Stephen Stock, an investigative reporter for NBC, talks about the hazards posed by night vision goggles improperly installed in much of the nation’s EMS helicopter fleet. I was happy to offer Stock my thoughts. The FAA refused to comment on camera.

Imagine how difficult it must be for Rand Foster to go to work each day.

 .http://media.nbcbayarea.com/assets/pdk449/pdk/swf/flvPlayer.swf?pid=XOM_XEFe3dK6

 

The NTSB blamed the helicopter crash that killed 9 firefighters on the the helicopter’s operator.  Basically, the NTSB concluded that the helicopter crashed because it was overloaded.  But today a jury disagreed, deciding that the Sikorsky helicopter crashed because one of its two engines failed.  The jury handed down a $70 million verdict against GE, the engine’s manufacturer.

Why is a jury allowed to come to a conclusion totally opposite to that reached by the NTSB?  In short, because the NTSB’s findings are inadmissible in a court of law.  And there’s good reason for that.  For starters, a victim’s family is not allowed to participate in the NTSB investigation, while the manufacturers who may be to blame for the accident are.  As a result, the NTCarson Helicopter Iron 44 CrashSB’s findings frequently favor the manufacturers

Is that what happened here? Did the NTSB unfairly favor GE?  It seems that it may have. 

I spoke today with one of the participants in the trial held in Portland.  He explained that, originally, the NTSB had determined that one of the helicopter’s engines did, in fact, fail in flight.  That report mysteriously "disappeared," however, shortly after it was published.  As did the engine’s fuel control unit.

The NTSB ultimately took the position that losing the fuel control unit was no big deal, because it believed the engine hadn’t failed.  But plaintiffs introduced at trial substantial evidence that it had, including an audio recording made during the crash sequence which helped proved that one of the engines "rolled back," or shut down, just before the impact.

In December, 2010, the helicopter’s operator issued a press release complaining that the NTSB proceedings were unfair.  Given today’s verdict, it makes for particularly interesting reading.

 . .  the facts clearly show that the primary cause of this accident was a loss of power to the #2 engine of the aircraft. There is a strong chain of physical evidence in the [NTSB’s evidence] that indicates a high probability that a malfunctioning fuel control unit (FCU) caused a sudden loss of power as the aircraft transitioned to forward flight. Extensive independent real-world flight testing has confirmed that even [if overweight, the helicopter should] have had enough power to fly away from . .  with two properly operating engines. The co-pilot has confirmed much of this evidence with his recent testimony.  . . The NTSB has ignored his testimony in favor of supposition. . .

Unfortunately, early in this investigation the NTSB lost custody of several fuel control parts, and conducted a filter inspection incorrectly, which they have acknowledged. Since that time, the NTSB has chosen to ignore the physical evidence and flight parameters that indicate a possible blockage in the FCU. They repeatedly refused to participate in independent flight testing, and they have not given proper consideration to the copilot’s direct testimony of conditions and available power just prior to the crash.

Can any question remain about the R44’s tendency to roll over and catch fire?  It happened again yesterday, in Glendale Arizona.  This time, the helicopter had barely gotten off the ground. R44 Fire

Fortunately, no one was hurt.  But the story is becoming all too familiar. According to the Arizona Republic:

A mechanic was testing the engine of the Robinson R-44 helicopter when he lost control and it came down on its side and caught fire.

Helicopters aren’t supposed to catch fire in survivable accidents.  But Robinsons do just that because their fuel tanks are defectively designed.  This latest fire happened little more than a few weeks after an R44 accident killed filmmakers Mike deGruy and Andrew Wight.  That crash led well-known aviation attorney Ladd Sanger to call the Robinson R44 the "Ford Pinto" of helicopters.

Seems as though there may be something to that.

Robinson Helicopter Company likes to say that its helicopters are safe in crashes. According to an excerpt from Robinson Safety Notice SN-10:

The R22 and R44 have demonstrated excellent crashworthiness as long as the pilot flies the aircraft all the way to the ground . . .The ship may roll over and be severely damaged, but the occupants have an excellent chance of walking away from it without injury.

As it turns out, that’s not quite true. When they roll over, Robinson helicoptdeGruy/Wright R44 Wreckageers, in particular R44’s, have a tendency to catch fire and explode.  That makes walking away from a crash pretty much impossible.

Robinson fixed the problem beginning with helicopters it manufactured in 2010 by installing better fuel tanks.  But that didn’t help Mike deGruy and Andrew Wight, who were aboard VH-COK, a 2004 model that crashed February 4 in Australia.

A photograph of the aircraft (above) shows that the ship rolled over on its side, just as Robinson says.  There’s little crush R44 Wreckage at Mammothdamage to the cockpit and so the crash looks survivable.  Except for the devastating post-crash fire.

The photo of the deGruy wreckage looks remarkably similar to the wreckage of the September 2010 R44 crash in Mammoth, California (left).  That helicopter rolled over and burned as well.

There’s no reason for anyone to be burned in an otherwise survivable helicopter accident. Looks as though deGruy and Wright may be added to the list of those who died needlessly due to the dangerous and defective Robinson fuel system.

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 remaiAStar's Hydraulic Actuatorsn 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.

AS350BService Bulletin

Power lines can be virtually invisible from the air.  The trick to avoiding them is, paradoxically, not to try to find them.  Instead, the pilot should look for the towers from which they are strung.  Once the pilot has the towers in sight, he should choose one and fly directly over it, rather thaPike's Piaseckin between them.  By flying over one of the towers the pilot can be assured of avoiding the wires, since no wires are strung higher than the tower itself.  

In November 2009, a Piasecki helicopter struck high tension wires shortly after departing from Adelanto airport as it headed for an airshow in Riverside, California.  The helicopter crashed and burned, and all three aboard were killed.

We represented Colleen Goble, the widow of one of the pilots on board the helicopter.  Yesterday, a jury in San Bernardino county, California rendered a $10 million verdict in her favor against the estate of Joseph Pike, who was the other pilot in the helicopter and the helicopter’s owner.  The jury determined that Pike was the pilot in command at the time of the accident.

Pike, a well-known flight instructor with over 12,000 hours of flight time, trained his students to never fly between electrical towers.  Rather, he taught his student to pick one tower and fly over it.  On the day of the accidentPiasecki Crash at Adelanto, however, Pike chose to “split the towers” and ended up in the wires.

Pike’s estate had argued that forensic evidence showed that Goble, not Pike, was at the controls.  Pike’s estate also argued that the lines’ owner, the city of Los Angeles, should have installed orange marker balls on the lines to make them visible. Pike’s estate had sued both Goble and the city of Los Angeles but dismissed both those claims shortly before trial.

Goble was a vintage helicopter buff. He worked for a medical technology company and held several patents.  His work had been featured on National Geographic Television and had been displayed in the Smithsonian.  He was 58.  The couple lived in Connecticut and had no children.

The name of the case is Goble v. Estate of Pike.  The judge was the Honorable Steve Malone.

The NTSB blamed the pilot for the last Blue Hawaiian helicopter crash into the side of a mountain. The NTSB concluded that while flying near bad weather, the pilot inadvertently entered clouds, became disoriented, and lost control of the helicopter. According to the NTSB, the probable cause of the accident was:

The pilot’s inadequate decision by which he continued visual flight rules flight into instrument meteorological conditions. Also causal was his failure to maintain terrain clearance resulting in a collision with mountainous terrain. A contributing factor was the low ceiling.

One need only look at the low clouds in the photo taken shortly after TBy Joey Salamon/Molokai Dispatchhursday’s Blue Hawaiian crash on Molokai to wonder if weather and pilot decision-making played a similar role in this latest crash. 

Hawaii’s micro-weather makes helicopter tours dangerous. We’ve written about it before here, and hereSpoken about it too.  Yet, year after year, tour operators opt to collect the fares and fly when weather conditions dictate that they really should stay on the ground.

Did the pilot involved in Thursday’s crash try to squeeze his Eurocopter between the weather and the terrain and lose control?  Time will tell whether this accident should be added to the list of crashes caused by "improper VFR."  But without significant changes in the industry, Hawaiian tourists will continue to lose their lives in completely avoidable weather-related helicopter accidents. 

Philip, South Dakota is the site of the second fatal Robinson R66 crash. This time, only the pilot was on board the helicopter.  The first fatal R66 crash, which happened in July, killed two. 

How does the R66 safety record stack up so far? Robinson R66

Since there are only 41 R66’s on the US registry, the record stacks up poorly.  

Before the Robinson R66 came along, there were about 1.2 fatal turbine helicopter accidents for every 100,000 hours flown. For the R66 crashes to be in line with that norm, each of the 41 R66’s in the fleet would need to have logged 4000 hours.  Since Robinson didn’t start delivering the R66 until November 2010, that’s virtually impossible.  More realistically, the average time on an R66 is less than 400 hours.  

Though not a scientific analysis, as of now it looks as though Robinson’s R66 is about 10 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than other turbine helicopters.

Sure, this is a small sample.  Perhaps it’s too soon to draw any conclusions.  But should R66 owners and pilots be concerned?

Of course they should.

A helicopter carrying workers to an oil rig attempts to land on the rig’s platform. The helicopter hits something on the rig, spins out of control, and crashes into the sea. All the helicopter’s occupants are killed.Helicopter Approaching Oil Rig Platform 

Sadly, with more than 5000 oil rigs operating off the US shores, oil rig-related helicopter crashes are a relatively common occurrence.

Even though the accidents are almost always the result of someone’s negligence, it’s often unclear what compensation, if any, the victims’ families will be entitled to.  That’s because there is little agreement as to what law applies to helicopter accidents on oil rigs. 

Since there is no governing "helicopter accident law," some courts look to the law of admiralty.  Reasoning that the deaths occur offshore, they apply the Death on the High Seas Act. The Death on the High Seas Act, or DOHSA, generally allows the victims’ families “pecuniary damages” only.  Pecuniary damages include lost wages and funeral expenses. Except in certain circumstances, no compensation is allowed for the loss of the victim’s care, comfort and emotional support, or his pre-impact pain and suffering. When DOHSA applies, it can mean the family members get no compensation at all.

Most oil rigs are located on the "outer continental shelf." Because of that, some courts have ruled that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act applies to helicopter crashes on oil rigs. Unlike DOHSA, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act ("OCSLA") entitles the victims’ families to all the damages available under the wrongful death statute of the nearby state. That usually includes compensation for the loss of the victim’s care, comfort and affection.

In Alleman v. Omni Energy Services Corp, a helicopter pilot landed on an oil platform, then tried to lift off and reposition the helicopter to make it easier for the passengers to exit.  When he did, the helicopter’s main rotors struck a boat landing that had been improperly stored near the helipad.  The helicopter spun across the pad, momentarily came to rest on the edge of the pad, and then fell over the side of the rig and into the Gulf of Mexico below.  One passenger died.

The court ruled ruled that OSCLA applied, not the more restrictive DOHSA.

This accident "actually occurred" on the oil platform itself and OSCLA therefore applies. It does not impact our analysis that Hollier fell into the sea after the accident occurred on the platform. . . .Congress did not intend . . . that these island-platforms be within admiralty’s jurisdiction. 

Texas lawyer Ryan Hackney  questions the court’s reasoning:

The [opinion] takes it as self-evident that the accident “actually occurred” when the helicopter’s tail rotor made impact with the boat landing on the platform. From Hollier’s perspective, however, the more significant impact was surely the one when his helicopter crashed into the unforgiving water of the Gulf of Mexico. To put it bluntly, bumping your tail rotor might ruin your day, but crashing your helicopter into the high seas will ruin your whole week.

It was the main rotor that struck the landing, not the tail rotor.  But, putting that aside, Hackney’s  thorough analysis of the Alleman opinion and the law bearing on helicopter crashes on oil rigs is excellent and worth a read for anyone wrestling with the topic.

As Hackney’s analysis points out, the law that applies to helicopter crashes on oil rigs is confused.  In fact, there is sufficient disagreement among the courts concerning OCSLA’s application that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear argument in October in Pacific Operator Offshore v. Valladolid.  The case doesn’t involve a helicopter crash.  But it will tee up issues of when OCSLA applies to accidents injuring rig workers and when it does not.