Former Carson Helicopters employees indicted for fraud, endangering the safety of aircraft

A federal grand jury has indicted two former Carson Helicopters Inc. (CHI) employees on charges related to the 2008 crash of a CHI Sikorsky S-61N engaged in firefighting operations.
The United States Attorneys Office announced on Feb. 4, 2013 that Steven Metheny, a former vice president of CHI, and Levi Phillips, a former CHI director of maintenance, have been charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States Forest Service (USFS) by falsifying documents related to 2008 firefighting contracts. Metheny has also been charged in 22 other counts, including mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight, and theft from an interstate shipment.

According to the indictment, Metheny, aided by Phillips, submitted false helicopter weight and balance charts and falsely altered performance charts to the USFS, resulting in the USFS awarding more than $20 million in contract work to CHI. The indictment also alleges that Metheny knowingly distributed these false charts to pilots for use in the field, thereby endangering the safety of CHI helicopters in flight.
The federal grand jury indictment echoes the findings of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which in 2010 found that the use of false charts and weights was the probable cause of the CHI crash that occurred on Aug. 5, 2008, shortly after takeoff from a helispot in Californias Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Nine people died in the crash, including seven firefighters, a CHI pilot and a USFS check pilot.
According to the NTSB, the intentional understatement of the helicopters empty weight, the alteration of the power available chart to exaggerate the helicopters lift capability, and the practice of using unapproved above-minimum specification torque in performance calculations collectively resulted in the pilots relying on performance calculations that significantly overestimated the helicopters load-carrying capacity and did not provide an adequate performance margin for a successful takeoff.
However, CHI president Frank Carson has contested the NTSBs findings. In statements issued shortly after the release of the NTSBs accident report, Carson admitted that the company submitted false charts to the USFS, although he claimed that he and other CHI employees were unaware of the falsifications. But he contended that the S-61N crash was caused not by false charts and weights, but instead by a power loss in the No. 2 engine due to contamination in the fuel control. He accused the NTSB of excluding and losing evidence that would have supported power loss as the primary cause of the accident.

In March 2012, a civil jury largely sided with Carsons argument when it found engine manufacturer General Electric 57 percent responsible for the crash (with CHI 23 percent responsible and Sikorsky 20 percent responsible) in a case brought against by GE by surviving pilot William Coultas and the widow of Roark Schwanenberg, the pilot who died in the accident. In its ruling against GE, the jury awarded almost $70 million in damages.
Although the cause of the accident remains controversial, the charges brought against Metheny and Phillips do not appear to rely upon it. The U.S. Attorneys Office stated, An indictment is only an accusation of a crime, and a defendant should be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. If convicted, however, Metheny and Phillips face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for the conspiracy to defraud count, and Metheny also faces a maximum sentence of 20 years for each mail and wire fraud count, 20 years for each endangering the safety of aircraft in flight count, 10 years for the interstate theft count, and up to five years for each false statement count.

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