Published Tuesday, January 25, 2005
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.