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  • Writer's pictureRobin Lyons

Fatal Flight


It’s fire season on the west coast. This case caught my attention because at the time I posted this, a fire is raging in the county where I live.

This true-crime case isn’t about a fire disaster specifically; it’s about a greedy man's fraud that resulted in a helicopter crash and the death of seven U.S. Forest Service firefighters, a pilot-in-command and a U.S. Forest Service check pilot. Others on board the helicopter at the time of the crash were seriously injured.

The U.S Forest Service regularly and routinely contracts with aircraft companies to provide much needed assistance during wildfires. That was the case in this true-crime.

What nobody at the U.S. Forest Service could have known was that the vice-president of the west coast division in his bid for the job had falsified the helicopter’s weight and balance documents. More jobs equaled more money to embezzle—but that’s another story.

In part, from the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) Accident Report:

Because the helicopter service bid they accepted provided an incorrect empty weight to the pilot-in-command, he overestimated the helicopter’s load carrying capability by 1,437 pounds.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable causes of this accident were the following actions by the aircraft company:

  • 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 U.S. Forest Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Five years after the fatal flight, the former maintenance chief who worked with the former vice-president, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. A federal judge sentenced him to 25 months in prison.

Six years after the crash, the former vice-president pleaded guilty to filing a false statement and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. A federal judge sentenced him to over 12 years in prison.

Seven years into the former vice-president’s 12-year sentence he filed a motion with the court for early release/reduced sentence based on his age, obesity, and medical conditions placing him at an increased risk of illness or death from COVID-19. The court denied his motion.

Worth mentioning: There have been several bodily injuries and wrongful death civil lawsuits against the helicopter service parent company.

Be sure to email me if you hear of a true-crime you think would be good in a book. I’ll research it, share it and possibly use it in one of my novels.

And if you are an author interested in the true-crime as inspiration for a plot, email me, I’m happy to share more information about this case.

Source: U.S. FBI, U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. District Court, National Transportation Safety Board, Wildfire Today, Vertical Mag

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