The C-23 B+ Sherpa plane shown here is similar to one that crashed in Georgia in 2001. Eighteen Virginia National Guardsmen and three Lakeland-based crew died in the crash.
Published Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Families of Crash Victims Settle Suit

JACKSONVILLE -- The families of five Virginia National Guardsmen killed when their Lakeland-based transport plane crashed in Georgia four years ago settled their lawsuit Monday against the aircraft's manufacturers.

The families will receive $3.75 million from the companies that made and maintained the C-23 B+ Sherpa cargo plane and its parts: Montreal-based Bombardier Inc. and its subsidiary, plane maker Short Brothers PLC; Duncan Aviation Inc. of Lincoln, Neb.; and Rockwell International of Milwaukee and its former subsidiary Rockwell Collins Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Eighteen Virginia Guardsmen and their crew of three from Company H, 171st Aviation Battalion, then headquartered in Lakeland, died when the plane crashed near Unadilla, Ga., on a flight from Hurlburt Field in the Florida Panhandle to Oceana, Va., on March 3, 2001.

The Virginia Guardsmen were heading home after a two-week training stint when the aircraft flew into heavy turbulence.

The suits by families of the crew and 13 other Guard members have been consolidated into one suit and it is scheduled to go to court in April in Tampa.

Military investigators blamed the crash on the crew for improper loading, but the general who ordered the investigation later blamed bad weather and equipment malfunctions.

Maj. Gen. Ronald O. Harrison, the adjutant general of the Florida National Guard, ruled that cargo displacement was only a contributing factor and that wind shear and powerful storms caused the crash.

The C-23 Sherpa was one of two such aircraft piloted by the Florida National Guard and headquartered at the guard aviation compound at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.

The Lakeland-based crew members were Staff Sgt. Robert Ward, 35, of Lakeland, the flight engineer; Chief Warrant Officer John Duce, 49, of Orange Park, the pilot; and Chief Warrant Officer Eric Larson, 34, of Land O'Lakes, the command pilot.

"This was not the pilot's fault," Sean Cronin, a lawyer representing the Virginia families, said Monday.

Short Brothers made the plane in Northern Ireland, Bombardier converted the civilian plane for the military in Bridgeport, W.Va., Duncan helped with the conversion and handled maintenance, and Rockwell made an autopilot.

The aircraft had been modified for the U.S. military by cutting six feet from its length and making a change in the tail.

"These modifications had a substantial effect on the stability of the aircraft, yet the design was never fully tested and the National Guard was never warned of the potentially catastrophic problems," said Bob Spohrer, a pilot and an aircraft accident lawyer.

There were also problems with the weather radar and autopilot systems onboard, he said.

Spohrer said the settlement would have to be approved by probate judges in Virginia.

Lawyer Ron Sprague, who represents Bombardier, said, "I think it was a reasonable settlement. It was certainly a tragic accident."

Lawyers for Duncan Aviation and Rockwell Collins did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.

The families involved in the settlement were those of Staff Sgt. Paul J. Blancato; Master Sgt. Eric C. Buhlman; Staff Sgt. Randy V. Johnson; Staff Sgt. John L. Sincavage; and Maj. Frederick Watkins.

Since the crash, the Sherpa was replaced and moved to Brooksville to join the Black Hawk helicopter unit that had earlier moved from Lakeland.

The two Sherpas and their flight and maintenance crews are currently on active duty in Iraq.

Ledger reporter Bill Rufty contributed to this article.

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