By LEAH WILLINGHAM Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The son of a man who died in a June helicopter crash in West Virginia that killed six people has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company that owned the Vietnam-era aircraft and others, claiming negligence contributed to their deaths.
Brian Bledsoe’s father, 64-year-old Marvin Bledsoe, died when he was a passenger in the Bell UH-1B “Huey” helicopter during a reunion for helicopter enthusiasts at MARPAT Aviation in Logan County on June 22, according to the civil suit filed Friday in Logan County Circuit Court.
The suit alleges that the helicopter’s frame “had been subject to innumerable stressors and abuses for 60 years” and it was unsuited for providing joy rides and sightseeing tours. It claims a combination of pilot error and a lack of appropriate wire-strike protection and crash-resistant fuel systems caused or contributed to crash, as well as improperly marked power lines.
Bledsoe’s family is seeking “compensatory and punitive damages to the fullest extent of the law,” according to their attorney, Mark Troy. The amount of compensation will be for a jury to decide, but he said West Virginia’s wrongful death statute “recognizes the various impacts of losing a loved one, from funeral expenses and lost income to mental anguish and loss of companionship.”
A representative who answered the phone at MARPAT Aviation on Monday declined to comment.
The fatal flight was the last scheduled for the day during a multiday reunion for helicopter enthusiasts where visitors could sign up to ride or fly the historic Huey helicopter, described by organizers as one of the last of its kind still flying.
The helicopter was flown by the 114th Assault Helicopter Company, “The Knights of the Sky,” in Vinh Long, Vietnam, throughout much of the 1960s, according to MARPAT. After the Huey returned to the U.S. in 1971, the website says, it was featured in movies like “Die Hard,” “The Rock” and “Under Siege: Dark Territory.”
During the reunion, people who made a donation could fly the helicopter with a “safety pilot” seated in the left front seat, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report. People could take a ride on the helicopter for a suggested donation.
The crash was near the Battle of Blair Mountain historic sites, where a deadly clash erupted a century ago as thousands of coal miners marched to unionize in West Virginia. A private pilot, two pilot-rated passengers and three others were killed.
According to the lawsuit, the helicopter lost control and crashed when it struck unmarked power lines in Logan County about 15 minutes after takeoff. The suit says the lines located about 200 feet off the ground “constituted an inherently dangerous condition which posed a high degree of risk of serious injury or death to the occupants of aircraft.”
According to U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, the lines should have been marked with warning devices to protect aircraft flying in the area from striking them, the suit alleges.
American Electric Power, the company that owns the power lines, is also named as a defendant in the suit. An American Electric Power spokesperson said the company was unable to comment because of the pending litigation.
When the aircraft crashed, it burst into flames, preventing attempts to rescue any potential survivors. The suit alleges that the helicopter’s owners should have ensured the aircraft should have been retrofitted with a crash-resistant fuel system to prevent fire and fire-related injuries.
The suit also claims that the Huey was not fitted with an appropriate wire-strike protection system to mitigate the risks of wire strikes and cut cables when helicopters unexpectedly encounter powerlines, telecommunication lines and other aerial cables.
NTSB investigators released its preliminary report on the crash in July but have not yet released any information about the cause of the accident. A final report could take a year or two to complete, they said.