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Why Robinson helicopters seem to have a bad habit of crashing

Flying instructor Simon Spencer-Bower in a Robinson R22 over Wanaka. Photo/Gareth Eyres/Listener

Operators and safety authorities suggest the fault lies with the person at the controls rather than the helicopter itself.

Louisa Patterson is staring at the weather. Hang around with pilots long enough and you quickly realise it’s a thing they do. A lot.

The cloud is low over the Queenstown basin; skeins of white murk hang in the valleys. There’s fresh snow to 700m on the Crown Range and the surrounding mountains.

If only you could see it …

Patterson is the boss and chief pilot of Over the Top Helicopters. Based in Queenstown since 1986, she has close to 13,000 hours’ flying experience. Everything in the company’s workspace is squared away and shipshape. Safety is paramount within the Over the Top team.

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To that end, Patterson and her crew have developed what is essentially a helicopter black box. This isn’t some data recording device stuck in the tail of the aircraft. The Eye in the Sky is an aircraft video, audio and data recording device. Compact and rugged looking, it’s like a GoPro camera on steroids. The device is designed to be mounted on the cockpit ceiling within visual range of the controls and instruments, without impeding the view through the forward windscreen. When installed, it is hardly noticeable, but what it can deliver is impressive.

Patterson has a lot invested in the device, financially and emotionally. Her only son, James, was killed when a Robinson R44 in which he was training, along with instructor Stephen Combe, crashed in the Lochy River basin near Queenstown in 2015.

There are conflicting opinions as to the cause of the crash. The phenomenon known as “mast bumping” (see below) was involved. But it’s not known – and perhaps never will be –  what led to that happening. Patterson and her team have since thrown their energy into the Eye in the Sky project. The small device has been designed by pilots and engineers to collect all relevant flight information – video, audio and IMU (which measures pitch, roll and yaw) – and GPS-based height, position and speed data.

“Not only can Eye in the Sky be used for flight data, but it can be also used anywhere in a ‘he said-she said’ scenario. It’s not just the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It has many other attributes,” Patterson says.

These can include video replays that may help pilots and engineers identify  an intermittent fault, or – like a video debrief after a rugby game – enable a review of how a flight was conducted from which tips may be gleaned to make the cockpit safer.

The device sells for US$4400, which seems a small investment in the total value of a helicopter, not to mention the safety aspects relating to human lives.

Double tragedy

On the afternoon of July 21 last year, the forecast for the Wanaka area was for winds of 50 knots and rain. Well-liked local pilot Matt Wallis, a son of Warbirds over Wanaka founder Sir Tim Wallis, was flying a Robinson R44 on a 15-minute supply flight to Minaret Station. After 14 minutes, he couldn’t be reached by radio. His aircraft and body were recovered from Lake Wanaka two days later.

The Wallis family’s Alpine Group has operated helicopter services in Wanaka for 55 years. Sir Tim was a pioneer of the live-deer-recovery industry in New Zealand. Last October, three months after Matt’s death, his brother Nick Wallis was killed, along with Department of Conservation employees Paul Hondelink and Scott Theobald, when the leased Hughes 500 helicopter in which they were flying crashed close to Wanaka airfield. Both accidents are under investigation by the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC).

Ironically, in February last year, DoC decided to stop using Robinson helicopters to transport its staff because of safety concerns. DoC put a temporary ban on Robinsons in November 2016, and had since been reviewing whether staff should continue flying in them. The suspension followed several fatal “mast bump” crashes – where the main rotor blade strikes the fuselage – involving Robinson helicopters, the placing of Robinson helicopters on the TAIC “watch list” and a fatal Robinson R44 crash in Northland.

Fire and Emergency, which runs the country’s fire services, and some regional councils followed suit.

Helicopters made by the Robinson Helicopter Company are obviously popular. The company, started in California in 1973, is the world’s third-largest manufacturer of civil helicopters. Frank Robinson, who set out to produce the world’s most reliable helicopters in the most cost-effective way, appears to have succeeded. Its first model, the two-seater R22, proved popular with private owners and flight schools for its simple design, ease of maintenance and low price. The company has since introduced the four-seater R44 and five-seater R66.

Robinson has delivered more than 12,000 helicopters worldwide and now employs about 1300 people. Of the 305 choppers it built in 2017, 174 were R44s, making it the world’s biggest-selling helicopter, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

James Forward and Louisa Patterson of Over the Top Helicopters with an Eye in the Sky recorder. Photo/Gareth Eyres/Listener

How is it that a helicopter designed and built in the most litigious nation in the world could continue to be made in such numbers without being swamped by lawsuits if the product was dangerous or faulty? Is the frequency with which they appear in our crash statistics the fault of the aircraft or the way some New Zealand pilots fly them?

The R22 is commonly used in this country as a training craft and in agriculture, but it and the larger R44 model both have a record of accidents and fatalities. There are 133 R22s and 179 R44s operating here.

Since 1991, the TAIC or the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have investigated 14 mast-bumping accidents or incidents involving Robinson helicopters, including nine where low-G mast bumping is known to have occurred. The most recent six of these were between 2012 and 2015. Eighteen people have died in the 14 accidents, including nine in known low-G mast-bumping accidents.

In 2016, the TAIC released a report into the 2013 crash of an R66, following a mast bump. That crash, in the Kaweka Range, Hawke’s Bay, killed 39-year-old pilot Mark Didsbury. The report said the aircraft’s main rotor blade system could fail in high winds or turbulence and was probably a factor in the accident.

It said four of the seven fatal accidents of R66s that had occurred worldwide since their introduction in 2010 were mast-bump or low-main-rotor-speed accidents. “These are accident types seen with the smaller R22 and R44, which have the same main-rotor design. However, the R66 was certificated without any special pilot-training requirements to mitigate the risk of these types of accident.”

The CAA subsequently told pilots flying the smaller Robinsons to avoid turbulence because of the risk of the aircraft breaking up.

John Sinclair, executive officer of the New Zealand Helicopter Association, says this country’s Robinson accident statistics reflect the fact that the company’s helicopters are widely used to train new pilots. But US lawyer Ladd Sanger, who has acted for many victims and relatives connected to Robinson helicopter accidents around the world, told 1 News after the Hawke’s Bay crash report that there was a systemic problem.

“Either bad pilots are selecting Robinson helicopters or there is something broader going on that is making the Robinson accident statistics be so much worse than competing helicopters,” he said, adding that pilot training was not the answer.

The Civil Aviation Authority has been monitoring the situation closely, and safety investigation manager Jim Burtenshaw says the aircraft are safe to fly. “If for one second we thought the Robinson aircraft was unsafe to fly, then we would take immediate action to address that,” he says.

“The aircraft continues to be safe to fly if it is operated within the guidelines of the manufacturer.”

Military hardware

The bulk of the New Zealand national helicopter fleet is composed of aircraft from four main manufacturers: Eurocopter, Bell Helicopter, McDonnell Douglas/Hughes and Robinson. The first three companies cut their teeth in the tough testing ground of manufacturing for military use. The Robinson was designed as a light training and commuter aircraft. It’s never been to war. The innovation involved in its design has resulted in an economical, practical, easy-to-maintain aircraft.

When Tom Cruise and his film crew spent five weeks in the Queenstown-Southern Lakes District shooting the dramatic aerial sequences for Mission Impossible: Fallout, the CAA wanted to make sure he was up to the task. It demanded Cruise fly 10 hours on a New Zealand mountain flying course. The instructor was Simon Spencer-Bower, of Wanaka, who devised the advanced helicopter mountain flying course, the first mountain training course approved by the CAA.

Spencer-Bower has been flying helicopters since 1980 and became a flight instructor in 1984. His training aircraft of choice has been the Robinson R22. Based on hours in type, he is one of the most experienced, if not the most experienced, Robinson helicopter pilots in the world. He’s trained more than 600 pilots.

Accidents come down to two things, says Spencer-Bower: either it’s the pilot or the machine. “It’s like car accidents. It’s hardly ever that something goes wrong with the vehicle. It all comes back to human error. This can be either due to bad choices – such as choosing to fly in unsuitable conditions, or pilot distraction – or getting into a situation that you don’t have the skill or knowledge to get out of. The machine just doesn’t crash by itself.”

The car analogy is helpful. “Let’s say, for example, everybody learnt to drive in a Toyota Corolla. Then, the first car they own is a Corolla. Accident statistics would rapidly start to show that a lot of people crash in Toyota Corollas.”

Aircraft choice also comes down to suitability for the task at hand. “It’s a rough day weather wise. You’re going up the mountain. There’s fresh snow and it’s windy. You look in the garage and there’s the Corolla and the Land Rover. Which one are you going to take? It all boils down to common sense.”

Pilot Bill Black, a Fiordland legend, told me before one early-morning flight: “Look at all these things spinning about in different directions. It’s a bloody miracle they can fly. And they couldn’t, except for one thing – and that’s the pilot sitting at the controls.” It’s as though the pilot becomes part of the machine – the necessary link between the fast-moving, cleverly engineered parts and the graceful thing that a helicopter becomes in the air.

Great pilots are often naturals. They have an eye out constantly for rising lift-air, looking for clues such as the movement of smoke, birds on the wing, waving tussock, shaking trees and the wind on water. Any little piece of information can assist the aircraft into better flight performance, especially when flying over rugged terrain, such as mountains.

It’s almost as though top pilots can see air moving. And those with many thousands of hours in their logbooks are inevitably thorough, focused, practical and safe-thinking. They have to be, because accidents do happen.

Greg Whyte, the author of the book Fatal Traps for Helicopter Pilots, writes, “Most helicopter crashes are extremely predictable. Someone – not always the pilot, sometimes the passenger, engineer or simply a bystander – took a chance, forgot something, ignored a principle or otherwise initiated the disaster.”

Doug Maxwell has owned eight Robinson R22s, but now flies a Guimbal Cabri G2. Photo/Gareth Eyres/Listener

Reliable workhorses

When it comes to Robinson helicopters, opinion on their safety and reliability is polarised. Operators say that if the aircraft are well maintained and flown within their flight parameters, they are economical and reliable workhorses.

Reliability and affordability were big drivers when Doug Maxwell bought his first Robinson. “In an R22, we could cover the same ground on venison recovery as we did in a Hughes 500 for a third of the cost. It was a no-brainer.”

Maxwell, who started flying in 1973 aged 22, has logged 28,000 hours of flying time. Most has been either shooting or live capture of wild deer, frost control for fruit crops in the Alexandra region and control of invasive species such as wilding pines for DoC.

“I’ve owned eight Robinson R22s. They’re a smart design, but they’re built to a price point. Robinson was a smart guy. Essentially, he got a very reliable Lycoming engine and built the helicopter around that. The last one, I spent over 15,000 hours in, and had no issues at all with what I did with it.

“But when it came time to trade it in, I bought a French [Guimbal] Cabri G2. It uses the same engine … I’d never go back to the R22. The G2 has three blades and an enclosed tail rotor. It’s essentially a small Squirrel [a popular five- to six-passenger helicopter].”

Maxwell felt he’d reached a point in his career where it was time for a change from Robinsons. “[With the Cabri] I don’t feel as though I’m on the edge of my seat all the time, staying on top of it like it was in the R22. I can relax a bit. The thing is, and it’s something that does concern me, there are some accidents where nobody will ever know the cause. There’s always a ‘what if?’”

So, where would he look if he was investigating an accident? “It’s funny – I was just talking to John Fogden [formerly of the CAA] about that. He said: ‘How do you hold your cyclic [control stick]?’ I told him I always tucked it into my knee as it gives more stability.

“If you go through a bad patch of turbulence, the stick is held steady and that stops you from putting the wrong input in  – which could lead to a mast bump.”

The best accident-avoidance advice the TAIC offers Robinson helicopter operators is for them to ensure they “select a type of aircraft suited to the risk profile of the intended use. Similarly, all pilots must understand the helicopter’s operating limitations, avoid circumstances that could see these inadvertently exceeded and receive proper training in the causes, dangers and prevention of mast bumping, including in low-G conditions. It is particularly important for Robinson pilots to be aware of the risks of flying a lightly loaded helicopter at high speed in turbulence.”

Transport safety investigator Peter Williams, who wrote the report into the 2013 Hawke’s Bay R66 crash, stated that pilots must be careful not to extend the operational limits of Robinson helicopters. He said thousands of the helicopters were flown safely around the world. “What can be dangerous is how they are operated under certain conditions.” These included in turbulence or at certain speeds. “They are low-performance, low-power aircraft and are limited [in] what they can do.”

The TAIC has published an interim report into the October 18 crash that killed Nick Wallis, Paul Hondelink and Scott Theobald. A pair of overtrousers flew from the cabin of the helicopter and became tangled in the tail rotor, causing it to crash. “Since that accident, we have been made aware of numerous incidents of doors opening in-flight on the same aircraft make and model,” investigators said.

Mast bumping implicated

The commission also released an interim report into the July crash into Lake Wanaka that killed Matt Wallis, saying the wreckage showed evidence of mast bumping. “Although we have not come to a conclusion about what caused this accident, evidence of mast bumping is always a concern for the commission,” the report said.

“There is also evidence that a main rotor blade has struck and entered the cabin in flight. There are score marks on the blade that match screws on the canopy bow; there is scoured paint on the screws. The same rotor blade has marks matching damage to the flight instruments panel.”

Says Spencer-Bower: “If only we knew what happened. If there was a camera in the cockpit, we would know.”

There are two new aircraft in the hangar at Alpine Helicopters’ Wanaka base. One bears the registration HMW, the other HNW. The initials of the two Wallis brothers will be remembered in the aircraft they knew and loved.

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.