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Originally published Thursday, May 13, 2010 at 3:49 PM

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Suit in fatal AZ chopper crash faults rotor blade

A helicopter crash that killed five people north of Phoenix in February was caused by a rotor blade that came apart in midair, according to a lawsuit filed by the pilot's family.

Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX —

A helicopter crash that killed five people north of Phoenix in February was caused by a rotor blade that came apart in midair, according to a lawsuit filed by the pilot's family.

One of the rotor blades on the Eurocopter EC135 piloted by John "Rick" Morton of Seattle had been repeatedly repaired prior to the Feb. 14 crash, attorney Gary C. Robb of Kansas City, Mo., said Thursday.

He filed the suit on behalf of Morton's wife, Charlotte Morton, and adult daughter, Brenda Morton, both of the Seattle area.

Morton, 63, was piloting the personal aircraft of executive Thomas J. Stewart, owner of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Services Group of America, one of the nation's largest foodservice distributors. Stewart, his wife, young daughter and brother-in-law were also killed.

An official cause for the crash hasn't been determined by federal investigators, but mechanical failure was suspected from the day of the crash because witnesses saw pieces flying off the aircraft just before it went down.

The helicopter was taking Stewart and his family back to Scottsdale after a weekend at his ranch near Flagstaff.

The lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix names the mechanic who did the repairs, Robert Starr of Seattle, his company, Cascade Airframe Repair Inc., the previous owner of the helicopter and the manufacturer, Eurocopter.

Starr wasn't immediately available for comment at his business, and a call seeking comment from Eurocopter wasn't immediately returned.

The Eurocopter has a fine safety record, Robb said, and there is no indication that there is a bigger problem with the popular copter, which is used by many law enforcement and news agencies.

But one of the main rotor blades on the crashed aircraft had been damaged after flying through a thunderstorm and had extensive repairs by both Eurocopter and Cascade, Robb said.

Robb, who has represented clients in helicopter crashes for nearly 30 years, said he believes a crack developed along the leading edge of the rotor blade and it expanded and led to a separation or in-flight fracture.

Morton was a U.S. Army veteran, served in Vietnam and had accumulated more than 11,000 flight hours in the past 30 years. He had been Stewart's personal pilot for many years, and the day he was killed was his 38th wedding anniversary.

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"This was just devastating to his wife and his family," Robb said. "I think people who knew Tom Stewart knew that he only hired the very best, and the flight experience of this pilot in particular, John Morton, was extensive.

"The truly sad thing is that if it had been any other kind of in-flight abnormality - if you're talking tail rotor, if you're talking engine failure, if you're talking avionics - John could very likely had effectuated a survivable landing. But the one thing that a helicopter pilot is helpless to possibly do anything about is where you lose that main rotor blade. It is just insurmountable."

Stewart, 64, joined his father's Seattle-based port support business in the late 1960s and expanded it into insurance and food distribution, fruit packing and retailing. After spinning off some subsidiaries, he moved the company to Arizona in 2006.

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