Co-pilot disputes crash report

MEDFORD — A helicopter co-pilot who survived a crash that killed nine people during takeoff from a wildfire staging area two years ago has disputed a federal report blaming the weight of the aircraft and lack of oversight.

William "Bill" Coultas of Cave Junction says the National Transportation Safety Board ignored his written and oral testimony that loss of power in an engine caused the crash of the Sikorsky helicopter, the Mail Tribune reported.

"I was speechless — I could not believe what I was hearing," he said after the NTSB report was released Tuesday. "I was there. I had the best seat in the house. I knew what happened."

Coultas, 46, is still recovering from severe burns suffered in the August 2008 crash in Northern California that also killed pilot Roark Schwanenberg of Lostine.

Both Coultas and the Schwanenberg family have sued engine manufacturer General Electric, as well as Sikorsky and a maintenance company, Columbia Helicopters, citing engine failure, among other things.

They say the NTSB investigators were responsible for losing engine fuel control parts that would have backed up the co-pilot's testimony.

"We want the truth to come out about the loss of engine parts and actual cause of the accident," said Gregory A. Anderson, an attorney from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who represents both the Coultas and Schwanenberg families.

The NTSB concluded that aircraft owner Carson Helicopters Inc. of Merlin deliberately understated the weight of its Sikorsky S-61N helicopter.

The report also said both the U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration failed to notice the understatement.

Carson Helicopters said in a statement that a clogged fuel control unit and other issues were responsible for the crash. The company also laid the blame for underestimating the weight of the aircraft on the actions of an unnamed single manager.

The transportation board said the weight, 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.

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.

The final NTSB report is expected to be available early next year.

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