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Families of Three U.S. Army Soldiers File Lawsuit over Crash of Military Blackhawk Helicopter


September 8, 2014, Los Angeles, California — The mother of a U.S. Army pilot and two other U.S. Army service members and their wives have filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles, California, alleging that mechanical failure caused a Sikorsky MH-60M helicopter to crash during a training flight at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia earlier this year.

Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman filed the lawsuit (case number BC556909) on September 8, 2014, in the Los Angeles Superior Court, Central District, naming as defendants: Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation (of Stratford, Connecticut), Sikorsky Support Services, Inc. (of Los Angeles, California), Prototype Engineering and Manufacturing, Inc. (of Gardena, California), Cubic Defense Applications, Inc. (of San Diego, California), BAE Systems, Inc. (of Ontario, California) BAE Systems Simula, Inc. (of Phoenix, Arizona), and BAE Systems Aerospace & Defense Group, Inc. (of Phoenix, Arizona).

The plaintiffs are:

  1. Colette Carpenter, mother of Captain Clayton O. Carpenter, deceased;
  2. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jon Ternstrom and Maria Ternstrom; and
  3. Specialist Cameron Witzler and Michelle Witzler.

On January 15, 2014, Captain Clayton Carpenter was killed and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jon Ternstrom and Specialist Cameron Witzler both sustained severe and permanent physical and psychological injuries after their Blackhawk helicopter experienced a serious mechanical failure and crashed.

The three servicemen were part of the elite 3/160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and were flying back to Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia after an uneventful training flight to St. Augustine, Florida. With the co-pilot, Carpenter, at the controls of the Sikorsky MH-60M Blackhawk helicopter, Hunter Air Traffic Control cleared them to land on Runway 28. During the approach, the helicopter suddenly, and without warning, experienced a failure of the tail rotor pitch change shaft and began to spin. Carpenter informed Ternstrom, the pilot-in-command for this flight, of his inability to stop the spin. Ternstrom took over control of the helicopter. Despite a valiant attempt by Ternstrom and Carpenter to arrest the spin, the helicopter impacted the ground.

Captain Carpenter died from massive internal injuries. CW3 Ternstrom was located outside of the downed helicopter, having kicked out the windshield and crawled out of the wreckage. Despite his severe injuries, Ternstrom made a 911 call notifying authorities of the specifics of the crash and reassured SPC Witzler that help was on the way. Once emergency responders finally arrived, SPC Witzler was freed from the wreckage, and he and Ternstrom were given much needed medical attention. Both he and Ternstrom sustained severe injuries requiring extensive medical care and attention.

The complaint alleges, among other things, that the crash itself was caused by the defendants’ failure to install a safety cotter pin in a critical flight component. The missing pin caused a serious malfunction that put the helicopter into an uncontrollable spin during the approach to land. According to the lawsuit, the helicopter and its components failed to meet generally accepted performance and mandatory manufacturing and quality control standards.

An investigation revealed that Carpenter and Ternstrom appropriately executed the emergency procedure for loss of tail rotor control, including manipulation of the engine control levers to reduce the rate of spin. The investigation also found that the helicopter’s tail rotor pitch change shaft failed as a result of a missing cotter pin. Without the cotter pin installed, a spanner nut was able to back out of the pitch change shaft, removing all input connections from the tail rotor servo to the tail rotor change shaft.

As a result of this crash, the U.S. Army issued a high priority Safety of Flight notification and grounded all H-60 Series Aircraft until each aircraft could be visually inspected to ensure all cotter pins were properly installed in the Pitch Change Shaft Assembly (Servo Coupling Assembly).

According to the lawsuit, the injuries to all three servicemen were made worse by the failure of the helicopter’s seats to absorb the foreseeable forces of impact.

The plaintiffs also believe that the injuries to the three victims were made worse due to the failure of the helicopter’s Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), which is supposed to send out a signal in the event of a crash. Had the ELT functioned properly, Hunter Air Traffic Control officials would have been notified of the emergency, and Crash/Rescue personnel would have been dispatched immediately. Instead, minutes of valuable response time was lost.

Timothy A. Loranger, the families’ attorney stated, “Members of our armed forces deserve the finest and most reliable equipment and aircraft. It is a horrible tragedy when our soldiers come home from dangerous deployments throughout the world only to be severely injured or killed as a result of the negligence of others. The shock my clients are feeling is something they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.” Mr. Loranger is a veteran of the United States Marines Corps, where he served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as an aircraft mechanic.

“January 15, 2014, was a preventable nightmare,” says Maria Ternstrom. “As a military spouse, I prepare myself emotionally, that my husband can be hurt at war, or during training. I do not know how I can, or will ever be able to, convince myself that defective equipment is also part of the job, and I shouldn’t have to. Our soldiers deserve functioning equipment, and military families deserve that small peace of mind.”

About Captain Clayton Carpenter

Captain Clayton O. Carpenter was a helicopter platoon leader for the elite U.S. helicopter unit, the 3/160th Special Operations Air Regiment (Airborne), also known as the Night Stalkers. This group of highly trained helicopter pilots conducts dangerous attack and reconnaissance missions alongside the Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, deep behind enemy lines under the cover of darkness. Captain Carpenter completed tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A graduate of West Point, Captain Carpenter was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was 30 years old when he died.

Of her son, Ms. Colette Carpenter says, “Clayton’s goals were to serve God, his country, protect his men and take care of his mother and little brother. To know that his life was snuffed out because someone was not paying attention to their work is too much for me to bear.”

The victims of this tragedy demand a jury trial and are seeking unspecified damages.

About Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, P.C.

Los Angeles based Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, P.C. has represented over 600 victims of aviation crashes, including dozens of product liability cases, over the past 40 years against helicopter manufacturers such as McDonnell Douglas, Aerospatiale, Robinson Helicopter Company, Hughes Helicopters, Bell Helicopter Textron and Sikorsky.

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