Criminal investigators receive award for their work on the fatal Iron 44 Fire helicopter crash

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 crash of a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson Helicopters on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California.

The following information was released yesterday by the U.S. Attorney’s Oregon office.

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“WASHINGTON – On October 20, 2016, Byron Chatfield, Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Oregon, received an Award of Excellence in Investigation from the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) for his work on the investigation and prosecution of two corporate executives linked to a fatal 2008 wildland fire helicopter crash in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weatherville, Calif.

On August 5, 2008, in the midst of the Iron Complex Fire, deteriorating weather conditions made it necessary to evacuate backcountry firefighters to safety. A helicopter owned and operated by Carson Helicopters, Inc. of Medford, Ore. was dispatched to the location. On a third pick-up attempt, the aircraft, overweight with fuel and passengers, crashed, killing nine and injuring four others. The crash was the deadliest wildland fire aviation disaster in United States history.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chatfield, along with five other federal investigators, embarked on a seven-year investigation of the crash that led to the conviction and sentencing of two Carson Helicopter executives. The investigation proved that the executives had falsified documents detailing weight capacities and balance charts of their aircraft in order to win more $51 million in Forest Service contracts. All told, the investigation team conducted 246 witness interviews in five different countries, issued 84 trial subpoenas, executed 3 computer forensic exams, and amassed over 129,000 pages of evidentiary discovery.

“I applaud Byron and his colleagues’ extraordinary efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict those responsible for this unthinkable tragedy” said Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon. “The work of Byron and team” continued U.S. Attorney Williams, “demonstrates the tremendous lengths those in our law enforcement community will go to bring justice to individuals responsible for similar acts of fraud.” ”

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One of the executives with Carson Helicopters was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and the other was ordered to serve 2 years.

More information about this tragedy and the aftermath can be found in articles at Wildfire Today tagged “Iron 44”.

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

Former VP of Carson Helicopters sentenced to 12 years in prison

Today Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison for falsifying documents that led to the crash of a helicopter in 2008 that killed 9 people.

In sentencing Mr. Methey, Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, said he violated every oath he ever took when he filed documents to win a $51 million U.S. Forest Service contract.

Carson Helicopters Iron 44 firefighters killedMetheny has until August 17 to report to federal prison. After his 12 years and 7 months prison sentence, he will be under supervised probation for an additional three years

He was accused of falsifying performance charts and the weights of helicopters his company had under contract to the U.S. Forest Service for supporting wildland fire operations. As of a result of his fraud, a Carson helicopter crashed while trying to lift off with too much weight from a remote helispot on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Nine people were killed, including the pilot-in-command, a U.S. Forest Service check pilot, and seven firefighters. The copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured.

Mr. Metheny went to great lengths after the crash to attempt to conceal the fraud. When he knew that investigators would be examining the company’s operations, he directed other employees to remove weight from other similar helicopters, including taking off a fuel cell and replacing a very heavy battery with an empty shell of a battery. Some of the employees refused to participate in that deception, with one explaining that he was done lying about the helicopter’s weight.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Aiken dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

The sentencing hearing for Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, occurred later the same day. He agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

The sentencing report on Mr. Metheny prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s office recommended 188 months (15 years and 8 months) of prison time. Below are excerpts from the report, which was dated March 20, 2015:

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I. FOREST SERVICE WEIGHING OF HELICOPTERS

As a result of the crash of N612AZ, the FS conducted a contract compliance inspection on Carson’s helicopters, eventually bringing about the weighing of each helicopter. Prior to the FS weighing, some of the aircraft were weighed by Carson in Grants Pass. They were found to weigh more than indicated by their W&B documents with one pilot characterizing the overage as considerable..

1. Concealing the Fraud

Metheny and Phillips devised various schemes in an attempt to prevent the FS from discovering the aircraft’s true weights. Metheny talked to Phillips about removing equipment from the helicopter (e.g., auxiliary battery, bifilar weights, and heater) to reduce the aircraft’s weight without recording its removal on the helicopter’s Chart C as well as removing the inner components from the battery and putting the battery’s empty shell back in the aircraft.

Continue reading “Former VP of Carson Helicopters sentenced to 12 years in prison”

Former Carson Helicopter officials to be sentenced today and tomorrow

Carson helicopter(UPDATED at 1:22 p.m. MT, June 16, 2015)

 

On June 16, 2015 Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison for falsifying documents that led to the crash of a helicopter in 2008 that killed 9 people.

More information about the sentencing.

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(Originally published at 7:29 a.m. MT, June 15, 2015)

Two men will be sentenced Monday and Tuesday of this week for charges related to a helicopter accident that killed nine pilots and firefighters. The 2008 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.

The sentencing hearing for Steven Metheny, 44, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, will be held at 9 a.m. today, June 15 in federal court in Medford, Oregon. He 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. He could be sentenced to 25 years in prison and fines amounting to $250,000.

The sentencing hearing for Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, will occur on Tuesday, June 16. He 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.

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.

The Register Guard has an interesting article about the family of firefighter Scott Charlson, and how they had a difficult decision to make about attending Mr. Metheny’s hearing or the college graduation of Mr. Charlson’s brother. Both begin at 9 a.m. on Monday.

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.

The NTSB determined that for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot that day, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the seven firefighters on board.

In a statement sent to sentencing judge Ann Aiken, Nina Charlson, the mother of fallen firefighter Scott Charlson, wrote:

Steve Methany’s hands are all over this tragedy.  For the Defense lawyer and Steve Methany to say the criminal actions of Steve Methany had nothing to do with the Iron 44 tragedy is another boldface disgusting lie.

The maximum sentence possible within the US Federal Court of Law should be served to Steven Methany because of his criminal actions which resulted in the horrific deaths of 9 men one of which was my son Scott Charlson.  Our family will never be okay because of this tragedy.

 

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Iron 44.

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