Families of military members killed in 2020 Cyclone helicopter crash sue manufacturer
July 20, 2023 By Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — The families of the six Canadian Armed Forces members who were killed when a Cyclone helicopter crashed off the coast of Greece in April 2020 are suing the manufacturer.
The suit was filed in U.S. Federal Court on July 10 in Pennsylvania, where the Sikorsky CH-148 helicopters were made and tested.
Lawyers representing the families said a design flaw caused the electronic flight control system to take over control of the chopper, plunging it into the Ionian Sea nose-first.
Master Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough, Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Brenden MacDonald, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin and Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke died in the crash.
A statement of claim says all six people on board knew they were going to die in the moments before the crash and experienced “unimaginable terror and fright.”
“Reflecting a corporate indifference to safety that placed profits first, the Sikorsky defendants — in the face of missed deadlines and financial penalties — cut corners to rush the CH-148 into service,” the claim says.
The document says an electronic flight control system had never been used in any military helicopter in the world when the Department of National Defence sought proposals for a new fleet in the 1990s, but Sikorsky offered it as a feature as a way to recoup some of the costs of developing it for a different civilian model.
But the Federal Aviation Administration never certified the control system for the other helicopter model, the claim says. “Because Sikorsky could not find a single buyer … it never went into production.”
The lawsuit alleges that the company analyzed the flight data from the crash and found the system would take control of the helicopter when pilots were making “significant pedal and cyclic inputs” while in autopilot mode, as they were on April 29, 2020.
The Cyclone’s pilots were performing a low-altitude manoeuvre similar to a “return-to-target” move that is commonly used during rescue or combat.
The claim says the pilots believed they would be able to override the autopilot without disconnecting it.
A flight safety investigation report by the Airworthiness Investigative Authority for the Forces dubbed the software issue a “command model attitude bias phenomenon,” which “develops under a very specific and narrow set of circumstances.”
The Air Force’s director of flight safety at the time, Brig.-Gen. John Alexander, was quoted as saying that the phenomenon “was unknown to the manufacturer, airworthiness authorities and aircrew” prior to the accident.
“Before the crash, neither the Royal Canadian Air Force nor the pilots of (the) incident helicopter were made aware of this potentially lethal design defect by Sikorsky,” lawyer Stephen Raynes said in a statement.
“Sikorsky still has not repaired the computer software problem that led to the crash.”
The claim argues that the company violated industry standards and practices in a number of ways, including by failing to create a warning system for such an event, and failing to design the flight director so that it would automatically disengage if the pilots went beyond what the company tested for.
“Sikorsky’s testing of its (flight control system) under the incident flight’s conditions repeatedly and consistently resulted in a fatal crash. At the time of the incident, Sikorsky’s (system) was performing exactly as Sikorsky had designed it.”
The document notes that under Canadian and U.S. law the Defence Department, Armed Forces and Air Force cannot be named as defendants in a case seeking damages for injuries that happen in the line of duty.
None of the claims have been tested in court.
The Department of National Defence did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Sikorsky, which is owned by Lockheed Martin, declined to comment on Wednesday. The company has not yet filed a response in court.
Raynes previously represented claimants in a lawsuit against Sikorsky related to a fatal crash that happened in March 2009 off the coast of Newfoundland.
That crash — which involved the S-92, a precursor to the CH-148 model – killed 15 of the 16 workers who were on their way to an oil platform.
The settlements in that case were confidential, but Raynes’ website says the amounts ensured the financial security of the plaintiffs and “honoured those that they had lost.”
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