Judge refuses to shorten sentence for fatal helicopter crash on Iron 44 Fire

Nine firefighters and pilots were killed when the Sikorsky S-61N crashed in 2008

(This article first appeared on Fire Aviation)

A judge has refused to reduce the sentence for Steven Metheny, 50, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters whose falsification of records for a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter under contract to the U.S. Forest Service led to the deaths of nine firefighters and crew members.

Carson Helicopters Sikorsky S-61N
Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson

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.

Below is an excerpt from a June 16, 2020 article in the Mail Tribune:

…[Metheny] argued last year that he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty in November 2014 to a count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud in U.S. District Court in Medford for lying about helicopter weight limits — which caused the Aug. 5, 2008, Iron 44 crash near Weaverville, California — had he known crash victims were going to be allowed to testify at his sentencing, or that he’d be ordered to repay tens of millions of dollars in restitution upon release from prison.

In a 13-page court order filed May 27, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken denied Metheny’s motion to vacate or correct his June 2015 sentence, saying it doesn’t match Metheny’s allegations of ineffective counsel by his defense lawyer, Steven Meyers, nor does it match the court record.

Judge Aiken also presided over Metheny’s trial.

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.

During the trial defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Judge Aiken dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

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 Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Iron 44 tragedy — former VP of Carson helicopters disputes restitution ordered

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 helicopter crash

Carson helicoptersThe former Vice President of Carson Helicopters is disputing a court order to pay $51 million in restitution related to his role in falsifying documents prior to the crash of a helicopter on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison in 2015 but he now claims he was not aware of the requirement to pay restitution.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune:

[Metheny] says he wouldn’t have pleaded guilty had he known he’d have to pay a restitution of more than $51 million, according to documents filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Medford.

Metheny claims that his defense lawyer assured him that he wouldn’t have to pay any damages because by June 2013, Carson’s contract “was canceled and never re-bid” and “the resultant cost and subsequent loss would equal zero dollars,” according to an affidavit Metheny typed from Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc and filed in court May 7.

Metheny claims he was “repeatedly promised” ahead of his sentencing that the loss amount would be “zero dollars.”

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 in 2008. 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.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

More information about the fraud and the sentencing hearing of Metheny and Phillips.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Criminal investigators receive award for their work on the fatal Iron 44 Fire helicopter crash

Seven firefighters and two pilots were killed in the 2008 crash of a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter operated by Carson Helicopters on the Iron 44 Fire (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California.

The following information was released yesterday by the U.S. Attorney’s Oregon office.

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“WASHINGTON – On October 20, 2016, Byron Chatfield, Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Oregon, received an Award of Excellence in Investigation from the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) for his work on the investigation and prosecution of two corporate executives linked to a fatal 2008 wildland fire helicopter crash in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weatherville, Calif.

On August 5, 2008, in the midst of the Iron Complex Fire, deteriorating weather conditions made it necessary to evacuate backcountry firefighters to safety. A helicopter owned and operated by Carson Helicopters, Inc. of Medford, Ore. was dispatched to the location. On a third pick-up attempt, the aircraft, overweight with fuel and passengers, crashed, killing nine and injuring four others. The crash was the deadliest wildland fire aviation disaster in United States history.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Chatfield, along with five other federal investigators, embarked on a seven-year investigation of the crash that led to the conviction and sentencing of two Carson Helicopter executives. The investigation proved that the executives had falsified documents detailing weight capacities and balance charts of their aircraft in order to win more $51 million in Forest Service contracts. All told, the investigation team conducted 246 witness interviews in five different countries, issued 84 trial subpoenas, executed 3 computer forensic exams, and amassed over 129,000 pages of evidentiary discovery.

“I applaud Byron and his colleagues’ extraordinary efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict those responsible for this unthinkable tragedy” said Billy J. Williams, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon. “The work of Byron and team” continued U.S. Attorney Williams, “demonstrates the tremendous lengths those in our law enforcement community will go to bring justice to individuals responsible for similar acts of fraud.” ”

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One of the executives with Carson Helicopters was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and the other was ordered to serve 2 years.

More information about this tragedy and the aftermath can be found in articles at Wildfire Today tagged “Iron 44”.

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

Former VP of Carson Helicopters sentenced to 12 years in prison

Today Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison for falsifying documents that led to the crash of a helicopter in 2008 that killed 9 people.

In sentencing Mr. Methey, Ann Aiken, a federal judge for the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, said he violated every oath he ever took when he filed documents to win a $51 million U.S. Forest Service contract.

Metheny has until August 17 to report to federal prison. After his 12 years and 7 months prison sentence, he will be under supervised probation for an additional three years

He 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 (or Iron Complex) on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Weaverville, California in 2008. 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.

Defense lawyer Steven Myers argued that the helicopter pilot could have avoided the crash by doing a standard maneuver on takeoff, where the pilot hovers and checks his gauges.

Aiken dismissed that argument, noting her father had flown helicopters in the Korean War, crashing 13 times. “Whether the gauges were right or not, the pilot didn’t have the right information,” Aiken told Metheny.

The Forest Service awarded contracts to Carson, including option years, amounting to over $51,000,000. Carson received $18,831,891.12 prior to the FS canceling the contracts.

The sentencing hearing for Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, occurred later the same day. He agreed to cooperate with authorities in the case against Mr. Metheny and pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud. He was sentenced to 25 months in prison to be followed by 3 years of supervised probation.

The sentencing report on Mr. Metheny prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s office recommended 188 months (15 years and 8 months) of prison time. Below are excerpts from the report, which was dated March 20, 2015:

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I. FOREST SERVICE WEIGHING OF HELICOPTERS

As a result of the crash of N612AZ, the FS conducted a contract compliance inspection on Carson’s helicopters, eventually bringing about the weighing of each helicopter. Prior to the FS weighing, some of the aircraft were weighed by Carson in Grants Pass. They were found to weigh more than indicated by their W&B documents with one pilot characterizing the overage as considerable..

1. Concealing the Fraud

Metheny and Phillips devised various schemes in an attempt to prevent the FS from discovering the aircraft’s true weights. Metheny talked to Phillips about removing equipment from the helicopter (e.g., auxiliary battery, bifilar weights, and heater) to reduce the aircraft’s weight without recording its removal on the helicopter’s Chart C as well as removing the inner components from the battery and putting the battery’s empty shell back in the aircraft.

Continue reading “Former VP of Carson Helicopters sentenced to 12 years in prison”

Former Carson Helicopter officials to be sentenced today and tomorrow

Carson helicopter(UPDATED at 1:22 p.m. MT, June 16, 2015)

 

On June 16, 2015 Steve Metheny, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months in prison for falsifying documents that led to the crash of a helicopter in 2008 that killed 9 people.

More information about the sentencing.

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(Originally published at 7:29 a.m. MT, June 15, 2015)

Two men will be sentenced Monday and Tuesday of this week for charges related to a helicopter accident that killed nine pilots and firefighters. The 2008 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.

The sentencing hearing for Steven Metheny, 44, the former Vice President of Carson Helicopters, will be held at 9 a.m. today, June 15 in federal court in Medford, Oregon. He 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. He could be sentenced to 25 years in prison and fines amounting to $250,000.

The sentencing hearing for Levi Phillips, 45, the former maintenance chief of Carson Helicopters, will occur on Tuesday, June 16. He 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.

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.

The Register Guard has an interesting article about the family of firefighter Scott Charlson, and how they had a difficult decision to make about attending Mr. Metheny’s hearing or the college graduation of Mr. Charlson’s brother. Both begin at 9 a.m. on Monday.

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.

The NTSB determined that for the mission of flying the firefighters off the helispot that day, the helicopter was already over the allowable weight even without the seven firefighters on board.

In a statement sent to sentencing judge Ann Aiken, Nina Charlson, the mother of fallen firefighter Scott Charlson, wrote:

Steve Methany’s hands are all over this tragedy.  For the Defense lawyer and Steve Methany to say the criminal actions of Steve Methany had nothing to do with the Iron 44 tragedy is another boldface disgusting lie.

The maximum sentence possible within the US Federal Court of Law should be served to Steven Methany because of his criminal actions which resulted in the horrific deaths of 9 men one of which was my son Scott Charlson.  Our family will never be okay because of this tragedy.

 

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Iron 44.

Former Carson employees responsible for fatal Iron 44 Fire helicopter crash were motivated by greed, prosecutors say

Carson helicopter
Nine firefighters and pilots were killed in the 2008 crash of a Carson Helicopters S-61N in northern California. Two former employees of the company have pleaded guilty to charges related to the crash of the overloaded helicopters that impacted the ground while attempting to take off from a remote helispot.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Mail Tribune that provides details about the sentencing of the two former Carson employees.

The vice president of a defunct Grants Pass helicopter company was motivated by “pure greed” to lie about the carrying capacities of the firms’ helicopters, including an overloaded one that crashed at a Northern California fire in 2008, killing nine people, prosecutors say.

A government sentencing memorandum says Steven Metheny not only falsified documents for Carson Helicopters to gain Forest Service contracts worth up to $51.7 million, he also supplied a similarly falsified helicopter to the Forest Service as a replacement for the one that crashed Aug. 5, 2008, on the Iron 44 fire.

Seven of the nine killed were Southern Oregon firefighters in what was the deadliest crash of its kind in U.S. wildfire-fighting history. The memorandum, which details how Metheny tried to scuttle the investigation into the crash and stole from his own company, sets out the government’s argument for Metheny to be sentenced to more than 15 1/2 years in prison for his guilty plea in the case.

“His fraudulent conduct was the result of pure greed that eventually placed the lives of numerous pilots and firefighters in extreme danger,” according to the memorandum written by Assistant U.S. Attorney Byron Chatfield…

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