With New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) currently investigating four accidents involving Robinson helicopters, critics are asking why so many pilots are involved in Robinson helicopter crashes. Most recently, Noel Edward Wilson died on Monday, March 27, when the Robinson R22 he was flying crashed into a hilly area on New Zealand’s west coast.
Although investigators have said it is still too early to determine the cause of that helicopter crash, critics note that in 20 years, 18 people have been killed in 14 crashes involving Robinson helicopters. In November 2016, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation suspended the use of Robinson helicopters due to concerns about mast bumping. Just prior to that, in October 2016, the TAIC added Robinson Helicopters to its most pressing concerns watchlist.
Too Many Deaths in Robinson Helicopter Accidents
“Too many New Zealand pilots are dying in Robinson helicopters.” That’s how the editorial for the New Zealand Herald opened on April 1, and it sums up the results of an investigation into an alarmingly high rate of accidents and fatalities in Robinson helicopters. What the investigation didn’t conclude is whether the issue is with the helicopter itself or with the pilots.
Survivors of helicopter crashes and the family members of people who have died say the problem isn’t just with a lack of pilot training or experience. Robinson Helicopters, on the other hand, says training and lack of experience is exactly the problem.
But the Herald editorial disputes Robinson Helicopter’s laying of the blame.
“Reports of fatal crashes in Robinson helicopters, often featuring experienced pilots in apparently good conditions, have become increasingly common,” the editorial asserts. Furthermore, even though Robinson Helicopters aircraft make up 35 percent of New Zealand’s helicopter fleet, they have been involved in 49 percent of accidents in the past decade, and 64 percent of fatal accidents.
Meanwhile, internationally, the Robinson R44 has been involved in 95 accidents causing 58 fatalities since January 2015.
Mast Bumping Blamed for Robinson Accidents
Mast bumping occurs when part of the helicopter’s rotor blade collides with the mast, typically in low-gravity flight. This occurrence can cause a helicopter to break up during the flight. According to the TAIC, 14 New Zealand helicopter crashes since 1991 have been attributed to mast bumping, and all seven fatal mast bump accidents in the past 10 years involved Robinson Helicopters.
Critics point to the Robinson’s rotor head, which is composed of three pivot points, not just one as most helicopters have. According to experts, the three pivot points make the helicopter more responsive to the pilot but also increase the risk of mast bumping.
TAIC Calls for Extension of Robinson Safety Restrictions
In releasing its report about a fatal 2014 helicopter crash involving a Robinson R44, the TAIC recommended that the same safety restrictions that are currently in place for smaller Robinson helicopters should be expanded to include larger choppers. The TAIC was investigating the accident that killed Damian Webster when the R44 he was piloting crashed into hilly terrain in the Kahurangi National Park.
The TAIC blamed the accident on mast bumping. Although pilot error may have contributed to the events that led to the fatal crash, the TAIC found that “all Robinson helicopter models were susceptible to mast bumping in low-gravity conditions.”
According to the TAIC, there are regulations that prevent pilots who are not experienced from flying R22 helicopters in certain conditions. If those regulations had been in place for R44 helicopters, the pilot would not have been permitted to fly the helicopter when the crash occurred. Furthermore, the agency recommended limitations be extended to all Robinson helicopters-R22, R44, and R66-and be applied to pilots regardless of their experience.
“We believe the flight characteristics of the three models are similar under those conditions,” investigators wrote. “And also, that those limitations should be applicable to pilots, regardless of their operating experience on the helicopters. Because experience has shown, accidents have shown, that pilots of a wide range of experience have had these accidents.”
Pilot’s Father Calls for Robinson Redesign
David Webster is the father of Damian Webster, the 37-year-old pilot who died in the Kahurangi National Park helicopter crash. Webster says Robinson helicopters shouldn’t be used in New Zealand until they are redesigned. He blames his son’s accident, and other accidents, on a design flaw.
“Why don’t they take the [helicopter] up to 3000 feet or whatever, where there is plenty of open-air, put in a low-g situation and recover it?” Webster challenged Robinson Helicopters. “They don’t, because the helicopter responds so rapidly that it destroys itself. The blades go through the canopy, killing the pilot, and the aircraft tumbles to the ground in bits.”
That is reportedly exactly what happened to Damian Webster, who died when a rotor blade on his R44 cut into the helicopter’s cabin. In the accident, the main rotor detached from the helicopter, landing 100 meters from the wreckage.
Although Robinson’s president, Kurt Robinson, blamed the pilot for the accident, Webster said even if his son wasn’t highly experienced, Robinson should still shoulder some blame for producing an aircraft that can quickly become uncontrollable. Questions about possible design flaws in Robinson helicopters have plagued the company for years.
Pilot Calls for Investigation into Robinson Mast Bump
Jim Finlayson is a New Zealand helicopter pilot who survived a mast bump incident. Describing the incident as “incredibly scary,” Finlayson said his R22 suffered a mast bump during a training flight. Although he survived and regained control by doing a barrel roll, Finlayson told a reporter for Newshub that helicopters aren’t designed to do barrel rolls, and he shouldn’t have been able to do one.
Furthermore, there was no turbulence and the weather was calm, when his incident occurred, leading Finlayson to argue that mast bumps can occur in normal flight conditions.
“Pilots have a very healthy sense of self-preservation,” Finlayson said. “They don’t tend to do things that are going to kill them.”
In addition to the Department of Conservation, the Ministry of Primary Industries has stopped using Robinson aircraft. The National Rural Fire Authority has advised the helicopters not be used in firefighting situations until more information is made available.