Families sue U.S. manufacturer over helicopter crash that killed 6 Canadian military members | CBC News

The families of six Canadian Armed Forces members killed in a helicopter crash off the coast of Greece are suing the aircraft’s U.S. manufacturer, accusing it of gross negligence and a reckless disregard for safety.

A 2021 air force flight safety investigation concluded the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter hit the Ionian Sea at full speed in April 2020 after the pilot tried to manually override the flight control function and did not see that the autopilot was still engaged.

The families’ U.S.-based civil action claim alleges Sikorsky’s computer-regulated flight control system took “control of the helicopter from its pilots, causing it to plunge into the sea at more than 150 miles per hour,” Stephen Raynes, the lawyer acting for the victims’ families, said in a media statement.

 As the helicopter went down, “the pilots and the passengers all knew that they were going to die,” the claim says. Its allegations have not been tested in court.

“Each person experienced unimaginable terror and fright in the moments before the helicopter impacted the water, causing everyone aboard to suffer fatal injuries.”

Cyclone helicopters over CFB Shearwater near Halifax in 2018. (Robert Short/CBC)

The claim alleges Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, put profits ahead of safety and failed to conduct appropriate testing or warn the Canadian military and its pilots of potential dangers.

“As a direct and proximate result of the Sikorsky Defendants’ negligence, gross negligence, and reckless disregard of safety, Plaintiffs’ decedents suffered fatal injuries,” said the civil claim, dated July 10.

“The Sikorsky Defendants have prioritized their sales and profits over the safety of the passengers and pilots of their CH-148 helicopters.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. That’s where a now-closed facility built, upgraded and tested the CH-148, the claim said.

The crash in 2021 is considered the biggest single-day loss of life for Canada’s military since the Afghan war. It claimed the lives of Capt. Kevin Hagen, Capt. Brenden MacDonald, Capt. Maxime Miron-Morin, Master-Cpl. Matthew Cousins, Sub-Lt. Matthew Pyke and Sub-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough.

WATCH/Families remember those lost in Cyclone helicopter crash

Families remember those lost in Cyclone helicopter crash

The family and friends of the six Canadian Forces members who were killed in a helicopter crash are grieving in private today. The Cyclone helicopter went down in the Ionian Sea one year ago.

The helicopter was deployed with HMCS Fredericton as part of Operation Reassurance, a NATO mission to counter Russian aggression. It was conducting training with Italian and Turkish ships.

Those who died left behind spouses, children, parents and other family members who are now seeking damages through the civil action under the United States’ Death on High Seas Act.

According to the wording of the Act, it can be used by victims’ families to sue the “person or vessel responsible” when the “death of an individual is caused by wrongful act, neglect or default occurring on the high seas beyond three nautical miles from the shore of the United States.”

The lawsuit does not name the Canadian Armed Forces or Department of National Defence and lays the blame solely on the helicopter’s U.S. manufacturer.

The lawsuit alleges that Sikorsky “did not perform adequate safety analysis or testing” of the CH-148 helicopter’s “EFCS,” a computer-regulated aircraft flight control system.

WATCH/A bittersweet return for HMCS Fredericton after deadly helicopter crash

A bittersweet return for HMCS Fredericton after deadly helicopter crash

HMCS Fredericton has returned to port in Halifax after its six-month mission in the Mediterranean during which six crew members died in a helicopter crash and a pandemic began.

Raynes said in the statement that a design flaw caused “flight control to be taken away from the pilots if they made certain high-amplitude inputs to the helicopter’s manual controls” while the the “EFCS maintained the helicopter’s airspeed.”

“If Sikorsky had adequately tested its EFCS during the design phase, then it would have discovered its Command Model Attitude Bias before killing six people,” the claim said.

The Canadian Armed Forces started the process to replace its CH-124 Sikorsky Sea King Helicopters in the 1990s and took delivery of its first CH-148 in 2015, seven years after the contractual completion date, the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit alleges Sikorsky knew Royal Canadian Air Force pilots had a long history of conducting a “multi-axis, low- altitude manoeuvre,” also known as RTT, and that it would do the same thing with the CH-148.

The crash in April 2020 happened while conducting that manoeuvre, which results in a “tight, skidding turn that puts the helicopter on a heading 180 degrees from where it started,” says the claim.

The lawsuit claims Sikorsky failed to warn the military and its pilots that there “were safety limitations on the duration, combination, or magnitude of inputs pilots could make” under certain circumstances.

“Sikorsky did not warn the CAF or RCAF pilots, through manuals or any other form of communication, that it was dangerous for pilots to manually override the Flight Director,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also alleges “pilot information displays and warnings” were “inadequate and ineffective.”

“In violation of decades of recognized industry practice and previous admonishments by the FAA, Sikorsky designed the CH-148 cockpit so that critical safety information was located outside of the pilots’ effective range of vision and was conveyed solely by a change in colour,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit claims Sikorsky marketed a helicopter it “knew was unsafe” and “ignored field experience that documented unsafe conditions of their product.”

The defendants named on the lawsuit include Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation (a Lockheed Martin company), Sikorsky International Operations, and Helicopter Support Inc. (also a Lockheed Martin company). The families have not asked for a specific sum in damages; they want a jury to make that decision.

The defendants have not filed a statement of defence in court. CBC News submitted a request for comment to Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin.


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