by the NTSB. According to the NTSB, for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the firefighters on board.

      In addition, here is an excerpt from the NTSB report:

      “The altered takeoff (5-minute) power available chart that was provided by Carson Helicopters eliminated a safety margin of 1,200 pounds of emergency reserve power that had been provided for in the load calculations.

      The pilot-in-command followed a Carson Helicopters procedure, which was not approved by the helicopter’s manufacturer or the U.S. Forest Service, and used above-minimum specification torque in the load calculations, which exacerbated the error already introduced by the incorrect empty weight and the altered takeoff power available chart, resulting in a further reduction of 800 pounds to the safety margin intended to be included in the load calculations.

      The incorrect information—the empty weight and the power available chart—provided by Carson Helicopters and the company procedure of using above-minimum specification torque misled the pilots to believe that the helicopter had the performance capability to hover out of ground effect with the manifested payload when, in fact, it did not.”

      • There you go again, Bill: screwing up a good comment by introducing FACTS into the discussion. It’s obvious that you don’t heed the old adage: “Don’t confuse me with facts, I’ve already made up my mind.”

    • Yeah, Mr. Feyd Kameron, I think you should re-read the NTSB report. Bill (below) has done an excellent job of summarizing the salient details. Makes it rather difficult to give any value to your comments, Feyd. You should now go and take your med’s.

  11. In the Marine CH-53 world, if we had a question about making it out of an bowl type LZ heavy, we pull collective till we hit Q limit or ITT limit then see if we can get out of ground effect, if we can we keep going verticle till clear of obs. Then slowly push her over. If not land and dump some wt. This was part of a HAC and H2P check out. S/F

    • I do not understand all your comment but in a way I think I do. If the pilots would have gone vertical as far as they should have before going forward this tragedy probably would not have happened either. If they could not go vertical as far as they should they could have set it down as you said and dumped some weight. So I firmly believe the pilots botched it too. It is typical Carson practice from what I am told to take off as Scwanenberg and Coultas did rather than going to the proper vertical height before moving forward. This was also Schwanenbergs first time (except for the previous two trips that evening) of hauling firefighters. After the second trip down they filled up with fuel which made the weight issue critical. They took off in similar fashion the first two times as they did the third time. Third time they had more weight because of added fuel. Ramage – the USFS inspector on board was in the middle of it too. A very complex and complicated tragedy. I miss my son everyday.

    • Congratulations Brian. Yours is the only comment here that addresses practical considerations. Of course you will be ridiculed for bringing practical experience to the discussion. Shame on you for confusing people with operational procedures. I see we have LOTS of monday morning quarterbacks as always. Itsa shame that everyone wants to BLAME someone. If you are going to complain about water being wet, stay outta the pool.

      • Many people did not do their job thoroughly or with integrity – the firefighters and their families are the ones who paid the ultimate price. The firefighters held the line and did a quality job.

      • Ex H&P — (sigh) — There are times when no one should be blamed. For example, if through no malice or hoped for monetary gain, a firefighter makes an error in judgement or omission and something tragic occurs. If we don’t concentrate on placing blame in cases like that, those involved can speak openly, allowing important lessons to be learned. The military practices this, and it works well. It is even codified into law for the military.

        On the other hand, when for monetary gain, a contractor is commits fraud, falsifies information in contracts, and nine firefighters and pilots die, it is high time to place blame. If convicted in criminal court, I hope they go to prison.

        And Bob is correct. The U.S. Forest Service approved the fraudulent contracts, which earned them some of the blame.

  12. Bill,you seemed to have left out the part where there were fuel control parts that came up missing in the investigation.The airframe fuel filters have now been changed from 40 micron to 10 micron.The engine failure was the cause of the crash.Even if the weights were correct,they still would have crashed.

    • Jody: any mention of the fuel control unit was left out because it played no part in the crash. Your opinion differs from the conclusions reached by the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation team. Here is an excerpt of what we wrote after the NTSB released their report in 2010:

      Fuel Control Unit Missing. Conspiracy theory enthusiasts will enjoy speculating about the fuel control unit that went missing after it was gathered as evidence. The NTSB says the part played no role in the accident and that both engines were operating at full power during the accident. However, Carson is saying the crash was caused when one engine experienced a loss of power caused by the part that later disappeared. If Carson can successfully deflect blame to the company that manufactured the part, or at least establish some doubt about the accident’s cause, it may reduce their financial liability.”

      And, the NTSB concluded:

      Probable Cause

      1. Carson’s intentional understatement of the helicopter’s empty weight;

      2. The alteration by Carson of the power available chart to exaggerate the helicopter’s lift capability;

      3. Carson’s 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.”

      ****

      We appreciate comments from our readers, but promoting rumors and incorrect information is not acceptable.

      • Promote rumors and incorrect information?Didn’t you just the fuel control did come up missing?I’m so sorry for your loss Nina,but I have to disagree that the pilots would have just jerked the acft off the hill with people on board.I know Bill loves to quote excerpts from the NTSB report,but the investigation was a mess from the beginning.You don’t just go losing major engine parts and then say-well It don’t matter anyway.I have been around these acft a lot of years.I know what happened and the rest of the helicopter industry knows what happened.I’m so sorry.

        • Jody: The NTSB said both engines were operating at full power. Provide proof that your opinion is correct, that the fuel control valve caused the accident — until then, farewell.

        • I cannot say what was in the pilots mind (I am certain not dying) but I have been told repeatedly that they did not lift off properly (however I am also told that all Carson pilots take off as they did so it was common practice). They did not rise vertically as high as they should have (even on the previous two flights) before moving forward. They were not used to carrying passengers. There were many, many things that should have been handled differently by many different people. But I believe the overweight brought everything else to light. I believe there are some answers that we will never know – but we can speculate.

  13. Don’t forget that the USFS has inspectors that have to inspect and approve/accept aircraft that are going on contract.The performance numbers for any aircraft are easily available.There have been other operators with poor maintenance and questionable paperwork that kept getting approved until the accidents became to visible to cover up.The USFS is trying to cover its own rear in this deal.

    • Bob, on what do you base your comments that performance numbers for any aircraft are easily available? Do you have any FAA qualifications? Are you in any aircraft business? There are a myriad number of changes to a basic aircraft that are applied individually or to a small group of aircraft after manufacturing. Carson had developed its own changes and applied FAA approved changes to their individually owned helicopters, not every S-61 out there. They were proprietary to Carson and Carson held all the documentation. They owned them and could sell them or not to other operators. Their proprietary charts are included, hence the need to submit them with their contract proposal. There are always some who try to cheat the system relying on on inspector’s lack of proprietary knowledge to slip by. The resulting criminal charges are lacking any for homicide but at least these are serious charges in themselves.

  14. True. Many papers are signed without double checking for integrity. FAA did the same – such as on approving the types of seat and seatbelts on the aircraft. They did not look with their eyes before signing off on them. They should never have been approved.

    • They tell us it could be the Spring of 2014. Everything moves sooooo slooooww.

  15. Knowing Phillips and Metheny for many years although have not been in touch for with either one for several years. But I have to say I know the integrity of these two men to know that they would have not intentionally falsified or lied to gain a contract like this. These two men who I have not talked to since the crash must be in a living hell. They don’t deserve to take the blame for this horrible tragedy. They have families that rely on them and are very good men. I can’t say how sad I am to hear of these charges. Please pray for them and their families.

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