Too many New Zealand pilots are dying in Robinson helicopters. That much is clear from Phil Taylor's thorough investigation today into the helicopter's disturbingly high rate of crashes and fatalities. But opinion is still strongly divided over whether the pilots or the machines are primarily to blame and whether the answer lies in an improved rotor design or better training.
Reports of fatal crashes in Robinson helicopters, often featuring experienced pilots in apparently good conditions, have become increasingly common. This week a 51-year-old sole pilot, Noel Edward Wilson, was killed when his two-seater R22 crashed into a remote hilly area near Reefton. The accident will be investigated by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission, which last October put Robinson helicopters on its watch list: the highest alert it can give. The commission cited 18 deaths since 1991 as a result of 14 "mast-bumping" accidents, in which the central part of the helicopter's rotor blade makes contact with the drive shaft or "mast", usually leading to the helicopter breaking up in flight. Among other recommendations, it has called for renewed testing of Robinson helicopters.
At first glance, the aircraft's safety record looks bad. Robinson helicopters make up 35 per cent of the New Zealand fleet but have been involved in 49 per cent of accidents in the 10 years to last November, including 64 per cent of fatal accidents. All seven fatal mast-bump accidents were Robinson aircraft. Internationally the four-seater R44 has been in 95 accidents since January 2015, resulting in 58 fatalities. Twenty per cent of those accidents, (making up three-quarters of the fatalities), were recorded as arising from unknown circumstances. A Los Angeles lawyer specialising in transport accidents says the Robinson has by far the highest number of deaths and crashes by flight hours compared to other manufacturers.
Criticism of the helicopter has focused on the design of its rotor head, which has three pivot points instead of the usual one. This reportedly makes the aircraft more responsive but also more likely to suffer mast bumping in turbulence or if the pilot makes a sudden change to the controls. Former Civil Aviation Authority investigator Tom McCready compares it to a high-performance sports car. In the right hands it flies beautifully, he told Taylor, but if you handle it incorrectly "you can get into trouble real fast".
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McCready would like to see the company redesign the rotor head for greater safety. Unsurprisingly the head of the company, Kurt Robinson, disagrees, saying the US Federal Aviation Administration could find no fault with the design in the 1990s. He lays the blame squarely on New Zealand pilots for pushing the machine too hard - a view that wins some acceptance among experienced local pilots, who say even the best operators can make one fatal error.
For now any retesting of Robinson helicopters - let alone a redesign of its highly sensitive rotor head - looks unlikely. There is still no agreement on how the tests could be performed safely and the company is no doubt wary of opening itself up to more legal action. The best hope appears to be in-flight video and data recording devices in all aircraft, which Robinson hopes to achieve by the end of the year. That may give us the best information yet on why so many of the company's helicopters are falling out of our skies.