Person responsible for helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters gets early release from prison

Steven Metheny served less than half of his sentence

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Sikorsky S-61N helicopter
Sikorsky S-61N helicopter

Last week a judge granted an early release from prison for  Steven Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters. Mr. Metheny’s falsification of records and other illegal acts led to the overloading of a helicopter that crashed while attempting to take off from a remote helispot in Northern California in 2008, killing seven firefighters and two pilots.

In August, 2015 he began serving what was to have been 12 years and 7 months in prison, but was released after six years and one month.

He pleaded guilty in 2014 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 had filed for compassionate release from prison at least twice, first in November, 2020 citing his fear of contracting COVID-19, which was refused by a judge. In March of 2021 he filed again, saying his health was deteriorating. Over the next six months information was submitted indicating that he had chest pain, an abnormal echocardiogram, vision problems, high blood pressure, and migraine headaches.

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken who was the judge in the trial, denied the first request but in September, 2021 approved the second one saying that his time in prison, especially with his health problems, have “been harsher than the sentence originally contemplated at the time of sentencing.”

Nina L. Charlson, mother of 25-year-old Scott Charlson of Phoenix, Oregon who died in the crash, said, “If it was a stupid mistake we would still have heartache but we all make mistakes. It was not a mistake. He plotted and planned to lie to the government.

“After the crash happened he plotted and planned to cover his plot up, Charson said. “It took the National Transportation board one and a half years to dig up the truth about what he did. It took 5 more years to get him sentenced to prison in September, 2015 for 12 years and 7 months. He served 6 years which is less than half of what he was sentenced for.”

Mr. Metheny 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 on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. He was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 for attempting to defraud the government out of more than $32 million and has been serving time in Lompoc, California.

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.

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.

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.

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

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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.

25 thoughts on “Person responsible for helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters gets early release from prison”

  1. Carson is the company that while trying to remove timber sparked a month-long fire in the Great Dismal Swamp in 2008 that cost $12.5 million to extinguish. Much of that money was actually paid to them (the ones who started it) they should have to pay that money back. Everything about this company and the special treatment it gets from the US government is shameful.

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  2. How can blame be on the pilot? Steven Metheny and others lied. Did the pilot go along with Metheny’s lies and get an under-the-table deal? My friend died. It shattered lives. My friend was like a brother. Matt Hammer was a great man. I’m shocked that the get-out-of-jail early card has been covered by just one or two websites. Did Oregon or California or the NTSB even say anything about Metheny’s early release? Were families notified?

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  3. This accident was the eventual outcome of greed and lying. The perpetrator of the fraud had likely gotten away with it for years and thought he could continue to do so indefinitely. I believe more than one person was responsible. Among them is the Pilot in Command. It should have been apparent to him by the helicopter’s performance that it was either overloaded or performing below minimum standard.
    He paid the ultimate price for his miscalculation.
    Jim Ramage was an exceptional helicopter professional and unfortunately he was only an observer on this flight and not at the controls or there may have been a different outcome.
    It’s a miscarriage of justice not everyone involved in this crime was held to account.

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  4. Gee, he was afraid of getting Coved but not afraid of killing 9 people most youths who had a future. His future was okay as long as he did not have to go to jail. He should have stayed in jail until their lives were restored. No, that is not a harsh assessment given his actions.

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  5. Gee, he was afraid of getting Coved but not afraid of killing 9 people most youths who had a future. His future was okay as long as he did not have to go to jail. He should have stayed in jail until their lives were restored. No, that is not a harsh assessment given his actions.

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  6. A friend and I stopped by the Wildland Firefighter Foundation yesterday for a visit, and we both looked at the photos of all the Iron 9 victims. It was especially poignant to see Jim Ramage’s photo, as we’d both flown with Jim numerous times while he was a CDF pilot. This is just wrong.

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  7. It’s ok to say that they were Graybacker’s. Unlike the guys who died of covid-19 these guys were front line folks. We all suffer from the hardships of the line. You mention the agency the observer was from. Please follow sound journalistic practices; mention one in full form, then continue the format.

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    1. Totally agree. They worked for Grayback, even though it’s a horrible company, it should be mentioned like the rest.

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  8. Is this what our Justice System has come to?
    How much more of this kind of “injustice” must we all endure? My heart bleeds for the families who lost their loved ones. They must be sick over a Judge who is truly looking the other way over the totality of what this man caused. Has his company been debarred from all future federal contracts?
    I hope the families are able to file in Civil Court for damages and loss of life.

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  9. Come on guys. Don’t turn this into politics. (Edit: this was written after three comments that clearly violated our terms of use had to be removed.)

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    1. Sorry Bill, this absolutely not about politics, how dare you even say that !!!!

      This is about right and wrong, both he AND the Judge did wrong, PERIOD !!!!!!

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    2. WTH Bill ! Just because I said that you are wrong, you won’t post my comment.
      This is not about politics, this comment is about right and wrong !
      He was wrong to trade greed over lives. The Judge is wrong to take migraines over lives and you are wrong for censorship!
      I miss Jim Ramage and never forget any of these Great Men !!!!!

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      1. Captain Jim,
        I get the outrage, I feel it too! But this is Gabbert’s website and his rules. Chill down.
        Censorship never happens here. Censorship is done by the federal government, not by wildfiretoday or Mr. Bill Gabbert. Re-direct your anger toward the real bad guy here. Call the judge, Ann Aiken, and tell her what you think.
        Chambers: 541-431-4140
        Courtroom Deputy: 541-431-4102

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    3. Wrong ! Shame on you Bill !!!

      Please give me the courtesy to respond as to why you won’t post my comments.
      Seeing as we both have fought fire on the Ortega, I thought better of you Bill.

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      1. Jim, Capt, LD, or whatever you’re calling yourself–

        1. What I wrote about avoiding politics was directed at two people who tried to veer the conversation off into a debate about race. Those two comments and another promoting violence are the only ones in this thread that were deleted.

        2. The software for this site automatically diverts some comments into a queue where they stay until they can be reviewed. Occasionally one is incorrectly sent to trash where it may reside for a few days before I find it. I don’t sit at the computer 24 hours a day waiting for your wisdom to appear so I can quickly approve it. It may be one to 12 hours before the moderation queue is reviewed, not the 10 minutes you seem to expect.

        3. “Shame” on me? Your attitude makes me wonder how much longer I want to keep doing this.

        4. We love intelligent comments from our readers. Click here for the rules.

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        1. Thanks for this article. I came across it from a link on a site called The Drive (about transportation), with a sub-site called The War Zone (TWZ; superb national defense articles, and community commentary). One of the posters there provided the link. So you never know who you are going to affect, particularly in a positive way. As here.

          I’m surprised the original sentence was so light. 12 years for being directly responsible for causing the deaths of 9 people? For financial gain? And critically injuring 3 others, probably for life? And the spending the next 5 years methodically trying to conceal it? Whoa. Not much of a human being. Plus a questionable judge. Nevertheless- thanks for publicizing this.

          Last- consider leaving a marker behind whenever you remove a comment, with a brief note saying it violated your standards. It’s both a warning to moronic posters, and a reaffirmation to your loyal readers that you’re keeping an eye on things. Check out an article comment section on TWZ for examples.

          And continue doing what you’re doing- broadcasting truth, to the best of your abilities. It’s appreciated by more people than you will ever know.

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  10. U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken, made the wrong decision.

    The 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, and the copilot and three other firefighters who were seriously injured, did not get a choice whether they lived or died.

    Mr Metheny, killed 9 people, and injured 4 others. An individual who may kill one person can receive a life in prison with no chance of parole, that should have been his sentence.

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  11. This is a travesty. He engaged in deliberate fraud, he knowingly covering up his misdeeds
    and he tried to get others to abet him in his willful fraud that resulted in nine deaths. He deserved
    life in jail. He is both a sociopath and psychopath with no redeeming characteristics. He’s free while
    nine families still mourn the loss of a loved one. He should rot in hell rather than walk among the
    living.

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