Former Carson employees responsible for fatal Iron 44 Fire helicopter crash were motivated by greed, prosecutors say

Carson helicopter
Nine firefighters and pilots were killed in the 2008 crash of a Carson Helicopters S-61N in northern California. Two former employees of the company have pleaded guilty to charges related to the crash of the overloaded helicopters that impacted the ground while attempting to take off from a remote helispot.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune that provides details about the sentencing of the two former Carson employees.

The vice president of a defunct Grants Pass helicopter company was motivated by “pure greed” to lie about the carrying capacities of the firms’ helicopters, including an overloaded one that crashed at a Northern California fire in 2008, killing nine people, prosecutors say.

A government sentencing memorandum says Steven Metheny not only falsified documents for Carson Helicopters to gain Forest Service contracts worth up to $51.7 million, he also supplied a similarly falsified helicopter to the Forest Service as a replacement for the one that crashed Aug. 5, 2008, on the Iron 44 fire.

Seven of the nine killed were Southern Oregon firefighters in what was the deadliest crash of its kind in U.S. wildfire-fighting history. The memorandum, which details how Metheny tried to scuttle the investigation into the crash and stole from his own company, sets out the government’s argument for Metheny to be sentenced to more than 15 1/2 years in prison for his guilty plea in the case.

“His fraudulent conduct was the result of pure greed that eventually placed the lives of numerous pilots and firefighters in extreme danger,” according to the memorandum written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Byron Chatfield…

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Nina.

Another person pleads guilty to charges related to the Carson helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters

Carson Helicopters Iron 44 firefighters killedToday in federal court in Medford, Oregon, a second person pleaded guilty to charges related to the 2008 crash of a helicopter in northern California that killed nine wildland firefighters.

Steven Metheny, 44, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, pleaded guilty to one count each of filing a false statement and of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud while submitting documents to obtain $20 million in firefighting contracts with the U.S. Forest Service.

In January of 2013, Mr. Metheny was indicted for conspiracy to defraud the United States, plus 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.

The two charges that Mr. Metheny pleaded guilty to today combined have a maximum federal prison sentence of 25 years and fines up to $500,000. U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke set a March 2 sentencing date. According to the plea agreement in this case, the U. S. Attorney’s Office will be seeking an enhancement to Mr. Metheny’s sentence based on the offense involving the reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury.

United States Attorney Amanda Marshall said today:

This is a particularly important case. Submitting false information about helicopter payload capabilities in the bid process both defrauded the Forest Service and created a reckless risk of harm to those who used the information in firefighting operations. This includes those who were relying on the false information when a Carson helicopter crashed near Weaverville, California on August 5, 2008, killing nine and seriously injuring four others.

In September of 2013, Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of the company, pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud and now faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny. Mr. Phillips’ sentencing  is set for February 2.

The crash of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter occurred on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California. Killed were the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured. The helicopter was operated by Carson Helicopters, Inc. of Grants Pass, Oregon.

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.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there was “intentional wrong-doing” by Carson Helicopters that under-stated the weight of the helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the U.S. Forest Service 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 that day, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the firefighters on board.

In Mr. Metheny’s plea agreement there was an admission that the helicopters had not actually been weighed.

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.

In March of 2012, a jury in a civil suit 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).

Nina Charlson, the mother of Scott Charlson, said before the guilty plea today, “Justice needs to be served. Metheny is not the only person who did less than quality work.” She contends the U.S. Forest Service should have weighed the helicopter to confirm the information submitted by Carlson Helicopters.

Carson employee pleads guilty for charge related to helicopter crash that killed 9

Carson Helicopters Sikorsky S-61N
Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson

One of the two Carson Helicopter, Inc. employees that were indicted in January for charges related to the crash of an August 5, 2008 helicopter crash that killed nine firefighters and flight crew members, pleaded guilty Monday to one charge. Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of the company, pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and now faces up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. He will be sentenced on April 14.

Steven Metheny, 42, the former Vice President of Carson, was also indicted in January for conspiracy to defraud the United States, plus 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.

The Mail Tribune reported that as part of the plea agreement, Mr. Phillips has an obligation to cooperate fully with the investigation and to testify against Mr. Metheny.

The helicopter that crashed was under contract to the U.S. Forest Service and was attempting to transport firefighters from a remote helispot back to the base camp on the Iron Complex of fire (or Iron 44 Fire) in northern California.

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. According to the indictment, when one of the helicopters was supposed to have been weighed it “was in a different country at the time”.

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.

More about the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the crash.

 

Thanks go out to Joseph

A mother’s reaction to the criminal charges against the former Carson Helicopters employees

The mother of one of the firefighters killed in the crash of the Carson-owned helicopter has been following very closely the NTSB and criminal investigations into the crash that killed her son, Scott Charlson, six other firefighters, and two air crew members. Both investigations agreed that Carson Helicopters intentionally falsified documents about the performance of their helicopters which led the U.S. Forest Service and the flight crew to erroneously believe the Sikorsky S-61N could carry the load of firefighters when it attempted to lift off from a helispot on the Iron 44 Fire in northern California in 2008. The helicopter crashed and burned as it struggled to become airborne, killing nine people.

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

Below is the reaction of Scott’s mother, Nina Charlson, to the indictments:

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“I am very thankful the criminal investigation was pursued. While it does not bring our loved ones back or change the heartache and emotional torture surviving firefighters and families have had to endure the past 4 ½ years it does confirm some of the things we have been told since the crash.

Besides the sentences the Federal Government will hand out I would like for these two men, Steve Methany and Levi Phillips to sit before the family and friends (one family at a time) of Shawn Blazer, Scott Charlson, Matt Hammer, David Steele, Caleb Renno, Edrick Gomez, Bryan Rich, Roark Schwanenberg and Jim Ramage and hear how their lives have changed since 7:45 p.m. August 5, 2008. I would like for them to sit before Bill Coultas, Mike Brown, Jon Frohreich and Rick Schroeder and their families and hear how their lives changed that night. I would like them to sit before the firefighters that were on the mountain at the time of the crash and listen how their lives changed that night. I would like for them to sit before Grayback Forestry, US Forest Service, Cal-Fire and the entire firefighter brotherhood and hear what they have to say about that fateful night.

We were told this crash was preventable and predictable on many levels and sadly we have found that to be true. Initially when I was told about the crash – foul play was not what came to my mind. Accidents happen. But this was no accident and it complicates the grief we are experiencing.

Nothing that takes place in the future can bring our loved ones back to us or stop the emotional torment that is present in so many minds at this very moment because of the criminal acts these two men committed over and over again – even after the crash. No remorse – it was all about them, their greed and their life.

Several families of the fallen firefighters have determined to take as many steps as necessary to send a message to anyone in the future who may be driven by greed or glory. We will remind them of the bottom line – Our sons, fathers and husbands lives. We will do whatever it takes to help protect lives and families in the future. In Dec. of 2011 several families of the fallen traveled back to Washington DC to attend a Public Aircraft Forum hosted by the NTSB. There were very powerful worldwide leaders in the Public Aircraft world that were present. We were thanked by many of them for being there because we gave them a visual of what their good or poor decisions can do. It is not easy for us to make these trips financially or emotionally but if we can influence decisions to save future lives we will continue in the honor of our loved ones who paid the ultimate price.”

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.

Jury awards $70 million for helicopter crash on Iron Complex fire

After deliberating for over a week a jury in Oregon decided on Tuesday that the manufacturer of the engines was at fault for the crash of a helicopter that was transporting wildland firefighters on the Iron Complex (or Iron 44 fire) in 2008. Nine people died in the crash as it attempted to take off from a remote helispot in northern California. Seven of those killed were firefighters. One was a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, observing the operation of the helicopter’s crew, and another was one of the two pilots working for the owner of the ship, Carson Helicopters.

The surviving pilot, William Coultas, his wife, and the estate of the pilot who was killed, Roark Schwanenberg, brought a $177 million lawsuit against General Electric, the manufacturer of the engines.

The jury, after deliberating for six days, made the following awards, totaling $69.7 million:

  • $37 million to William Coultas
  • $4.3 million to Coultas’ wife
  • $28.4 million to the estate of Roark Schwanenberg

Their case revolved around the plaintiffs’ belief that there were problems with a fuel control valve and that the specifications on the fuel filters were inadequate to remove contaminants. They claimed that GE had been aware of the problem for six years.

GE’s defense was along the same lines as the findings of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the crash, which determined that the owner and operator of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter, Carson Helicopters, under-stated the weight of the helicopter and over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the U.S. Forest Service 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 their findings, for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the firefighters on board.

The families of eight men who were killed and three who were injured, previously reached out-of-court settlements with Carson Helicopters and the manufacturer of the helicopter, Sikorsky.

Some of the details of the monetary award still have to be worked out. Here is an excerpt from Oregonlive, which says the jury…

…found GE 57 percent at fault — and attorneys will argue in the next 10 days whether that means GE must pay all $70.455 million that the jurors awarded, or whether GE must pay only 57 percent, which amounts to about $40 million.

Jurors found Carson Helicopters 23 percent at fault, but the company won’t be liable for paying its share of the verdict because a judge dismissed them from the case. The jury also found Sikorsky 20 percent at fault, but the company settled with the plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount shortly after trial started. That means Sikorsky isn’t responsible for paying any of the verdict, said Anderson, the plaintiffs’ attorney.

After the crash the U.S. Forest Service canceled their contract with Carson Helicopters. The company then surrendered their FAA Certificate which is equivalent to an operating license. However, they may still be flying for the military in Afghanistan as a subcontractor for the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide, which was renamed “Xe”.

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.