Five years ago today, nine firefighters lost their lives when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed in a remote area of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The crewmembers were from Grayback Forestry, Inc., out of Merlin, Ore. The pilot and the aircraft, a Sikorsky S-61N, were provided by Carson Helicopters, out of Grants Pass, Ore.
The crash occurred at approximately 1930 HRS, after the helo had made a stop to refuel during the Iron 44 Fire (also known as Iron Complex Fire or Buckhorn Fire). As the aircraft attempted to lift off, it appeared to experience difficulty gaining speed. The nose of the helicopter struck a tree; the main rotor then struck several trees. It was later determined that the helo had lost power to its main rotor, which caused the craft to crash into trees and terrain. Witnesses described the aircraft as climbing only 40 or 50 feet before it appeared to experience difficulty. The craft landed on its side and quickly caught fire.
We remember the seven members of the hand crew on board that evening:
- Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford, Ore.
- Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Ore.
- Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland, Ore.
- Matt Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass, Ore.
- Steven Caleb Renno, 21, of Cave Junction, Ore.
- Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford, Ore.
- David Steele, 19, of Ashland, Ore.
We also remember the pilot of the helicopter, Roark Schwanenberg, 54, from Lostine, Ore., and the USFS inspector pilot who was on board, Jim Ramage, 64, from Redding, Calif. Four other passengers suffered serious injuries as a result of the crash; all recovered from their injuries.
This tragic event gained national attention when witness accounts reported that the lift-off of the helicopter appeared sluggish. Comparisons were made to four previous helicopter crashes, all of which occurred as the aircraft was lifting off, and all of which involved “the failure of a clutch mechanism that connects engines to the helicopter’s five main rotors,” according to the Oregonian.
As a result of this incident and the subsequent investigation, the USFS canceled its contract with Carson Helicopters. In 2010, the NTSB found that there was “intentional wrong-doing” on the part of Carson Helicopters because, as reported by Wildfire Today, the company “over-stated its performance in the documents they provided to the USFS when bidding on $20 million in firefighting contracts for seven helicopters. As a result, when the helicopter attempted to take off from the helispot on the Iron 44 Fire with firefighters and a flight crew of three, it was over the allowable weight even before the firefighters boarded the ship.” Carson Helicopters has since surrendered its FAA certificate.
As Wildfire Today further reports, in 2012, a jury ordered General Electric, the manufacturer of the helicopter’s engines, to pay $69.7 million to William Coultas, the surviving pilot, his wife and the estate of Roark Schwanenberg.
In February of this year, Steven Metheny, 42, of Central Point, Ore., and Levi Phillips, 45, of Grants Pass, Ore., were indicted by a federal grand jury. Metheny, a former vice president of Carson Helicopters, and Phillips were charged with conspiracy to defraud the USFS involving contracts awarded to Carson Helicopters in 2008 for helicopter services in firefighting operations. Metheny was also charged in 22 other counts that include making false statements to the USFS and endangering the safety of aircraft in flight.