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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Iron 44 Incident: Carson Helicopters Facing Criminal Charges

 Two Southern Oregon men have been indicted in federal court in Oregon in connection with a 2008 fire crew helicopter crash in Trinity County that killed nine people, including a Redding man.
The former vice president of Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Ore., was indicted on fraud charges in U.S. District Court in Medford, Ore., the United States Attorney’s Office announced Monday.
Steven Metheny, 42, of Central Point, Ore., was also charged with 22 counts of mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the U.S. Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight and theft from an interstate shipment.
Metheny and Levi Phillips, former Carson Helicopters director of maintenance, are accused of falsifying documents to obtain firefighting contracts with the forest service, according to the U.S. attorney.
The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61, crashed in August 2008, shortly after picking up a fire crew from a remote helipad while working the Iron Complex of fires in the Trinity Alps.
 The crash killed seven contract firefighters on board, the pilot and another a pilot from Redding who was on hand to oversee the flight crew.
The U.S. attorney is not the first to allege documents related to the incident were falsified. Two years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board’s chairwoman said company officials lied about the amount of weight on board the craft at the time of the crash.
Also in 2011 the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report that said Carson Helicopters falsified documents about the helicopter’s weight, leading the pilot to miscalculate his load and crash the aircraft.
At the time, a Carson helicopters official denied company involvement and pointed to one unnamed company official as the culprit.
The indictment says Metheny and Phillips falsified documents to obtain forest service contracts worth $20 million. Metheny submitted falsified performance charts, as well as fraudulent weight and balance charts, the indictment says.
Based on the false information, helicopter pilots incorrectly calculated maximum payload capacities, according to the attorney’s office.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigation showed the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter weighed more than 19,000 pounds when pilots tried to take off from a mountaintop clearing during the Iron Complex fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Had Forest Service guidelines been followed, investigators said, the weight shouldn’t have exceeded 15,840 pounds, the Associated Press reported.
A Portland jury ruled last year that a problem with an engine was responsible for the crash. Jurors reached their verdict after the pilot who survived and the widow of the one who was killed sued General Electric for $177 million, alleging the company knew the engines it made for the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter had a design flaw, the AP said.
Metheny and Phillips face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy charge. Metheny could potentially get decades more on the other charges.

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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