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

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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. Google+