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.

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.

A few hours ago, USA Today published a lengthy investigative report devoted to small aircraft crashes. The conclusion:  aviation manufacturers have long concealed the fact that their defectively designed products cause aircraft crashes and injures. And the investigating agencies, including the NTSB and FAA, let them get away with it.

The report covers many of the issues we’ve touched upon before on this blog, from defective carburetors, to defective pilot seats, to faulty ice-protection systems. The report also covered a subject we’ve covered on this blog extensively – post crash helicopter fires in otherwise survivable accidents:

One of the most gruesome and long-standing problems has caused scores of people to be burned alive or asphyxiated in fires that erupt after helicopter crashes. Such deaths are notorious because they can occur after minor crashes, hard landings and rollovers that themselves don’t kill or even injure helicopter occupants. The impact can rupture helicopter fuel tanks, sending fuel gushing out, where it ignites into a lethal inferno.

Using autopsy reports and crash records, USA TODAY identified 79 people killed and 28 injured since 1992 by helicopter fires following low-impact crashes. In 36 non-fatal crashes, fire destroyed or substantially damaged helicopters after minor incidents such as rollovers, crash reports show.

The report didn’t mention the most recent Robinson fire that killed the R44’s pilot at Birchwood Airport in Alaska just two weeks ago.

Pilot error?

I’ve been saying for years that many crashes that the NTSB attributes to "pilot error" simply aren’t. The USA Today report backs that up.  The report discussed the fatal crash of a single engine Piper following engine failure.  The NTSB chalked up the engine failure to pilot error.  But, as it turns out, the crash was caused by a defective carburetor float. The judge handling the case noted that the carburetor manufacturer had received more than 100 warranty claims for similar problems before the crash. Yet none of that product history made it into the NSTB report.

Ruling against Lycoming  [the engine manufacturer] and Precision [the carburetor manufacturer], Philadelphia Judge Matthew Carrafiello found evidence both might be culpable. Precision received more than 100 warranty claims concerning carburetor defects, the judge said, and Lycoming continued to use the carburetors even though it "knew of ongoing problems" with the carburetors "and of numerous plane crashes resulting from such problems.

None of that information was included in the NTSB investigation, which was aided by Lycoming and Precision and blamed Andy Bryan, the pilot, for "failure to abort the takeoff" and "failure to maintain adequate airspeed during takeoff."

According to the report, many of the crashes that the NTSB concludes are due to pilot error are actually due to defectively designed aircraft.

Federal accident investigators repeatedly overlooked defects and other dangers of private aviation as they blamed individual pilots for the overwhelming number of crashes of small airplanes and helicopters . . . The failure of crash investigators to find defective parts, dangerous aircraft designs, inadequate safety features and weak government oversight helped allow hidden hazards to persist for decades, killing or injuring thousands of pilots and passengers . . .

Manufacturers mislead the FAA

Part of the problem is that the NTSB does not travel to the site of many small airplane crashes, leaving the on-scene investigation to the FAA. Unfortunately, according to a former NTSB investigator, the FAA personnel don’t have the same investigative experience as the NTSB investigators and are easily duped by the manufacturers.

Many times what happens now is that when the accident occurs, the technical rep of the (manufacturing) company will call the NTSB and say we’ll be party (to the investigation), we’ll go out there and let you know what we see … the only people on scene would be perhaps an FAA guy and the field rep of the manufacturer," said Douglas Herlihy, a former NTSB investigator who now reconstructs crashes, often for plaintiffs in lawsuits against manufacturers.

"If you (the NTSB) are not there, you’ve got the representative from the company at the scene. His job is to skew the facts, to ignore the product difficulties and to remove the question of liability," Herlihy said.

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

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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.

 

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.