In July, 60 Minutes Australia aired an expose on Robinson Helicopter Company entitled ‘Fatal Flaw.’ The story revealed that in the last two years alone, eight Australians have lost their lives in post-crash fires stemming from Robinson helicopter crashes. The common thread tying all of these crashes together is that they were all survivable aside from one fatal flaw – the helicopter’s rigid aluminum fuel tank.
Three Fatal Robinson R44 Crashes in Australia in the Last Three Years:
- On March 21, 2013, four scientists set off on a joy flight aboard a Robinson R44. Pilot Anthony Farmer was attempting to land the helicopter when it struck a tree and crashed at low altitude. The helicopter erupted in fire, killing Farmer and his friends Donald Price, John Dunlop and Gerald Heddad.
- On February 4, 2012, filmmakers Andrew Wight and Mike DeGruy were setting off in a Robinson R44 to capture footage for a documentary when the helicopter crashed at low altitude seconds after takeoff, immediately bursting into flames. Wight and DeGruy were both incinerated.
- On February 4, 2011, pilot Ivor Durham and pilot trainee Sam Bateman were killed when the Robinson R44 they were in crashed at low altitude and caught fire.
A longstanding pattern of tragedy is revealed in the 60 Minutes piece. The question is, where was Robinson in addressing the fuel tank issue? And for that matter, where was the Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the government agency responsible for protecting the public from companies manufacturing faulty aircraft?
Robinson’s answer to the fire danger has been slow, doing little to adequately address the problem. Initially, the company issued a safety directive in 2007 after a tragic crash in Texas that involved yet another post-crash fire. In that safety directive, Robinson actually told pilots to be prepared for fire by wearing fire-retardant suits and gloves. They knew there was a serious problem with the fuel tank at this time, but rather than redesigning it, they kicked the can down the line. Finally, in 2009, the company issued another safety directive, telling R44 owners that they need to install a flexible fuel tank that is more crash-resistant. The only catch was that Robinson expected owners to pay for the expensive retrofit instead of fixing the problem themselves. Put simply, Robinson is profiting from their own flaw that would end up killing more and more people in post-crash fires every year. According to 60 Minutes, there are over 500 R44s operating in Australia. As of April 2013, there were still around 100 R44s that had not been retrofitted with the new fuel tank.
CASA finally made the decision to act on the fire danger, announcing that any R44 without a new fuel tank would be grounded, starting April 30, 2013. The action was considered a little too late for those that lost loved ones in Robinson crashes. Still, Australia has taken a far greater step toward accountability for Robinson. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has imposed no such warning for the helicopter manufacturer.