Families of 6 Canadian Armed Forces members killed in 2020 helicopter crash file lawsuit against manufacturer

More than three years after a Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone maritime helicopter crashed off the coast of Greece, killing six Canadian military members, the victims’ families are suing the helicopter manufacturer.

The families’ lawsuit, filed in U.S. Federal Court in Pennsylvania, alleges that the helicopter’s defective design caused the crash on April 29, 2020.

It also alleges that the crash happened when the helicopter’s Electronic Flight Control System (“EFCS”) wrested control of the helicopter from its pilots, causing its descent into the Ionian sea at more than 140 miles-per-hour.

Those killed in the crash include the helicopter’s pilots, Captain Brenden Ian MacDonald and Captain Kevin Hagen, Naval Warfare Officer Sub-Lieutenant Matthew Pyke, Airborne Electronic Sensor Operator Master Corporal Matthew Cousins, Airborne Electronic Sensor Operator Maritime Systems Engineering Officer Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough and Air Combat Systems Officer Captain Maxime Miron-Morin.

According to the statement of claim, all six people on board knew they were going to die in the moments before the crash.

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

The claim says that when the Department of National Defence requested proposals to replace its CH-124 Sikorsky Sea King Helicopter fleet in the 1990s, the EFCS had never been used before in any military helicopter in the world.

The Canadian Armed Forces chose Sikorsky to provide replacement for the helicopter, and the document says that Sikorsky offered the EFCS as a way to recoup some of the financial investments of developing it for a different civilian model.

However, the claim says that the Federal Aviation Administration never certified the EFCS for the other helicopter model, and that Sikorsky had abandoned the project as they could not find any buyers for the new design.

“Reflecting a corporate indifference to safety that placed profits first, the Sikorsky defendants — in the face of missed deadlines and financial penalties — cut corners to rush the CH-148 into service,” the claim reads.

According to the claim, at the time of the crash, the pilots were performing a maneuver commonly used during rescue or combat, which they believed would enable them to override the autopilot without disconnecting it.

However, the lawsuit says that Sikorsky analyzed the flight data following the crash and found that the system would take control when pilots were making “significant pedal and cyclic inputs” while in autopilot mode.

The lawsuit alleges the EFCS overrode the pilots’ manual attempts to steer the aircraft and the helicopter plunged into the sea as a result.

The Air Force’s director of flight safety at the time, Brig.-Gen. John Alexander, was quoted saying that the phenomenon “was unknown to the manufacturer, airworthiness authorities and aircrew” prior to the accident.

“Sikorsky’s testing of its (flight control system) under the incident flight’s conditions repeatedly and consistently resulted in a fatal crash. At the time of the incident, Sikorsky’s (system) was performing exactly as Sikorsky had designed it,” says the document.

The lawsuit alleges that Sikorsky failed to create a warning system for an emergency event, and failed to responsibly design the flight director to automatically disengage before a dangerous situation.

“Before the crash, neither the Royal Canadian Air Force nor the pilots of incident helicopter were made aware of this potentially lethal design defect by Sikorsky,” said lawyer Stephen Raynes in the document.

Raynes previously represented claimants in a lawsuit, also against Sikorsky, related to a fatal crash in March 2009 that happened off the coast of Newfoundland, killing 15 of 16 workers aboard who were headed to an oil platform.

Under Canadian and U.S. law the Defence Department, Armed Forces and Air Force can’t be named as defendants in a case seeking damages for injuries that happen in the line of duty, it states in the document. 

The helicopter was assembled, upgraded, and tested at the Coatesville manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. The facility has since closed.

With files from The Canadian Press. 

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