S-61 crash in California claims nine lives

 - August 29, 2008, 1:07 PM

Investigators are continuing to study why a Carson Helicopters Sikorsky S-61N “Fire King” crashed August 5, killing nine of 13 aboard. This was the first major crash of an S-61 in 25 years.

The 35,000-hour, 1965 S-61N had refueled shortly before it crashed while lifting off from 6,000-foot-elevation Helispot #44 on the Buckhorn Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, 15 miles northwest of Junction City, Calif. The helicopter was en route to the firebase at Weaverville, Calif. The NTSB preliminary report states that the helicopter “experienced a loss of power to the main rotor during takeoff initial climb, and subsequently” crashed into trees and terrain at 7:41 p.m. local time. The helicopter came to rest on its side and was immediately engulfed in flames. The wreckage burned until the next morning.

Skies were reported clear at the time of the crash, with wind less than five mph; however, lightning was reported in the area by at least one of the crash survivors.
The NTSB recovered the cockpit voice recorder and shipped it to the agency’s headquarters, where it was discovered that the solid-state chips had been damaged by heat. Officials determined that the best way to extract the information from the chips without damaging them further was to use the facilities of UK-based manufacturer Penny & Giles. The recorder was being shipped to that facility last month. The Safety Board also planned to seek the cooperation of the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

Carson had owned the helicopter since June 2007 and it had recently been outfitted with at least one replacement engine, a new transmission and composite main rotor blades. “At least one of the engines was low-time on the aircraft, but the engine was not new,” an NTSB spokesman told AIN. He said both engines had been recovered.
The FAA registry identified the engines as GE CT58-140-1 turboshafts.

A preliminary examination of maintenance records shows compliance with all recent FAA Airworthiness Directives on the helicopter. The NTSB spokesman said that results from tests on the jet-A from the fuel truck servicing the helispot were pending.

Two Carson pilots, one U.S. Forest Service inspector pilot and 10 contract firefighters from Grayback Forestry were aboard the S-61. Three firefighters and Carson first officer William Coultras survived. Coultras is hospitalized with severe burns. The other Carson pilot, Roark Schwanenberg 54, of Lostine, Ore., was killed. A spokeswoman for Carson described the pilots as “highly experienced command helicopter pilots with over 25,000 hours of combined flight time.” The NTSB’s investigation showed the captain had about 20,000 hours of total flight time and the first officer had 3,000 hours of civilian flight time.

Jim Ramage, 63, the Forest Service pilot killed in the crash, was the first full-time helicopter firefighting pilot with the California Department of Forestry. Ramage had been a helicopter pilot since 1967.

Carson has been in business since 1963 and has a fleet of 31 S-61s. It has major bases in Pennsylvania and Oregon. This was the company’s first fatal accident in the U.S. since 2003.