The operators of a helicopter working under contract for the U.S. Forest Service provided falsified weight documents and performance charts to their flight crews, the NTSB said on Tuesday. As a result, a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter was more than 1,000 pounds overweight when it tried to take off from a mountaintop clearing at about 6,000 feet near Weaverville, Calif., in August 2008. The helicopter was airborne less than a minute when it crashed and caught fire; one pilot and eight firefighters were killed and four others on board were seriously injured. Carson Helicopters, based in Grants Pass, Ore., now faces a federal criminal investigation, according to the Wall Street Journal. "Carson engaged in a bargain that violated the trust of their crewmembers, the firefighters that they carried onboard, and the aviation industry," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.
Hersman also said the FAA and the Forest Service failed to properly oversee the contractor. Carson Helicopters said in a statement on Tuesday that the incorrect charts resulted from the actions of a manager "who acted without the knowledge or consent of Carson senior management." The company also said there was a mechanical failure that caused the power loss on takeoff and claimed the NTSB had "chosen to ignore the physical evidence." The accident also raised questions about the FAA's separate rules for about 1,600 "public-use aircraft" that are operated by the federal government. "Public aircraft have been made the orphans of the aviation industry," said Hersman. "It's now time for the FAA and other government agencies to step up and take responsibility." A synopsis of the NTSB report, with 21 safety recommendations, is posted online.