Attorneys for offshore oil helicopter service operator PHI and an attorney representing the family of the lone crash survivor are accusing Sikorsky of suppressing evidence related to the cause of a 2009 crash that killed eight aboard an S-76C++ near Morgan City, La., after a bird strike to the windshield.
In a federal court filing in August, PHI’s attorneys asked for legal sanctions and monetary damages against the helicopter manufacturer for failing to disclose an internal Sikorsky report in the original post-crash litigation. That report faulted the helicopter’s original windshield sill and throttle quadrant design–not the lighter-weight Aeronautical Accessories replacement windshield PHI installed after delivery–as significant causal factors in the crash. Post-crash analysis indicated the throttles disengaged after the bird strike by a red tail hawk. PHI and Aeronautical Accessories settled with the relatives of crash victims. PHI is seeking to recapture 80 percent of those settlements from Sikorsky because of the evidence in the allegedly suppressed report. PHI attorneys said the 2009 report, by Sikorsky engineer Dr. Wonsub Kim, “undermines Sikorsky’s entire defense.” A Sikorsky spokesman said the company will defend itself “strongly” against the charges.
Families of crash victims are suing Sikorsky separately in a trial scheduled to begin in November. Plaintiffs include the family of crash survivor Steven Yelton of Floresville, Texas Yelton’s family alleges that the crash caused him “severe, painful, permanently disabling and physically disfiguring injuries to his body and brain.” New Orleans attorney Paul Sterbcow is representing the plaintiffs.
Sterbcow told AIN that his filing seeks to reimburse the plaintiffs for the cost of expert witnesses, and research he valued at approximately $600,000, and asks the court to give the trial jury a “negative inference instruction.” Sterbcow said that under the circumstances, it is “appropriate” for Sikorsky to reimburse the plaintiffs.
“Since September 2009 we [have] continually asked Sikorsky to produce documents relevant to the crash, including any and all documents relevant to analysis testing, anything the [company] did internally to determine why this happened, and additionally to identify any witnesses who participated in, or have knowledge of, such testing,” Sterbcow said.
“Sikorsky has all of this data internally and it just sat on it. I guess they thought we weren’t going to catch them.” Sterbcow said Dr. Kim’s report came to light during witness questioning in February 2011.
“All Sikorsky had to do was download its data from a hard drive. Had it given us the data, we could have saved a tremendous amount of time, and I allege over $600,000 in expert expenses,” Sterbcow said. “We had to pay our experts to recreate the data and the testing that Sikorsky already had and just didn’t give to us. Our experts had to do complicated computer simulations of this crash. Our experts re-invented the wheel while Sikorsky was basically holding onto it,” he said.
Sterbcow characterized the Sikorsky report as particularly damning. “The Sikorsky report concluded two major things: That the sill canopy structure of the helicopter likely failed before the windshield did, which is significant. The second thing [Sikorsky] concluded is that it takes very little force on the canopy sill, where this bird hit the chopper, to move the engine control levers out of fly far enough that both engines suddenly and simultaneously fail. This [helicopter] has a unique throttle quadrant design; there is not another one like it. Their experts came up with that.”
Sterbcow said conclusions raised by his plaintiff’s experts are even more troubling. “Our experts agreed that the [windshield] sill failed before the windshield [did], but we ran more sophisticated and additional testing [on the throttle quadrant] and we are able to make this thing move out of fly with much less force than Sikorsky did.” This indicates that it is likely that even a smaller bird could do the same kind of damage to an S-76, according to Sterbcow.
The helicopter was flying at 850 feet msl and 135 knots at the time of the accident. Sterbcow said that the pilots had less than six seconds to save the helicopter after the bird strike. “Imagine flying the helicopter. You never see this bird and then you hear a bang, followed by the failure of the canopy, which you may or may not be able to see right away. Wind starts to come into the cockpit. Within a blink of an eye you completely lose rotor power and you are looking around with no idea why it happened, unless you can look up and see that those [engine control levers] had come out of their detent. It doesn’t take a lot. It is not like you are moving them six inches. It is an inch or two, maybe not even that much, because of the design of this helicopter. Our [experts] tell us from the moment of the bang to the time the pilots cannot recover the aircraft is six seconds. It would take you six seconds just to look around and say, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
The NTSB concluded that the helicopter’s sudden loss of power was caused by the hawk strike near the engine control quadrant. The impact jarred the fire extinguisher T-handles into the engine control levers and pushed the levers toward the flight-idle position. The Board recommended stricter helicopter windshield bird-strike resistance standards and additional protection for the fire extinguisher T-handles and engine control quadrants for the S-76C++ and similarly configured helicopters.