Robinson helicopters’ safety record in New Zealand: Are increased safety measures making them safer to fly?

The Canterbury wedding party helicopter crash last month again raised concerns over Robinson helicopters’ safety record in New Zealand. But the US company and the aviation watchdog say increased safety measures are working. So are they safe to fly? Herald senior reporter Kurt Bayer reports.

In many ways, it had been a perfect early winter’s day: crisp, clear skies, calm. Perfect for golf. Perfect for a wedding. Perfect for flying.

As golfers strolled the manicured fairways, nestled at the foot of snow-dusted Southern Alps, the still serenity was broken by a 2006 Robinson R44 helicopter powering up.

It rose above the luxury high-country resort, wedding guests waving to the smiling bride and groom, making for a beauty spot, and photographs to last a lifetime.

But in a heartbeat, in the time it takes a golf ball to fly from a club face, tragedy struck.

For reasons not yet established, the helicopter’s engine suddenly cut out.

The golfers watched in horror as the machine plummeted from 300-400 feet to crash heavily onto a fairway, beside a raked bunker.

Incredibly, none of the four occupants – the pilot, wedding photographer Rachel Jordan, and newly-weds Mahdi Zougub and Fay El Hanafy – were killed. They all, however, face a long road to recovery after suffering serious injuries.

It was the latest high-profile case of a Robinson helicopter crashing in New Zealand.

For years, the California-made machines’ safety record have come under scrutiny.

In newly released figures to the Weekend Herald, the Government’s rule maker, the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (CAA), reveals 23 people have been killed in Robinson helicopters in the past 15 years.

In 2015, the CAA imposed safety awareness training for all Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters in New Zealand after rising concerns over the number of deadly “mast bumping” accidents.

And the following year, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) added Robinsons, the world’s most popular and numerous helicopter known by many simply as “Robbies”, to its safety watchlist.

It resulted in the Department of Conservation (DoC) banning its personnel from using the aircraft. TVNZ and other mainstream media outlets have similar no-Robinson policies.

But are they, as a US-based accident lawyer says, “a dangerous machine” that should potentially even be grounded?

Or are they, as a cheap and easy-to-manoeuvre workhorse of the skies, unfairly viewed?

As one aviation safety figure puts it, is it all a matter of perception?

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Robinson helicopters, as choppers go, are relatively inexpensive. A four-seater R44 model can be picked up for around US$500,000 (NZ$710,000) – half the price of other machines with similar specifications.

Used for flight training, agricultural, tourism and commercial operations, there are about 224 registered in New Zealand, according to updated CAA data, including 145 R44s, and amounting to a quarter of the country’s total helicopter fleet.

All Robinson helicopter operating handbooks state that pilots should avoid flying in high winds or turbulence, and subjecting the machine to low-G conditions.

That is where the concerns have been.

TAIC has raised concerns over the number of accidents where Robinsons have experienced “mast bumping”, or rotor blade divergence, where there is contact between an inner part of a main rotor blade or a rotor hub and the main rotor drive shaft which usually results in the helicopter breaking up in flight and can be fatal for those on board.

The rate of low-G related accidents in New Zealand is “considerably higher” than in other parts of the world, TAIC says, including some nine times higher than in the United States.

Experienced pilots spoken to by the Weekend Herald during its investigation report that Robinsons are fast and manoeuvrable but can also be unforgiving. Mistakes or sudden changes in conditions that can be quickly and simply corrected in other, more expensive machines, are not as easily performed in Robbies. And mast bumping can happen so rapidly – “literally, in the blink of an eye” – that inexperienced pilots might not be able to react quickly enough to prevent a catastrophic event.

The issues are compounded by New Zealand’s mountainous landscape, which can create turbulence and gusts.

As one industry figure put it: “Unexpected turbulence can be expected in New Zealand.”

Simon Spencer-Bower, one of the most experienced Robinson pilots in the world, with more than 22,000 flying hours, says nothing is wrong with them if they are properly handled.

“They don’t just break up in flight. Someone has done something silly or is operating in an environment they shouldn’t be flying in,” he has told the Herald previously.

Robinson Helicopter Company, based in Torrance, California says they are “deeply saddened” by the Terrace Downs crash and are working with New Zealand authorities to determine its cause.

Public relations manager Loretta Conley says they always works with TAIC and the CAA to support their accident investigations, and the company’s “focus and priority has always been on safety”.

Conley says the improvements in training and helicopter operations instituted by the CAA, flight examiners, operators and aviation associations over the past five years have “led to significant improvements in New Zealand helicopter safety”.

“Robinson continually works to enhance our helicopters to improve safety and now offers both a cockpit camera and digital engine monitoring unit for use in training, maintenance and investigations,” she told the Weekend Herald.

The CAA also points to the drop in fatal crashes, and in mast bumping incidents overall, in recent years.

The compulsory safety awareness courses imposed by the CAA six years ago remain in place, with ongoing training required every two years.

In 2016, directives were extended to cover all types of Robinson helicopters and introduced some speed limits after speed was identified as a factor in mast bumping accidents.

CAA deputy chief executive aviation safety David Harrison says it has all helped.

“Provided Robinson helicopters are operated within the flight manual limits and follow all the correct rules and procedures, then we do not have any concerns around the safety of the helicopter,” he says.

“They are, by some measure, the most common helicopter in use in the world. They form, over a period, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the helicopter fleet, so they get a lot of use, and it’s not perhaps surprising that they generate a number of incidents and accidents.”

The last Robinson fatal accident in New Zealand was that of Matt Wallis, over Lake Wanaka in July 2018.

TAIC concluded the in-flight breakup was caused by mast bumping as pilot Wallis – whose brother Nick would die alongside two DoC workers in a Hughes 500 helicopter crash near Wanaka three months later – flew over mountainous terrain in conditions and at a speed that put the craft at risk of an “adverse outcome” from strong turbulence.

“Operators, owners and pilots of helicopters with this type of main rotor need to know that the risk of mast bumping increases with the likelihood of turbulence, mountainous operating environments, high power settings, higher speed and light weight,” TAIC chief commissioner Jane Meares said at the time.

During its investigation into Matt Wallis’ fatal accident, TAIC was told by Robinson Helicopter Company that the University of Maryland was undertaking a study to improve the understanding of low-G mast bumping on its machines.

At last month’s coronial inquiry into the February 19, 2015 deaths of 18-year-old James Patterson Gardner and experienced pilot, former Iraq War veteran Stephen Combe, independent air crash investigator Andrew McGregor highlighted the American university’s research.

The study’s conclusions highlighted “significant uncertainty” and said the issue required more research. McGregor agreed, and in a detailed 65-page report for Coroner Alexandra Cunninghame looking at the crash near Queenstown, obtained by Weekend Herald, he said while there was insufficient evidence to ground the helicopter, further research was justified to examine mast bumping with Robinsons.

“Many pilots have experienced thousands of successful, safe hours flying it so you have to be careful about criticising it too much,” McGregor told the Weekend Herald.

“These in-flight break-ups happen very infrequently but we do have unresolved questions about it.”

Another expert who gave evidence at last month’s double inquest in Queenstown, which also heard concerns over Robinson’s unique rotor head design, former CAA investigator Tom McCready said he prefers not to fly in Robinsons, describing them as the helicopter world’s “scooter” equivalent.

He made the decision not to fly in Robinsons years ago after investigating accidents in Queenstown and Wanaka, where he could be dropped at an accident site in the early morning in fine weather but have to wait in a howling gale to be collected at 5pm.

“So, I always hired a more powerful helicopter that could take two or three people and gear and have power margins if things deteriorated,” McCready told the inquest.

One pilot who has 2000 hours flying Robinsons has just made the decision to retire from the air, citing safety as the primary reason.

While he says Robinsons are relatively cheap, the helicopter version of a Toyota Camry, “for the everyday man”, and easy to fly, they are safe machines if pilots adhere to the safe operating procedures and they are rigorously maintained.

He believes, however, that the industry needs more regulation, with concerns around “low hour pilots” and “cowboys”.

“There is a new generation of cashed-up bogans who can now afford to fly,” he warns.

“They have been great for the civilian industry. Not many of us could learn to fly if it wasn’t for the affordability of Robinson helicopters.”

Los Angeles-based law firm Baum Hedlund has had discussions with New Zealand crash victims over the years.

They currently have three civil cases on their books – and have settled several cases out of court with Robinson after fatal crashes.

Attorney Ronald LM Goldman, himself an experienced pilot who has visited Robinson’s headquarters a number of times to conduct post-crash inspections, says they will, in time, reach out to families of the Terrace Downs crash.

“In our view, there is just an inordinate number of accidents involving Robinson helicopters,” he says.

“To us, it’s a major concern that this helicopter poses a danger to the public that flies in them, particularly unwitting passengers – take this [Terrace Downs couple], they had no reason to know that this is a [type of] helicopter with a chequered history of safety. They are trusting souls and they get on board because they’re going to have a good time and they wind up with catastrophic injuries.

“In my view, it’s a dangerous machine. They’ve had a larger number of accidents than anybody else. And we need to understand why this is happening.”

Louisa “Choppy” Patterson, whose son James died six years ago, has campaigned tirelessly for in-flight video and data recorders, similar to the “black box” instrument in commercial aeroplanes.

While looking into her only child’s death, TAIC made a recommendation to promote in-flight cameras to the Ministry of Transport and CAA.

Last week, a coroner’s findings into the death of an Auckland company director killed in a tragic heli-skiing crash reiterated previous calls by crash investigators and coroners for all helicopters to be fitted with cockpit video recorders.

Patterson has even developed her own in-flight data recorder, called “Eye in the Sky”, which costs about US$5500 (NZ$7872) and has been approved by the CAA.

But while the CAA encourages operators to install them, they are still not mandatory, saying it’s up to the Ministry of Transport to make the call.

Responding to questions from the Weekend Herald, Transport Minister Michael Wood said that if the CAA, as part of its probe into the Terrace Downs wedding party crash, recommended any changes to the regulation of Robinsons or in-flight recorders, then Government would “carefully examine those and any other recommendations”.

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