Thomas W. Witten has filed suit in state court claiming he was wrongfully fired and defamed by Rocky Mountain Helicopters after the St. Vincent HELP helicopter he was flying crashed in downtown Billings two years ago.

His district court suit seeks an unspecified amount in damages from the Provo, Utah, firm that operates St. Vincent's helicopter ambulance service.Witten was fired less than two weeks after the HELP helicopter made an emergency landing at Athletic Park on Nov. 7, 1986. He had worked for Rocky Mountain Helicopters four years and had been promoted to emergency medical service pilot four months before the accident, the suit notes.

The helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff, slightly injuring Witten and more seriously injuring an emergency medical technician and a flight nurse.

The National Transportation Safety Board in Denver determined that two canvas snow covers hadn't been removed before takeoff. One flew off and caught in the helicopter's tail-rotor, damaging it and forcing an emergency landing.

Rocky Mountain Helicopters permanently suspended Witten from flying with the company's medical division after an internal review board determined the helicopter crashed primarily because of pilot error.

The company said it was the pilot's responsibility to remove all snow covers before takeoff.

Witten's suit claims the company used him as a "scapegoat" for the accident. He suit says the accident was caused by the company's negligence, not his.

His firing was without good cause and constituted a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, Witten's complaint said.

Witten also claims that the company damaged his reputation as a professional pilot and caused him embarrassment and emotional distress by making statements to news media regarding his employment, conduct, responsibilities and termination.

Company officials knew the statements were false but made them to improve Rocky Mountain Helicopter's image and diminish Witten's, the complaint said.

Witten also asks the court to rule that the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act is not applicable in his case. The act, which would limit Witten's full legal redress, became effective on July 1, 1987, after Witten's firing.

A spokeswoman for the helicopter company declined comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, saying the firm had not received a copy of Witten's complaint.