Jury deliberating on $17 million suit related to fatal helicopter crash on Iron Complex fire

A jury in Oregon is deliberating, after a week-long trial, a case related to the crash of a helicopter on the Iron Complex (or Iron 44) fire in northern California in 2008 that killed nine firefighters and crew personnel. The lawsuit was initiated by the surviving co-pilot, William Coultas, and the estate of the pilot who died, Roark Schwanenberg. They are suing the maker of the helicopter’s engines, General Electric, for $177 million, claiming there were problems with a fuel control valve and that the specifications on the fuel filters were inadequate to remove contaminants.

GE’s position agrees with the findings of the NTSB 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.

Mr. Coultas has long claimed that Carson Helicopters and the two pilots were not at fault for the accident and that the engines did not provide full power as they lifted off the helispot that day with a load of wildland firefighters. The NTSB disagreed, saying that the engines were operating at full power when the rotors clipped trees as it tried but failed to gain adequate altitude.

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

The jury began their deliberations on Thursday, March 15. We will update this article when they return a verdict.

Thanks go out to Christian and Dick

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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.