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UPDATE: Thomas Stewart, CEO Of Services Group of America Killed In Phoenix Helicopter Crash

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CBS News has confirmed that Thomas J. Stewart, chairman and CEO of the nation’s largest food service distributor, Services Group of America, was among those killed in a tragic helicopter crash in Cave Creek, Arizona near Phoenix.

(AP) The owner and founder of one of the nation’s largest foodservice distributors was among five people killed in a weekend helicopter crash just north of Phoenix, the company announced Monday.

Services Group of America said in a statement that 64-year-old Thomas J. Stewart died in the crash Sunday. The other four killed weren’t immediately identified, but Arizona state Sen. Jonathan Paton on Monday eulogized Thomas, his wife Madena and the couple’s 5-year-old daughter on the Senate floor.

A company pilot was flying the copter, but the identity of the fifth person aboard was unclear. The company said authorities were certain there were no survivors.

The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating.

The company-owned Eurocopter EC135 was headed to Scottsdale, Ariz., from the Flagstaff area when it crashed in a rural desert wash, according to the statement. Mechanical failure is suspected because witnesses saw parts flying off the stricken aircraft just before it crashed, according to a Maricopa County sheriff’s spokeswoman.

Parts of the helicopter’s rotors were found more than a half-mile from the main wreckage, said Thomas Little, an NTSB air safety investigator. He said witnesses reported hearing a popping sound, then seeing the helicopter rotate at least three times before the nose pointed down and it crashed.

Additional details about the crash have not been released.

The six-seat Eurocopter EC135 has a history of mid-air malfunctions and a lack of critical safety features. In 2007, the FAA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive for all Eurocopter Model EC135 helicopters. The European Safety Agency (EASA) notified the FAA that an unsafe condition may exist on Eurocopter EC135 and EC635 helicopters involving the failure of a tail rotor control rod. Failure of the rod would cause subsequent loss of control of the helicopter.

There have been several reported crashes of Eurocopter EC135 helicopters:

January 2, 2009: EC135 crashed under unknown circumstances near Molesmes, France, killing the pilot.

May 30, 2008: According to the pilot, the EC135 "just stopped flying" after reaching 75 feet on liftoff.

May 10, 2008: An air medical EC135 crashed into trees, killing the pilot and medical staff onboard. The helicopter was not equipped with a terrain awareness warning system (TAWS).

May 30, 2006: EC135 helicopter crashed trying to land. The pilot reported that during his first approach, the helicopter "shuffled" and the No. 1 engine rpm increased. The No. 1 engine was no longer controlled by the full authority digital engine control (FADEC) system and the pilot had to control it manually. The EC-135P1 CDS variant model differed from the EC-135 variant in which the pilot was trained.

April 21, 2006: An air medical EC135 suffered damage after loss of rotor rpm and a subsequent hard landing.

January 10, 2005: An air medical EC135 crashed into the Potomac River near Oxon Hill, Maryland, killing the pilot and flight paramedic and seriously injuring the flight nurse. The helicopter lacked an operable radar altimeter.

January 3, 2005: EC 135 helicopter crashed after the in-flight separation of a main rotor control link.

Just last year the Wall Street Journal reported on a study that found emergency medical helicopter pilots had the most dangerous job in the United States. Many hospitals use the Eurocopter EC135 as an emergency medical helicopter. The FAA spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that only 40% of US helicopters had been voluntarily outfitted with collision-avoidance systems and only about 11% have data recorders.

What other critical safety devices are missing from these helicopters? Why doesn’t the industry do more to protect the users of its aircraft? Is the company putting profits ahead of safety and ahead of lives?

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