Helicopter co-pilot calls crash report inaccurate

The Sikorsky helicopter co-pilot in the 2008 crash that killed nine people rejects the National Transportation Safety Board's conclusion that excess weight and lack of oversight caused the accident.

William "Bill" Coultas, 46, of Cave Junction, said the board ignored his written and oral testimony that the Aug. 5, 2008, crash was caused by the loss of power in the No. 2 engine shortly during takeoff.

"I was speechless — I could not believe what I was hearing," he said after listening to Tuesday's all-day hearing via the Internet.

"I'm troubled and hurt, partly because my testimony wasn't considered," added Coultas, the only surviving crew member. "I was there. I had the best seat in the house. I knew what happened."

Coultas, who is still recovering from severe burns he suffered in the crash, made the comments during a conference call with the Mail Tribune Thursday afternoon.

Joining him was attorney Gregory A. Anderson of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who represents both the Coultas family and the surviving family of command pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine. The pilot died in the crash.

Both the Coultas and Schwanenberg families have sued General Electric and its parent company, United Technology, as well as Sikorsky and Columbia Helicopters, citing the engine failure, among other things.

"We want the truth to come out about the loss of engine parts and actual cause of the accident," Anderson said. "It is insulting to families and the participants to cover up or misrepresent the true cause of the accident because of bureaucratic error."

They say the NTSB investigators were responsible for losing engine fuel control parts that would have backed up the copilot's testimony. The Mail Tribune e-mailed to the NTSB a copy of their concerns but no one was available to respond Thursday afternoon.

The NTSB concluded that aircraft owner Carson Helicopters of Merlin deliberately understated the weight of its Sikorsky. That, along with lapses in safety oversight by federal agencies, resulted in the crash that killed nine people, including seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties, it said. The board's final, roughly 500-age report is expected to be available early next year.

The deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history killed firefighters David Steele, 19, Ashland; Shawn Blazer, 30, Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, Phoenix; Matthew Hammer, 23, Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, Medford; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, Cave Junction.

Check pilot Jim Ramage, 63, of Redding, Calif., also died. He was a U.S. Forest Service employee.

In addition to Coultas, local firefighters Richard Schroeder Jr., Jonathan Frohreich and Michael Brown were also injured. All of the firefighters were employed by Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin.

The crash occurred on a nearly 6,000-foot-high mountaintop near Weaverville, Calif., while the helicopter was ferrying out firefighters battling the Iron 44 fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

NTSB investigators said Carson deliberately understated the helicopter's weight by more than 1,000 pounds in order to make it appear the aircraft could safely carry a heavier payload. That helped the firm win a Forest Service firefighting contract, they said.

The NTSB report concluded that both the Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration failed to notice a deliberate understatement by Carson of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter's weight.

In a statement, Carson countered that a clogged fuel control unit and other issues were responsible for the crash. The firm also laid the blame for deliberately underestimating the weight of the aircraft on the actions of an unnamed single manager.

Coultas, a 1982 graduate of Illinois Valley High School, noted he had extensive experience flying as a crew member in fixed wing aircraft as well as flying a variety of helicopters in the military.

After graduating from high school, he joined the Air Force and served as a tail gunner on a B-51 bomber. He later joined the Army after going to college on an ROTC scholarship. He graduated from the Army's helicopter flight school and flew a variety of different helicopters, including Hueys and Blackhawks. He transferred to the Oregon Army Air National Guard and was discharged as a major in 2007.

"I believed in our system," he said. "I had hoped that through our system and through this investigation that the truth would come out. It didn't. Why?"

He said he was unaware of the weight fabrication issue until nearly a year after the crash.

"I don't condone Carson's action, not for a minute," he stressed. "That is a cardinal sin. We were taught in the early stages of flight school that charts don't lie. As long as you stay within the parameters of the charts, the better your probability of a successful flight."

Based on the crew's calculations and past flights, the helicopter and its payload were well within those safety limits, he said.

"As we took off, everything felt normal," he said. "When we took off we had two good performing motors."

It wasn't until the aircraft was in forward flight that engine No. 2 in the 9-ton aircraft lost power, causing the crash, he said.

"The helicopter had plenty of lift to transition into forward flight," interjected Anderson, an aviation attorney for a quarter of a century. "This is not subjective. Something went wrong."

What went wrong, according to both men, is that the fuel control parts in engine No. 2 clogged, causing the loss of power and the crash.

But those parts came up missing while they were being inspected by specialists from the companies the two families are now suing, Anderson said.

"We know these fuel parts didn't grow legs and walk away," he said. "I believe they were intentionally removed. To this day, those parts have not been found."

Meanwhile, Coultas is still undergoing treatment for his injuries. He cannot drive because of extensive nerve damage in his left leg and foot. He also endured burn and trauma to his left hand. He is scheduled for facial surgery related to the crash injuries at the University of California-Davis burn center on Jan. 5.

"I don't want anybody to ever go through what I've been through," Coultas said. "But I didn't have it as bad as those seven kids in the back or as bad as Jim Ramage. And Roark — God bless him — did the greatest thing I've ever seen, flying that thing with very minimal forward air speed. He saved lives."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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