Accuracy questions regarding NTSB investigation

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CAVE CREEK, Ariz. -- Three years after his tragic death, there are new questions regarding the crash that killed billionaire businessman Tom Stewart and his family.

3TV is digging deeper into the NTSB investigation to reveal why some say the report has too many discrepancies to be trusted.

According to witnesses, this Eurocopter appeared to simply fall out of the sky over Cave Creek on Valentine's Day 2010.

"I just saw it rolling and rolling, then boom, big smoke, ooh, terrible."

Tom Stewart, his wife, 5-year-old daughter, his brother-in-law and pilot all perished.

"Accident investigation is tough business," said Aviation Attorney Tim McCulloch.

McCulloch reviewed the National Transportation Safety Board's Investigation.

"There are holes that don't make me accept it at face value," remarked McCulloch.
NTSB investigators concluded Stewart's 5-year-old daughter Sydney caused the crash.

The report reveals Sydney, was "positioned on her father's lap in the cockpit" prior to takeoff.

"There is no getting around that having a 5-year-old sitting on your lap in that helicopter is a bad idea," McCulloch pointed out.

The report says the collective, a lever located next to each pilot's chair, was suddenly pushed down, which caused the chopper to drop rapidly.

In an effort to stop the helicopter from falling, a stick called the cyclic was then pulled back. When that happened, the blades struck the tail boom.

"The only thing that makes sense is that the 5-year-old had to step on, had to step on the collective," said McCulloch. "Maybe Mr. Stewart in the crisis of the moment, pulled back as hard as he could on the stick and that's how they reached their theory."

McCulloch said no experienced helicopter pilot would ever make that maneuver which begs the question, who was really in control? Stewart or the pilot, Rick Morton?

The public expects NTSB investigations to be thoroughly independent. But in this case, McCulloch said he was told the NTSB adopted Europter's investigation.

"So the NTSB in dealing with Eurocopter on a regular basis is more prone to accept Eurocopter's explanation especially when it's this detailed of an explanation is rather than non aviation witnesses," As McCulloch pointed out.

After all Eurocopter has a vested interest in the outcome of this investigation. McCulloch noted.

"I know that NTSB doesn't have those kinds of resources and those kind of investigations for these type of incidents so those resources had to come from somewhere. It clearly had to come from somebody, had to come with somebody with considerable resources, Eurocopter, that's Eurocopter," said McCulloch.

If that's the case, is the NTSB report biased?

"I think they want to be objective but they also want to solve the accident. So when you want to solve an accident don't you go where most of the information is available? It's available from the manufacturer," said McCulloch. "I've been involved in enough accidents and seen enough reports where I believe the report hasn't accurately characterized what has happened."

McCulloch doesn't represent the Stewarts or Eurocopter.

We contacted Stewart's business, Services Group of America, which provided the following statement.

The NTSB has had this tragic crash under investigation for nearly three years with Eurocopter, the helicopter’s manufacturer, heavily involved in the investigation, but without outside independent experts.

Despite this length of time, there are many questions that remain unanswered, not the least of which is that the NTSB’s conclusion is at odds with every single eyewitness. Moreover, the conclusion is wholly inconsistent with the way Rick Morton commanded the helicopter and the respect Tom Stewart gave his pilots in the cockpit.   

Much remains to be done before the truth is known and now, for the first time, independent aviation experts will have access to the evidence and will be able to conduct a more thorough investigation into the cause of the crash. Because the matter is in litigation, the company cannot comment further.

Tim McCulloch is an attorney with Gordon and Rees, LLP. 111 W. Monroe Street, Suite 1600,
Phoenix, AZ 85003, Ph: (602) 794-2460