Eurocopter's AStar is the most popular tour helicopter in the United States. But according to some tour operators, the helicopter is dangerous and defective. They use it anyway because it is the most profitable.
No, I’m not making this up.
Problems with the AStar 350?
One of Las Vegas' largest tour operators, Heli-USA, is run by Nigel Turner. Turner is himself a pilot. He operates the largest AStar fleet in the Western United States. And he feels that the design of the AStar's hydraulic sytem causes it to crash. Turner complains that the manufacturer refuses to fix the problems. But, like other tour operators he sticks with the AStar for one simple reason: money. According to a 2008 article in the Star Bulletin:
Turner said that despite the problems with the AStar, it will remain the helicopter of choice for his company because it's the only chopper with forward-facing seats that can fit enough passengers to make a tour profitable.
So what exactly do hydraulics and actuators do?
The actuators move the helicopter's rotor blades, allowing the pilot to control the flight of the aircraft. The AS350's hydraulics -- similar to a power steering system in a car -- help move the helicopter's actuators. If the hydraulic system fails, the pilot may find it hard to move the actuators and thus the helicopter can be difficult to control.
While a problem with the hydraulic system can make the helicopter difficult to control, a disconnected or broken actuator will make the helicopter impossible to control. That's what happened in 2007, when an AS350 just like the one involved in this accident crashed in Hawaii, killing four tourists. Days after that accident, Eurocopter issued a Special Airworthiness Bulletin (see below) prompted by two previous fatal accidents, warning of the consequences of loose servo control rod end fittings.
The Sundance Helicpter’s control system
NTSB board member Dr. Mark Rosekind says that the Sundance helicopter climbed and turned erratically just before impact. That's consistent with an actuator problem. And, just hours before the crash, one of the Sundance helicopter's main rotor actuators was replaced. Was the actuator defective? Was it installed incorrectly?
The NTSB has now recovered that actuator from the wreckage site. That's where the investigation will focus.
But given what industry leaders have to say about problems with the AStar’s control system, one has to wonder whether by continuing to use the helicopter the tour industry is simply placing profits ahead of public safety.