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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Carson Helicopters ‘Scapegoat’ in NTSB Crash Probe

By Andrew Parker, Senior Editor

A close look at documents from NTSB and a company it’s placing much of the blame on for a 2008 helicopter crash reveals a sharp contrast in viewpoints from government investigators and the operator—Perkasie, Pa.-based Carson Helicopters—as to what led the Sikorsky S-61 to fall from the sky. With all the ‘he said, she said’ allegations flying from NTSB investigators, Carson and the copilot who survived the crash, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly the real cause—it depends on who you talk to. Throw in claims of evidence tampering and the picture just gets cloudier.

Franklin Carson, president of Carson Helicopters, issued a scathing open letter Jan. 12 to dispute the findings of NTSB’s two-year probe into the crash. The helicopter, which was under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, went down on Aug. 5, 2008 near Weaverville, Calif. Nine people died, including seven firefighters and the pilot, while four others were injured, including copilot William Coultas, who disputed NTSB’s findings following a Dec. 7 public meeting where board members revealed the accident’s probable cause.

NTSB pinned much of the blame on Carson Helicopters, while acknowledging the role of improper oversight by FAA and USFS. Among the reasons cited were Carson’s “intentional” understatement of the helicopter’s empty weight, altering of the power available chart and practice of using above minimum specification torque figures. But the company disagrees: “Carson strongly believes that the accident was caused by the loss of power to the #2 engine due to contamination in the fuel control, which the NTSB chose to ignore even after reviewing indisputable evidence brought to its attention.” Franklin Carson also asserted that NTSB disregarded the copilot’s “direct testimony that he saw signs of power loss in the #2 engine immediately prior to the crash,” adding that investigators “ignored his direct reading of the actual air temperature at the scene in favor of manufactured data that fit their preconceived narrative.” The company president also claims that NTSB mishandled important evidence related to the probe, including losing parts from the fuel control unit (FCU).

Carson also challenged the notion that the error on the weight chart was intentional. The company “is not disputing that a Carson employee submitted incorrect information on the empty weight of the aircraft and the performance chart, but NTSB’s suggestion that it was condoned by the company is totally false and misleading.”

He notes that Carson Helicopters has been bound by limitations of being part of the investigation team, but “in light of NTSB’s arbitrary and one-sided hearing” on Dec. 7, the company could not “stand silently by while NTSB ignores an ongoing safety-of-flight issue by trying to make Carson a scapegoat.” (From February 2011 Rotorcraft Report)

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