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NTSB calls for greater surveillance

Dec. 30, 2010, Washington, D.C. - The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants the FAA and U.S. Forest Service to intensify their oversight of Part 135 operators who operate their helicopters and airplanes as public aircraft, it said in recommendations based on a 2008 Carson Helicopters S-61N crash that killed seven and injured four others.


In separate letters to those agencies, the NTSB issued a total of 21 new recommendations, including specific ones on the fuel system, passenger seats, and passenger restraints on the Sikorsky S-61.

Chief among the recommendations were for the FAA to implement a surveillance program for Part 135 operators with aircraft that can operate both as public and civil aircraft, and to clarify its own authority over public aircraft. The NTSB called on the Forest Service to develop and require its contractors to adhere to mission-specific operating standards for firefighter transport operations, and to create an oversight program to ensure they do so.

The safety board re-issued a 2006 recommendation that the FAA no longer permit exemptions or exceptions to flight recorder requirements for transport-category rotorcraft and withdraw current ones that permit such helicopters to operate without recorders. The NTSB’s recommendations to the Forest Service included a call for it to require cockpit voice and flight data recorders or a cockpit image recorder on all its contracted transport-category helicopters.

The crash that prompted the recommendations occurred on August 5, 2008 as the Carson S-61N, being operated under contract by the Forest Service as a public aircraft, was transporting 10 firefighters from one helispot to another near Weaverville, Ore. The crash killed the pilot, a safety crewmember, and seven firefighters, and seriously injured the co-pilot and three firefighters. The NTSB on December 7, 2010 determined the probable cause of the crash was fourfold:
• “the intentional understatement of the helicopter's empty weight,”
• “the alteration of the power available chart to exaggerate the helicopter's lift capability,”
• “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 Forest Service and FAA.

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