The NTSB hasn’t yet issued its report on the fatal Skylife air ambulance crash in December 2015. But a Fresno judge has ruled that regardless of the cause, the family of one of the paramedics on board will not be allowed to sue either the operator of the helicopter (Rogers Helicopter) or the helicopter’s owner,   (American Airborne), regardless of whether they were negligent in the helicopter’s operation or maintenance.

As it turns out, both entities were partners with the paramedic’s employer, Skylife .  An employee cannot sue his employer for a work related injury or death.  Nor can he sue the employor’s partner.

Such claims are barred by the Workers’ Compensation laws.

 

Robinson helicopters are popular in New Zealand.  But while they make up only 35% of New Zealand’s helicopter fleet, they account for 64% of all of New Zealand’s fatal accidents.  

Why?

Some say the helicopter is especially prone to "mast bumping," a phenomenon where the rotor head tilts to such a degree that the rotor hub damages the mast on which on which it is attached.  In Robinson helicopters, a mast bump almost always causes the rotor head and the helicopter’s blades to separate from the aircraft.  The result is illustrated in the video.   

 

 

An article appearing this weekend in the New Zealand Herald explains the controversy and, in particular, why the unique design of the Robinson’s rotor head may be to blame.

Today a Bell helicopter crashed into Pearl Harbor near the Arizona Memorial.   Reports are that everyone survived.  

 

 

Some are saying the helicopter experienced engine failure.  Unlikely.  Instead, the pilot probably experienced "settling with power."  That’s when the helicopter is forced down by the downdraft it   creates with its own rotors.  To avoid crashing, the pilot must ease up on the power.  In the video, you can hear power increasing.  Adding power (or torque) just makes things worse.   

Settling with PowerFrom the FAA’s Rotorcraft Flying Handbook:

When recovering from a settling with power condition, the tendency on the part of the pilot is to first try to stop the descent by increasing collective pitch. However, this only results in increasing the stalled area of the rotor, thus increasing the rate of descent. Since inboard portions of the blades are stalled, cyclic control is limited. Recovery is accomplished by increasing forward speed, and/or partially lowering collective pitch. In a fully developed vortex ring state, the only recovery may be to enter autorotation to break the vortex ring state. When cyclic authority is regained, you can then increase forward airspeed.

The SkyLife Bell 407 air ambulance helicopter departed from Porterville Airport at 6:52.  It crashed minutes later, halfway into its 50 mile flight to San Joaquin Hospital in Bakersfield.  The four aboard SkyLife Helicopter Crashwill killed, including the patient being transported.

The flying conditions at Porterville were acceptable.  Though it was dark, the weather was 3300 overcast, with light rain, light winds, and 9 miles visibility.  Under those conditions, the crew could fly “VFR,” meaning they could avoid terrain and other aircraft by simply looking out the windscreen.  Were the conditions significantly worse, the pilot would have had to fly “IFR,” and would have had to rely on instruments and help from air traffic control.

The helicopter crashed east of McFarland.  The airport nearest the crash site does not have weather reporting equipment.  But first responders say that by the time they arrived it was raining hard. Photos of the crash area show dense ground fog. 

 Heavy rain, by itself, does not necessarily pose a safety risk.  But the restricted flight visibility that generally accompanies heavy rain or fog, does.  A helicopter pilot who inadvertently wanders into clouds, fog, or heavy rain can quickly become disoriented and lose control of the aircraft . 

One challenge of night flying is seeing and avoiding poor weather conditions before you wander into them.  Inadvertent flight into clouds is called “continued VFR into IFR conditions.” Sometimes pilots, trying to stay out of the clouds, will fly lower and lower until they strike hillsides or power lines that are hidden in the darkness.  The results of that sort of “CFIT” accident are almost always fatal.

It’s too early to say if weather was even a factor in this case.  After all, the first responders who reported the poor conditions didn’t get to the site for more than an hour after the crash.  But ground scars should provide clues to whether the helicopter might have crashed because the pilot lost control or whether, instead, he struck the ground, wires or a radio tower that he could not see while in controlled flight.  

Investigators will also want to know whether the air ambulance crew had night vision goggles available to them.  Night vision goggles have been a hot button for the NTSB for some time. 

Earlier this summer, the NTSB asked the FAA to require helicopter manufactures to equip all new aircraft with crashworthy fuel systems.  If history is any guide, we can expect the FAA to ignore that recommendation, despite that the FAA has known of the dangers posed by existing fuel system for decades.

But now Air Methods, one of the nation’s largest EMS helicopter operators, has committed toAir Methods EMS retrofit its entire fleet of more than 70 Airbus AS350 helicopters with fuel systems that don’t needlessly catch fire in a crash. 

Air Methods is committed to retrofitting 100% of our Airbus AS350/EC130 (H125/H130) fleet, and we are working directly with a thried party who is seeking certification for a crash resistant fuel system for the entire Airbus line.. . . For us, it’s about doing the right thing."

The program will be costly.  And Air Methods is taking the action entirely voluntarily.  The FAA does not now require retrofitting, and it’s unlikely it ever will.   

But, as Air Methods says, maybe it is about doing the right thing, rather than the most profitable thing. The question is, will other operators follow?

Robinson Helicopters began installing crash-resistant fuel tanks in 2010.  Robinson Helicopters with fuel tanks installed before then tend to catch fire during accidents that, but for the fire, would have been survivable.

The Australian authorities thought that the safer tanks were a good idea.  Enough Robinsons had caught fire after minor accidents that in 2013 the Australian government grounded all RobinsonAustralian R44 Post Crash Fire R44 helicopters operating in Australia until their owners installed the new-style fuel systems.

The NTSB asked the FAA to follow suit and issue a similar order grounding R44 helicopters in this country.  But the FAA refused.  Even assuming the old-style Robinson fuel tanks were needlessly dangerous, the FAA thought they really weren’t all that different from the fuel tanks installed in many other older helicopters.  If the FAA grounded Robinsons until they were fixed, they’d have to ground a lot of helicopters produced by other manufacturers as well.

But the FAA has known about the trouble with old-style fuel systems for a very long time. In fact, since 1991, FAA regulations have required manufacturers to install in their helicopters fuel systems that are proven "crash resistant."  Trouble is, those regulations apply only to helicopters designed after 1994.  They do not apply to helicopters that are manufactured today, but were designed (or certified) before 1994.  

Unfortunately, the majority of light helicopters manufactured in the US today were designed before 1994, and so in practice the regulations seldom apply.  The NTSB thinks its time for that to change.  The NTSB’s latest safety recommendation asks the FAA to:

Require, for all newly manufactured rotorcraft regardless of the design’s original certification date, that the fuel systems meet the crashworthiness requirements of 14 Code of Federal Regulations 27.952 or 29.952, “Fuel System Crash Resistance.”

What will the FAA do in response to the NTSB’s recommendation?  If history is a guide, unfortunately, the FAA will do nothing.

Robinson Helicopters has been installing bladder-style fuel tanks in its R44 helicopters since 2009. But much of the fleet manufactured before then is still flying with the old-style aluminum tanks that tend to rupture in otherwise minor accidents.

Last year, following a string of needless post-crash R44 fires, the Australian civil aviation authorities grounded all R44 helicopters until their owners retrofitted them with the new bladder-style tanks.  Not a bad idea.

The FAA refused to follow the Aussies’ lead, saying that “R44 fuel system crashworthiness does not appear inconsistent with other similar helicopters.”  Because most other helicopters do not tend to explode in otherwise survivable accidents, no one was sure what the FAA was talking about. Now the NTSB is asking the FAA to reconsider and to ground Robinson R44 helicopters that aren’t retrofitted with the safer bladder tanks.  According to the NTSB, requiring owners to retrofit their helicopters will “prevent accidents and save lives.”

It’s hard to understand why the FAA is so reluctant to mandate the retrofits.

 

NTSB Safety Recommendation by Mike Danko

The Robinson R66’s safety record to date is troubling.  The aircraft did not go into production until 2010 and the fleet is very small.  Yet a total of five R66 helicopters have already crashed, killing 11:

  • July 12, 2011, Flandes, Colombia, pilot and passenger killed;Robinson R66
  • October 1, 2011, near Philip, South Dakota, pilot killed;
  • January 3, 2013, Caraguatatuba, Sao Paolo, Brazil, pilot and passenger killed;
  • March 9, 2013, Oamaru Valley, near Taupo, New Zealand, pilot killed; and
  • July 27, 2013, near Skyhaven Airport, Pennsylvania, pilot and 4 passengers killed. 

Lawsuits have just been filed regarding two of those crashes. 

The first was filed last month in Los Angeles against Robinson Helicopter Company and others arising from the Colombia Crash. The crash occurred moments after take off in good weather  The lawsuit alleges that the R66 fuel system was defective and that, as a result, the Rolls-Royce RR300 turbine engine that powers the R66 repeatedly cycled between full power and low power, rendering the helicopter uncontrollable and causing it to crash. The suit was filed by Ronald Goldman and Ilyas Akbari, two attorneys who have a long track record of suing Robinson.   

The second suit deals with last month’s R66 crash in northeastern Pennsylvania. That helicopter crashed in the vicinity of thunderstorm activity.  The suit was filed by another prominent helicopter accident attorney, Gary Robb of Kansas City on behalf of a woman who lost her 3 year old son in the crash.  Robb’s suit alleges that the charter service that owned the R66 is liable for allowing a pilot to fly the helicopter who was not competent for the mission he was attempting.

This Robinson R44 crash was in Australia. 

Witnesses said that nearby restaurant staff “grabbed every fire extinguisher in the building, but there were too many flames . . . There was nothing anyone could do.”

No occupant of a properly-designed helicopter should be burned in an otherwise survivable impact. Unfortunately, the fuel tanks installed in all Robinson R44 helicopters manufactured before 2010 are not properly designed

On Friday, the ATSB (the Australian equivalent of the NTSB) confirmed that the accident helicopter was equipped with the all-aluminum fuel tanks, rather than the bladder-type tanks Sydney Robinson R44 Explodes on Impactnow available for retrofit.  The ATSB urged all R44 owners to get their tanks retrofitted after the February 4, 2012 R44 crash that killed noted Australian filmmakers Andrew Wight and Mike deGruy. But less than half of the 4000 Robinson Helicopters with the defective tanks have been fixed.

Passengers killed in this latest crash included a couple who were checking out their wedding venue.

Other low-impact R44 helicopter crashes that have resulted in fires since the new tanks have been made available:

 

Another Robinson R44 Helicopter rolled over and almost immediately caught fire.  This time it was at Slaton Municipal Airport in Slaton, Texas.  According to the Avalanche-Journal, the Robinson R44 firehelicopter was engulfed in flames within 10 seconds of the helicopter rolling onto its side.

Fortunately, the pilot got out.  But the R44 is racking up quite a record for catching fire in otherwise survivable accidents. The problem is that once the helicopter’s rotor blades strike the ground, its transmission rips into the fuel tank.  See here, here, and maybe here.

These fires aren’t supposed to happen. In 2010, Robinson began using a different fuel tank that is supposed to be resistant to punctures. But it didn’t retrofit the existing fleet.  This aircraft was a 2004 model.