Near Weaverville, California
August 5, 2008
NTSB Number: AAR-10/06
NTIS Number: PB2010-910406
Adopted December 7, 2010
On August 5, 2008, about 1941 Pacific daylight time, a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter, N612AZ, impacted trees and terrain during the initial climb after takeoff from Helispot 44 (H-44), located at an elevation of about 6,000 feet in mountainous terrain near Weaverville, California. The pilot-in-command, the safety crewmember, and seven firefighters were fatally injured; the copilot and three firefighters were seriously injured. Impact forces and a postcrash fire destroyed the helicopter, which was being operated by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as a public flight to transport firefighters from H-44 to another helispot. The USFS had contracted with Carson Helicopters, Inc. (CHI) of Grants Pass, Oregon, for the services of the helicopter, which was registered to CHI and leased to Carson Helicopter Services, Inc. of Grants Pass. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, and a company visual flight rules flight plan had been filed.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable causes of this accident were the following actions by Carson Helicopters: 1) the intentional understatement of the helicopter's empty weight, 2) the alteration of the power available chart to exaggerate the helicopter's lift capability, and 3) the practice of using unapproved above-minimum specification torque in performance calculations that, collectively, resulted in the pilots relying on performance calculations that significantly overestimated the helicopter's load-carrying capacity and did not provide an adequate performance margin for a successful takeoff; and insufficient oversight by the USFS and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Contributing to the accident was the failure of the flight crewmembers to address the fact that the helicopter had approached its maximum performance capability on their two prior departures from the accident site because they were accustomed to operating at the limit of the helicopter's performance.
Contributing to the fatalities were the immediate, intense fire that resulted from the spillage of fuel upon impact from the fuel tanks that were not crash resistant, the separation from the floor of the cabin seats that were not crash resistant, and the use of an inappropriate release mechanism on the cabin seat restraints.
The safety issues discussed in this report involve the accuracy of hover performance charts, USFS and FAA oversight, flight crew performance, accident survivability, weather observations at helispots, fuel contamination, flight recorder requirements, and certification of seat supplemental type certificates. Safety recommendations concerning these issues are addressed to the FAA and the USFS.
As a result of this investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration:
Require that the hover performance charts published by helicopter manufacturers reflect the true performance of the helicopter in all conditions for which the charts are applicable, including light and variable wind conditions. (A-10-148)
Develop and implement a surveillance program specifically for 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 135 operators with aircraft that can operate both as public aircraft and as civil aircraft to maintain continual oversight ensuring compliance with 14 CFR Part 135 requirements. (A-10-149)
Take appropriate actions to clarify Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authority over public aircraft, as well as identify and document where such oversight responsibilities reside in the absence of FAA authority. (A-10-150)
Require the installation of fuel tanks that meet the requirements of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 29.952 on S-61 helicopters that are used for passenger transport. (A-10-151)
Require that S-61 helicopters that are used for passenger transport be equipped with passenger seats and seat mounting structures that provide substantial improvement over the requirements of Civil Air Regulations 7.260, such as complying with portions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 29.561 and 29.562. (A-10-152)
Require operators of transport-category helicopters to equip all passenger seats with restraints that have an appropriate release mechanism that can be released with minimal difficulty under emergency conditions. (A-10-153)
Require that Advisory Circular 21-34 be used to evaluate all shoulder harness retrofit installations and to determine that the installations reduce the risk of occupant injury. (A-10-154)
Require operators of Sikorsky S-61 helicopters with General Electric model CT58-140 engines to install 10-micron airframe fuel filters. (A-10-155)
Require Carson Helicopters, Inc., to put a conspicuous notification on the title page of the Instructions for Continuing Airworthiness that accompany its supplemental type certificate for installing side-mounted seats indicating that the installation does not provide enhanced occupant protection over that provided by the originally installed seats and meets Civil Air Regulations 7.260 standards. (A-10-156)
Require all applicants for supplemental type certificate (STC) seat installations in any type of aircraft to put a conspicuous notification on the title page of the Instructions for Continuing Airworthiness that accompany the STC indicating whether the installation provides enhanced occupant protection over that provided by the originally installed seats and the certification standard level met by the seating system. (A-10-157)
Require supplemental type certificate (STC) applicants to improve the crashworthiness design of the seating system, such as complying with portions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 29.561 and 29.562, when granting STC approval for older transport-category rotorcraft certificated to Civil Air Regulations 7.260 standards. (A-10-158)
As a result of this investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board makes the following safety recommendations to the U.S. Forest Service:
Develop mission-specific operating standards for firefighter transport operations that include procedures for completing load calculations and verifying that actual aircraft performance matches predicted performance, require adherence to aircraft operating limitations, and detail the specific Part 135 regulations that are to be complied with by its contractors. (A-10-159)
Require its contractors to conduct firefighter transport operations in accordance with the mission-specific operating standards specified in Safety Recommendation A-10-159. (A-10-160)
Create an oversight program that can reliably monitor and ensure that contractors comply with the mission-specific operating requirements specified in Safety Recommendation A-10-159. (A-10-161)
Provide specific training to inspector pilots on performance calculations and operating procedures for the types of aircraft in which they give evaluations. (A-10-162)
Require a hover-out-of-ground effect power check to be performed before every takeoff carrying passengers from helispots in confined areas, pinnacles and ridgelines. (A-10-163)
Review and revise policies regarding the type and use of gloves by firefighting personnel during transport operations, including but not limited to, compatibility with passenger restraints and opening emergency exits. (A-10-164)
Review and revise your contract requirements for passenger transport by aircraft so that the requirement to install shoulder harnesses on passenger seats provides improved occupant crashworthiness protection consistent with the seat design. (A-10-165)
Require that helispots have basic weather instrumentation that has the capability to measure wind speed and direction, temperature, and pressure and provide training to helitack personnel in the proper use of this instrumentation. (A-10-166)
Modify your standard manifest form to provide a place to record basic weather information and require that this information be recorded for each flight. (A-10-167)
Require all contracted transport-category helicopters to be equipped with a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder or a cockpit image recorder with the capability of recording cockpit audio, crew communications, and aircraft parametric data. (A-10-168)
The National Transportation Safety Board reiterates the following safety recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration:
Do not permit exemptions or exceptions to the flight recorder regulations that allow transport-category rotorcraft to operate without flight recorders, and withdraw the current exemptions and exceptions that allow transport-category rotorcraft to operate without flight recorders. (A-06-18)