Helicopter engine built during strike Federal officials ask if replacement workers made faulty motor

November 17, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Federal investigators are trying to determine whether a faulty engine that caused a Baltimore police helicopter to crash, killing its pilot, was shoddily assembled by replacement workers during a strike at a Pennsylvania company.

Jim Cain, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said he does not know why a connecting rod flew loose and punctured two holes in the engine casing of the Schweizer 300C chopper.

But Cain said the four-cylinder engine "was built during the time-frame" of a contentious labor dispute at the Textron-Wycoming plant in Williamsport, Pa. He said investigators "are trying to determine" whether replacement workers built the motor. "That's part of the investigation," he said.

The engine had been installed 13 days before the Nov. 4 crash, which killed Flight Officer Barry W. Wood. A spokesman for Textron, Stephen Capoccio, declined to comment yesterday.

Cain said his investigation should be completed in six to eight months. He cautioned that it is "too early to draw any conclusions. We think we have the problem. We're trying to dig further and determine what happened. To point fingers right now I don't think would do justice to anybody."

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said the company "had an obligation" to tell the Police Department of its labor problems. He said he will contact state and federal prosecutors today to ask for an investigation into possible "criminal misconduct."

Baltimore police said yesterday that they had no details of the strike, but Friday they blamed Textron-Wycoming for the engine failure. "What has been learned at this point isn't going to change at all," said Maj. John McEntee, who commands the division that oversees the helicopter unit called Foxtrot.

The seven-month strike of 375 production and maintenance workers at Textron-Wycoming began Aug. 5, 1997, and ended in March.

The strike involved charges of unfair labor practices, "including the use of office workers to assemble engines," according to the Bob McHugh, a negotiator for the United Auto Workers union.

"There were some concerns being raised about untrained workers that could have created safety problems," McHugh said. He added that employees are working without a contract.

Baltimore police have indefinitely grounded the helicopters and McEntee said commanders will discuss options over the next two weeks that might include using another type of helicopter.

The copters are owned by Helicopter Transport Services Inc., a company based at Martin State Airport in Middle River that leases the aircraft to city police. In 1996, the city police sold its aircraft to save money.

The lease arrangement has long angered McLhinney, who contends that safety has been compromised since the department relinquished ownership. The union president said yesterday he will propose an alternative funding plan to keep the helicopter unit operational and to repurchase the choppers.

"We want to get the helicopters back up as quickly and safely as possible," McLhinney said, declining to elaborate on his plan. "But we don't want to risk people's lives to do it."

McEntee said city police have determined that HTS maintenance crews, which installed the faulty engine, are not at fault.

But he said that before HTS crews put the Textron engine in the Schweizer aircraft, they had removed an external piston to be used as a replacement part on another police helicopter. McEntee said the company ordered a new piston from Textron-Wycoming and put that on the new engine. He said the new piston had nothing to do with the crash.

But Cain, who said he did not know that the external piston had been replaced until after he began taking apart the failed engine, said he is not ruling anything out. "It's an ongoing investigation. I'm not going to comment."

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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