Excerpts From Interviews and Government Documents

By Beacon Staff

August 3, 2006:

Two helicopters, 98M and Canada 1, are dispatched to the Bearmouth Fire for bucket work.

At takeoff 98M’s pilot – Chuck Brenton, the state’s chief pilot – lifted off before all of the crewmembers were buckled in and made a hard left turn, which could have “dumped (one of the crewmembers) out the door,” according to internal documents.

Before reaching the Bearmouth Helibase, the 98M crew was asked to recon at a new dip site about four miles to the northeast of the helibase.

The 98M pilot landed and put the bucket on and took off without getting the “go ahead.” The crew noticed that the cable was broken on the bucket, but no one told the pilot.

After landing again, crewmembers said they did not feel “comfortable” flying with the pilot. When the pilot told crewmembers to board his aircraft, they refused. The pilot then yelled at the operations supervisor “to get (his) ass on the ship.” The outburst took place in front of the Canadian crew and the supervisor reluctantly boarded the aircraft. “At this time (the pilot) did a full power vertical takeoff and commenced in screaming at the top of his lungs.”

At the DNRC helibase, the pilot continued to yell at the operations supervisor and at one point the supervisor thought it “was now going to become physical.” It never did.

“No one who was involved or witnessed these events were ever questioned and no Safe-Com ever filed,” according to documents.

Ex-government employee familiar with the case:

“On numerous unreported occasions in 2007, firefighters refused to fly on state aircraft until the agency would investigate and make a decision on the Chuck Brenton incident.”

“Throughout the summer of 2006, it was widely known throughout the fire community that anyone discussing helicopter safety with anyone outside the agency would be fired. Anyone who talked to the press would be fired. This was made explicit by Bob Harrington in numerous internal meetings.”

“The ongoing cover-up was namely an attempt to keep this incident at the state level, and keep the feds from having it on record. This would jeopardize already tense relations between state and federal aviation teams.”

Kalispell summer crash:

Lanny Gorman of the DNRC crashed his plane outside of Kalispell, which was originally blamed on a stalled engine. But according to the FAA’s final report, the crash was a result of the pilot’s “improper approach to the airstrip.” He also did not file an FAA flight plan or notify Flathead dispatch by radio, two critical components of flight safety.

Missoula Fire Unit supervisor:

“My engine bosses came to me off the Packer Gulch Fire, and said a DNRC helicopter was making low fast drops on the fire line. In this case it blew the fire across the line and it took the firefighters 2 ½ hours to contain the slop-over. More importantly, is the fact that low fast drops can knock down or brake (sic) off tree and cause a life threatening situation for the firefighters on the ground.”

“I am not going to allow the state helicopter to fly on my unit with Chuck as the pilot. I may not allow state helicopters to fly on any Missoula Unit fires until these issues with the helicopter program have been corrected.”

Investigation:

Tony Liane and Ted Mead initiated an independent investigation on May 7, 2007, to determine what happened on the Bearmouth Fire.

DNRC Action Items released on July 23, 2007 called for changes, which include designating a safety officer, establishing DNRC helicopters’ takeoff protocol and conducting a long-term review of the aviation program.

Related: Battle Over Chopper Safety Hindered Firefighting

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