A National Transportation Safety Board report released Wednesday concluded that a teenager aboard a state-chartered helicopter likely bumped an unprotected lever, causing engine failure and a crash that killed four, including his stepfather.
The boy's family, however, says it's not he who is to blame, but Era Helicopters, who they say failed to install a cheap lever guard that could have prevented the April 15, 2008, crash.
"I think it's kind of like shutting the barn door after the horse gets out, because this known hazard was known to Era and other operators and the manufacturer for a long time," said the family's Seattle-based lawyer, Joseph Stacey. "It just dumbfounds me that with this knowledge that was generally available out there, with such dire consequences ... that they didn't do it."
All aboard but the boy, Quinn Ellington, who was 14 at the time, were killed in the crash about a mile off the Glenn Highway near Sheep Mountain. The Eurocopter AS-350 B2 operated by Era Helicopters dropped like a stone about a minute after taking off. Investigators found its engine had shed its free turbine blades, indicating an over speed, according to the NTSB's probable cause report released Wednesday.
A post-accident examination revealed no mechanical problems, and investigators determined the cause of the over speed was the fuel flow lever -- mounted on the floor between the pilot and passenger seats -- being accidentally moved to the emergency position, according to the NTSB.
Following a two-year investigation, the NTSB concluded Ellington, who was not authorized to be aboard the craft, inadvertently kicked or bumped the lever with an unsecured backpack. But the NTSB also faulted the design of the helicopter, saying the placement of the lever was to blame because it is susceptible to accidental movement.
Ellington was in the left front seat at the time of the crash.
"It's unique to this version of the Eurocopter helicopter. There's no other U.S. or imported helicopters operating in the U.S. that have that floor-mounted lever," said Jim LaBelle, regional director for the NTSB in Alaska.
"If that happens to be moved inadvertently at a low altitude in a critical part of the flight -- and this was the most critical part of the flight: It was on departure, at low altitude, over difficult terrain -- there's not a lot of variables, not a lot of margins to put this thing down safely."
An earlier preliminary NTSB report, released last month, suggested the teenager might have bumped the lever. Wednesday's report laid out what investigators believe happened.
Contributing to the accident was the pilot, Benoit Pin, 39, who failed to ensure the youth's backpack was properly secured, the report says. And the failure of the operator, Era Helicopters, to "properly monitor their satellite flight following system and to immediately institute a search once the system reported the helicopter was overdue" likely contributed to the severity of the injuries the occupants suffered, the report says.
A guard for the fuel lever is not required in most seating configurations, though aviation officials are examining whether it should be.
The NTSB, in its factual report, details three other incidents involving the fuel flow lever on the helicopter. In 1994, a Canadian-registered Eurocopter AS-350 crashed after a passenger inadvertently moved it to the closed position while adjusting a knapsack under his right knee, the report says. A 1998 accident in France also was the result of passengers accidentally shutting the fuel off, the report says.
Then in November 2006, a helicopter suffered substantial damage when the pilot inadvertently put the lever into the emergency range while preparing to take off at Fort Myers, Fla., according to the report.
The NTSB says that Eurocopter has studied a guard for the lever and that it was available "on request" in 2007. But it hadn't been installed on the Era helicopter, according to the report.
Killed in the crash were pilot Pin, Thomas E. Middleton, 46, of Anchorage; Joseph C. O'Donnell, 47, of Girdwood; and Ellington's stepfather, Michael D. Seward, 37, of Palmer. The passengers all worked for the state Department of Administration Enterprise Technology Systems.
Neither state officials nor Era officials knew the youth was aboard as the helicopter transported the state employees to do scheduled maintenance on a telecommunications site, according to the NTSB.
Kevin Brooks, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Administration, said Ellington should not have been on the flight because non-employees are not allowed to be in state-owned vehicles. A chartered flight, by extension, is included, he said.
Ellington survived and was found roughly 200 feet downhill from the crash site. He suffered "severe and permanent injuries" in the crash, according to Stacey.
While he was in the hospital, Ellington kept telling his mother, Teri Seward, that he was responsible for the crash, prompting Seward to wonder to an investigator whether the pilot might have let Ellington fly the helicopter, according to the NTSB.
But Ellington's father, Michael Ellington, says investigators "twisted" the statement.
"My son is saddled with survivor's remorse, although he is adamantly opposed to the thought that he is responsible," Ellington said. "My concerns are the fact that Era, knowing that the switch could be covered, did not do so, and the fact that the state didn't insist that their protocols were adhered to."
Stacey said the crash should not have happened, and wouldn't have if the proper safety mechanism had been installed.
"The (boy's) family wants the public to know that this crash could have happened to any Alaskan who rode in this Era helicopter," Stacey said. "The family urges Era to take the simple step to avoid another tragedy and place the recommended guard over these controls."
Era officials declined to comment on the NTSB report or the family's response.
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.
By JAMES HALPIN