Today 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.