By NICK R. MARTIN
A new lawsuit is raising serious questions about the safety of helicopters made in Mesa and used by law enforcement agencies around the world, including on patrols along the U.S. border.
It stems from the deaths of five Turkish National Police officers who were killed in 2006 when their helicopter had problems in midflight in clear weather and crashed onto a crowded street in a resort city along the Mediterranean coast.
This story originally ran August 10, 2008 in the East Valley Tribune in Arizona.
Late last month, three of the men's widows filed a wrongful-death suit against the maker, MD Helicopters, accusing it of putting old parts into what were supposed to be new aircraft.
The suit calls into question the helicopter's basic design including its emergency warning and backup systems and size of its fuel tank. It also questions how the helicopter was built.
The concerns come nearly eight years after the U.S. government considered scrapping its use of the Mesa-made helicopter, known as the 600N, in Border Patrol operations because of safety concerns.
Despite those worries, however, the U.S. government still uses the helicopter in question, as do police agencies throughout the nation and world.
MD Helicopters was asked to respond to the allegations leveled by the suit, but neither company officials nor its corporate attorney returned multiple calls for comment.
CRASH ON A CLEAR DAY
On July 19, 2006, five members of the Turkish National Police were watching over a soccer match that drew big crowds in the coastal city of Antalya.
They were flying one of several 600Ns that were sold to the force about 18 months prior.
The aircraft is a lightweight six-passenger helicopter made for missions just such as this one. At least one of the two pilots had undergone extensive training at MD's Mesa headquarters.
Afternoon temperatures that day were hovering at about 90 degrees. There was a light breeze and not a cloud in the sky.
At about 5 p.m., the crew was just offshore in midflight above the Mediterranean Ocean when there were several loud bangs and the aircraft shivered.
The sounds were loud enough that passengers on a sightseeing boat nearby heard it, too, authorities learned later.
The startled crew set the aircraft on course for level ground beyond a tall seaside embankment. Witnesses said it appeared they were trying to come in for a landing.
Moments later, the helicopter surged quickly upward, lost control and plummeted toward a crowded city street.
It hit with unbelievable force, enough to crush the aircraft instantly and scatter parts hundreds of feet away, investigative reports show.
Fuel spilled out and caught fire. Emergency crews and bystanders tried to save the five officers, but it was too late.
The impact and blaze were too much for the men.
Pilots Hakan Caya and Kudrek Calik, and passengers Ramazan Can, Osman Karadag and Adem Vurucu were killed.
Because the crash took place overseas, there was no U.S. government investigation of the American-made aircraft.
Instead, the Turkish government invited corporate investigators from MD and two companies whose components were in the helicopter, Rolls-Royce and Goodrich, to inspect the wreckage days after the crash.
The main report is filled with charts, graphs and dozens of pages of text and photographs.
It has detailed information about the engine and onboard systems, but in the end reaches no real conclusions about what caused the crash. It also said nothing about what caused the loud bangs.
"There was no evidence ... to suggest the accident was as a result of a malfunction or failure of the engine," the report said.
The answers didn't satisfy the widows of the three officers who were the passengers of the 600N.
The families of Can, Karadag and Vurucu called the Chicago law firm Nolan Law Group which specializes in investigating aviation catastrophes. The women asked for help.
Chief investigator Tom Ellis was assigned to look into the crash and quickly spotted some red flags.
"There's a lot here," he said in a recent interview.
For one, "the Turkish police were told that they were getting a new helicopter" when it was delivered on Oct. 30, 2004, he said.
But records show the engine was at least five years old - built in 1999 - when it was installed.
Additionally, a piece of the engine known as the HMU, or hydromechanical unit, had about 65 hours already logged when it went into the helicopter, Ellis found.
According to MD's Web site, the longest the 600N can stay in the air during any given flight is a little more than four hours.
That means, according to figures Ellis provided, the engine part was used in at least 16 flights, and likely more, in a different helicopter before being put in the one delivered to the Turks.
Ellis also discovered there were issues with the warning and fuel systems on the helicopter.
If the pilot was experiencing trouble with the engine, those problems may have prevented him from doing anything about it until it was too late. Also, the fuel tank was large and possibly too big for the small copter, he said.
The last and most intriguing part of the investigation came with the discovery of tiny particles of plastic the corporate investigators found floating in clear liquid inside the HMU.
The plastic was unusual and investigators called it a "contaminant" in their report.
Ellis thought it might be the key to finding out what happened in Antalya.
The original investigators reached no conclusion about it, but when Ellis asked to inspect the part, it had been cleaned out and the plastic was gone.
Ellis said he believes it adds up to "destruction of evidence."
"At best for them, it is a gross negligent oversight," he said. "But I don't believe that piece is gone missing and that HMU is going to be cleaned like new just by a regular course of business. Somebody had to authorize that to be done."
On July 18 of this year, the widows, with the help of attorney Thomas Routh at the law firm, filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court, accusing MD of wrongful death, negligence and product liability.
They are asking for "maximum" damages for the grief and loss of the livelihood for their families, all of which have children.
So far, the company has yet to respond.
PRIOR SAFETY CONCERNS
In 1998, news about the 600N was much brighter.
The U.S. government had just ordered 11 of the fledgling models for about $1.3 million each and said it would probably want 34 more in the years to come.
The feds planned to use the helicopters along the U.S. border to track drug smugglers and groups of undocumented immigrants.
The copters were quiet and made to fly at heights low enough that agents could make out footprints or tire tracks.
For MD, which was part of Boeing at the time, the order was big. If all 45 helicopters were delivered, it would have been the single largest order of the 600N since the model was OK'd to fly the year before.
The company bragged that the helicopter, which used a patented no-tail-rotor, or NOTAR system, was one of the safest and quietest on the market.
Just two years later, though, the feds put a screeching halt on their order.
Pilots using the 600N had reported the aircraft was hard to maneuver. There were times when they had to make specialized landings, and some felt it was unsafe given the design of the craft, according to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 2000.
While there were no major incidents or crashes involving Border Patrol agents using the 600N, experienced pilots also told GAO investigators they were worried that the aircraft wasn't balanced quite right, that it was nose-heavy.
MD officials disputed the claims, and at one point said the pilots just had a misunderstanding of some of the specifics of the helicopter.
The government decided the complaints were too significant to ignore, but not enough to ground the fleet.
The Border Patrol canceled its remaining shipment and continued to fly the original 600Ns.
Today, 10 of those originals are some of the oldest in a fleet maintained by what is now U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Federal aviation records show all the copters are stationed in El Paso, Texas, but it's unclear how frequently they are being used. It's also unclear what happened to the 11th aircraft.
Agency spokesman Juan Munoz-Torres said he didn't know how many, if any, were being used in day-to-day operations. The models are likely to be phased out in the coming years, he said.
"Something that we need to look at is the fact that we are an extremely multidimensional type of organization," said Munoz-Torres.
No decisions have yet been made, he said.
While these helicopters are good for certain things like quietly tracking illegal border crossers, they aren't very versatile, he said.
Other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have already phased out their use of the 600Ns and decided not to order any more.
In Los Angeles County, for example, the sheriff's department there used three of the helicopters in emergencies and patrols as recently as 2001.
Pilot Pat McKernan, a sheriff's deputy, declined to talk in-depth about why the department stopped using the 600Ns, saying he didn't want to upset the company.
But, he added, "Clearly we needed a different helicopter."
"I'm not going to say that we had issues," McKernan said. "But there was just aircraft that performed better."
Since the department stopped using MD, however, the company changed ownership and is now run by CEO Lynn Tilton, who McKernan said has "done a whole lot of good things to turn that company around."
According to the company Web site, MD is has sold few 600Ns to American companies or police agencies. Most are going oversees - to Brazil, Turkey, the UK and elsewhere.
Ellis, the Chicago investigator, urged buyers to look closely at their needs when considering the 600N.
"Before they make the decision to have these helicopters, they should take a good look at what their mission is and if these helicopters are what they need," he said.
In the end, he hopes to see the helicopter modified for the sake of Serpil Can, Aysegul Karadag and Fatma Vurucu, the widows of the men.
"They all have children and the mothers are looking to have their lives restored," he said.
The women are asking the company: "Make changes to make these helicopters safer."