Hansen Helicopters' 'Highway To Hell'

 - November 1, 2022, 7:27 AM
The federal district court in Guam where John Walker and Hansen Helicopters were found guilty.

This wasn’t your typical company Christmas party on that December day in 2012. In the Hansen Helicopters hangar in Harmon, Guam a female “dancer” mounted a tool bench and began suggestively gyrating to the beat of the band AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell” from a nearby boom box. 

Hell arrived for Hansen nearly a decade later. And some would argue it was too long in coming. 

On Sept. 9, 2022, a federal district court jury found Hansen and its owner John Walker collectively guilty on all remaining 110 charged counts related to conspiracy; defrauding the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); bribery; aircraft parts fraud, causing serious bodily injury and death; falsification of aircraft registration; employing unlicensed mechanics and pilots; wire fraud; and money laundering. 

Both Hansen and Walker, being tried together as separated entities, pleaded not guilty to all charges. However, attorneys for both declined to present a defense. Rather they spent the bulk of their efforts attempting to discredit witnesses and other evidence. They also asserted multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, filing four separate motions for mistrial. During his closing argument, Walker's attorney Mack Martin unsuccessfully tried to convince the jury that several witnesses were lying and to use that as a rationale to reject the prosecution's case. "One lie is enough to question all truths," he said. 

During the case, the government alleged that Hansen’s disregard for federal aviation regulations was responsible for up to 30 accidents and nine deaths. Additionally, during the last weeks of the trial, which began in February and ended in September, a helicopter linked to a Hansen affiliate company in the Philippines crashed, killing the pilot. 

Walker’s sentencing is scheduled for December 8 and he potentially faces life in prison. Three days after the verdict, his $1 million bail was revoked and he was remanded into custody. Additionally, the government is seeking forfeiture of all of Hansen’s and Walker’s assets related to what it charged is $400 million worth of fraud tied to the convictions. 

Walker purchased Hansen, based in Harmon, Guam, in 1998 after working for the company as a pilot, mechanic, and director of operations. He then grew the company to a fleet of 48 helicopters. The company provided fish spotting helicopters, mainly vintage Hughes 369/OH-6A models, along with pilots and mechanics, to tuna boats in the Western Pacific on contracts that ran $40,000 per month per helicopter, with gross receipts of over $20 million annually.

Virtually all of the profits went to Walker, who used them in part to finance his pursuit of nationally-ranked, off-road racing and acquire a fleet of eclectic personal aircraft based in Missouri, where, when not on Guam, he lived on a 5,000-acre farm. His personal aircraft included an Extra 300L, Beechcraft D17S Staggerwing, Stemme S10-VT motorglider, Beechcraft E90 King Air, North American T-28B, Aviat A-1B, Highlander, Piper J3C-65, and Bell 47D1.

Several of Walker’s key deputies are awaiting trial. Timothy Cislo is the former FAA inspector that Hansen bribed with “money and hookers” and a vintage Taylorcraft to falsify airworthiness certificates for what prosecutors termed “Frankenstein helicopters.” He pleaded guilty to related fraud charges in 2018, testified against Hansen and Walker, and is awaiting sentencing. One supplier, who conspired with Hansen to produce counterfeit tail rotor pitch change links—a move calculated to save the company nearly $1 million—died. Another one is seriously ill and unlikely to face trial. 

The result of this fraud was a fleet that was “not airworthy,” according to former NTSB accident investigator Jeff Guzzetti, who testified at the trial on behalf of the prosecution. Guzzetti charged that of the 29 Hansen accidents he examined that date back to the 1990s, 18 were not reported to the NTSB, 22 involved substantial damage, and seven helicopters were destroyed. Guzzetti said Hansen had a “high rate” of tail rotor pitch-change link failures.

Throughout the trial, prosecution witnesses and the company’s own emails painted Hansen as a criminal and thoroughly unprofessional organization via thousands of exhibits and tales of parts, document and financial fraud, forgery, a company computer system clogged with pornography, improper/incomplete pilot training, a general disregard for safety, and a company culture more in the line with a rogue college fraternity than a serious aviation organization.

None of this came as a surprise to Francis “Moggy” Meyrick, the chief pilot of one of Hansen’s smaller competitors, Tropic Helicopters, during the 1990s. Meyrick is the author of several informative books on tuna boat flying, including “Moggy’s Tuna Manual” and “A Blip On The Radar.” AIN interviewed Meyrick about the Hansen trial earlier this year. He was interviewed by the FBI in conjunction with the case, but was not called as a witness. 

During his time in the tuna boat game, Meyrick tried unsuccessfully to get the then four tuna spotting helicopter companies on Guam to form something akin to what is now known as R-ASIAS (Rotorcraft Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing Program) due to the high accident rate in the niche sector.

Three of the four companies thought it was a really good idea. The sole holdout was Hansen—the largest of the four—and John Walker. 

“People were getting killed, left, right, and center. With this data sharing, pilots could access accident records and learn from them. Walker would just sit there and say ‘no.’” Without Hansen’s participation, the other companies, understandably, would not go along as it would appear they were having all the accidents, Meyrick said. He added that Walker resisted other safety initiatives as well, such as standardizing the use of belly hooks to secure helicopters onto boat decks or giving pilots the necessary training.

Meyrick remembers a day in Hansen’s hangar when he overheard company executives discussing their training philosophy, “They come out here as commercial pilots. We’re not a flight school. Only the idiots get killed.” 

“That’s not true,” said Meyrick, who described how even the most seasoned pilots can falter when confronted with optical illusions such as “blue out,” when a calm, flat ocean distorts depth perception, or the inherent challenges of landing and taking off from a moving boat with a small deck, a boat when often times the captain doesn’t speak English and is focused on turning toward the fish as opposed to steering his vessel to accommodate helicopter operations. 

Meyrick is also critical of the way Hansen taught deck landings—a full power, flat approach that is basically a high hover, as opposed to the industry standard of a descending approach with a moderate power setting. “The way they were teaching it, they were having people crash,” Meyrick said. 

But by far the worst offense, in Meyrick’s mind, was Hansen stripping the more modern Rolls-Royce M250-C20B engines from their Hughes 369 (Series 500) helicopters and replacing them with less powerful, less reliable C10 and C18 models acquired surplus from Vietnam. Meyrick saw a shipping container full of the replacement engines at Hansen’s hangar one day. 

“I saw the container and there were all these cardboard boxes with dirty black corroded oil leaking out of them. God knows what kind of humidity they had been stored in. They [Hansen] proceeded to strip out the C20Bs and replace them with C10s. A C20B back in those days sold for $250,000 but you could get a C10 for $5,000 or $10,000. The job is dangerous enough without dickering around with that kind of stuff," he said. "You’ve got all these boxes full of stuff and how are you going to marry that up with the paperwork? It seemed like a nightmare to me. There are endless stories about [Hansen and] the C10.” Meyrick was flying near a Hansen ship so equipped one day when he saw it smoking—badly. He radioed a warning to the pilot who replied nonchalantly, “It does that all the time.”

“They had so many problems with those C10s, but they went right on flying them. Nobody in the states uses C10s and C18s. The job is dangerous enough when you are way out of range of the Coast Guard, you are 1,000 miles offshore, and you are 30 miles from the boat. It’s a hell of a place to be [messing] around with that. You have one bite at the apple if you are doing an autorotation in 20-30 knot winds with significant wave action, and a finite supply of energy in your rotor system. Even with very experienced pilots that is a very critical operation to perform. Guys were disappearing. You’d get called out on the search, and the search area would be 10,000 square miles,” Meyrick said.

Eventually, Meyrick went public with his criticisms of Hansen via an internet message board used by Guam’s close-knit community of tuna boat pilots, a move that elicited threats of bar room fisticuffs from the company’s director of maintenance. He left the tuna boat industry to fly for law enforcement on the mainland U.S. 

“The whole Hansen thing upsets me,” Meyrick said. “John Walker bears the ultimate responsibility for this. I have had friends killed out there. I have had relatives of dead pilots call me. It was about the love of money, the golden dollar. It was purely demonic, and I hope they burn in hell.”