Co-pilot of crashed Iron fire helicopter disputes NTSB findings

William “Bill” Coultas of Cave Junction, Oregon says the National Transportation Safety Board ignored his testimony and came to the wrong conclusion about the cause of the helicopter crash on the Iron Complex fire in 2008 near Weaverville, California in which 9 firefighters and helicopter crew members died.

The NTSB concluded in their public meeting on December 7 that Carson Helicopters intentionally 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. This led to the helicopter being overloaded, making it impossible for it to gain altitude when it attempted to take off from the Iron 44 helispot at 6,000 feet in the Trinity Alps.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Mercury News:

…”I was speechless—I could not believe what I was hearing,” [Coultas] said after the NTSB report was released Tuesday. “I was there. I had the best seat in the house. I knew what happened.”

Coultas, 46, is still recovering from severe burns suffered in the August 2008 crash in Northern California that also killed pilot Roark Schwanenberg of Lostine.

Carson helicopters

Both Coultas and the Schwanenberg family have sued engine manufacturer General Electric, as well as Sikorsky and a maintenance company, Columbia Helicopters, citing engine failure, among other things.

They say the NTSB investigators were responsible for losing engine fuel control parts that would have backed up the copilot’s testimony.

“We want the truth to come out about the loss of engine parts and actual cause of the accident,” said Gregory A. Anderson, an attorney from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who represents both the Coultas and Schwanenberg families.

Lawyers for the three companies did not immediately respond to e-mails Friday from The Associated Press seeking comment on the litigation.

The NTSB concluded that aircraft owner Carson Helicopters Inc. of Merlin deliberately understated the weight of its Sikorsky S-61N helicopter.

The report also said both the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration failed to notice the understatement.

Carson Helicopters said in a statement that a clogged fuel control unit and other issues were responsible for the crash. The company also laid the blame for underestimating the weight of the aircraft on the actions of an unnamed single manager.

In their public meeting on December 7 the NTSB said the fuel system parts played no role in the crash and that the engines were operating at full power as it attempted to take off.

It was announced last week that Carson Helicopters surrendered their FAA certificate, equivalent to a license to operate, but last year the company signed a contract with a subsidiary of Blackwater Worldwide (which recently changed their name to “Xe”) to use seven of their Sikorsky S-61 helicopters in Afghanistan.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Co-pilot of crashed Iron fire helicopter disputes NTSB findings”

  1. “I was there; I knew what happened.” If being an accident witness or participant was the main criteria for analyzing what went wrong, we’d have no need for the NTSB or other accident investigation procedures. Your perspective on what happens is in fact, based on where you are sitting when the event occurs. NTSB does an excellent job of looking at the event from all of “the seats” before making a judgement. They are also immune from trying to get another job driving an aircraft for a private company, so their vision is maybe a little clearer?


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