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Fatal helicopter crash fraught with murky explanations

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


A helicopter test crew of four was killed in March 1996 at Sikorsky's plant in Connecticut. Now a former Clearwater company blamed for the crash has settled a long and murky criminal and civil investigation.

At least to the satisfaction of the lawyers in the case.

In the arcane world of assembling complex military equipment, it seems, nothing is simple.

Kaydon Corp. made a ball-bearing assembly supporting the main rotor of giant CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters. A flaw in that assembly was pinpointed by military and law enforcement investigators as the cause of the '96 crash.

For years, Kaydon vigorously denied any wrongdoing and tried to deflect fault to other subcontractors. The crash of the Marines' most powerful helicopter -- Sikorsky's worst accident in its 75-year history -- and the resulting inquiry was chronicled in the St. Petersburg Times in 1999.

Under the terms of this month's plea agreement, Kaydon still denies responsibility for the crash. Kaydon admits its employees faked tests on the same type of part blamed in the crash -- just not on the particular assembly used in that ill-fated helicopter.

Investigators did find defects undetected by Kaydon in assemblies made before and after the one blamed in the crash.

Draw your own conclusions.

At the FBI and the Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service, frustrated investigators said Kaydon offered little assistance.

"There was a total lack of candor and cooperation," Dennis Clarke, a consulting engineer who assisted criminal investigators in the case, told the Hartford Courant.

This month's deal protects Kaydon employees from prosecution. But the company will pay $7.5-million in criminal fines and civil damages arising from the crash investigation.

Killed in the fiery morning copter crash were pilot Yong Ho Lee, 39; pilot David Kish, 39; electronics flight systems technician Thomas Payne, 52; and crew chief Leonard Kuderna Jr., 47.

Following Kaydon's guilty pleas this month, U.S. District Senior Judge Peter C. Dorsey immediately fined the company $1-million, a sum the company agreed to pay in addition to a $6.5-million civil settlement. The company also paid settlements earlier to Sikorsky and the families of the four dead crew members, though the terms are confidential.

Kaydon left Clearwater in 1999 and relocated to Ann Arbor, Mich. In its 2000 annual report, the company says it spent or reserved $21.7-million for "the Sikorsky matter" and an unrelated lawsuit. Kaydon CEO Brian P. Campbell says without pleadings the case could have dragged on for years.

On the Yahoo message board dedicated to Kaydon, the company's pleadings did not go unnoticed.

"Shame on you Kaydon," wrote "cynthia7889" this month. "Pleading guilty in federal court to FAKING QUALITY-CONTROL TESTS. We wondered if they have done this before?"

The helicopter, the Marines' most powerful craft, had been scheduled for delivery to the White House fleet.

"Can you imagine if the helicopter made it to the White House??" posed "drsloaner433" -- another message board contributor this month. "My god, what was Kaydon thinking."

Short takes

STRIKE 2? What is it about Florida and its Major League Baseball teams? After reports of a revolt against general partner Vince Naimoli by his fellow team owners, USA Today reported online Thursday that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are for sale. And Major League Baseball commissioner "Bud" Selig -- my, what a slick lobbyist -- is threatening to move or kill the Florida Marlins franchise in South Florida if state legislators don't cough up enough money to help build a new stadium. No baseball team has moved for 30 years. All this, and the baseball season's less than a month old. . . .

WHO'S SLAMMING WHOM? The state Attorney General's office tweaked Verizon and its former marketing agent called Snyder Communications with a record total fine of $3.1-million over thousands of cases of "slamming" -- switching long-distance service without a customer's permission. And just who is Snyder? When the slamming occurred, the company was run by Daniel Snyder -- who leveraged his corporate wealth to buy the Washington Redskins football team. . . .

WHY DIDN'T FLORIDA BANKERS SAY THAT? Bank of America chief Hugh McColl formally retired Wednesday with a parting comment that should hit a nerve in Florida -- where banks based in other states control the state market. "Let's be honest," he told the Charlotte Observer about the proposed merger of North Carolina's First Union and Wachovia banking companies: "We would not like to see one of our banks taken over by an out-of-state operation." . . .

WHEN BURGERS FAIL: Sure, he used to be CEO of Checkers Drive-In Restaurants. But can he run a real burger joint? Albert J. DiMarco and three partners borrowed $15-million in 1999 to open 41 Checkers & Rally's fast-food outlets across the Midwest. The foursome found itself overwhelmed by the $200,000 monthly payments. In January, DiMarco closed his burger empire and filed for bankruptcy. . . .

WHO'S SHRINKING FASTER? Clearwater tech company IMRglobal said Thursday its quarterly earnings of $675,000 was less than half that of a year ago. Canadian company CGI Inc., which is buying IMRglobal, this week said its quarterly earnings fell 35 percent from a year ago to $15.2-million.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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