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Are Robinson helicopters too dangerous?

FrankCanada97

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Feb 24, 2016
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Undetermined reasons: Are Robinson helicopters too dangerous?
More than 20 years after United States safety authorities began a special safety investigation into Robinsons, debate is raging following a spate of crashes in New Zealand. Phil Taylor reports.
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The company, founded by Frank Robinson, made its first helicopter in 1979 and 12,000 more have since rolled off its production lines. Robinson is acclaimed, the recipient of the Daniel Guggenheim Medal for his "conception, design and manufacture of a family of quiet, affordable, reliable and versatile helicopters".

Yet, according to crash data, people are dying in these helicopters at an inordinate rate.

The families of those who died on the mountainside say Robinson helicopters have pushed too far towards lightness and affordability for New Zealand conditions.

It is a vexing issue. Whether the high accident rate is due to operator error, or because the unique Robinson rotor design makes them more prone to catastrophe when things go wrong, or both, is a question that carries obvious commercial implications and an emotional load for those who are grieving loved ones.

But officials expected to be dispassionate also hold concerns. In a decision heard around the world of aviation, New Zealand's Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) last October put Robinson helicopters on its watch list: the highest alert it can give.
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Citing 14 mast-bumping accidents costing 18 lives since 1991, the commission called for renewed testing of Robinson helicopters (among other recommendations aimed at promoting safe handling of the machines).
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The Department of Conservation (DoC) has stopped its staff flying in the helicopters (pending receipt of a report it has commissioned), so have Tourism New Zealand and TVNZ.

Mast bumping is contact between the inner part of a main rotor blade or the rotor hub and the drive shaft or "mast". Helicopters are not yet required to have recording devices and there is rarely eyewitness testimony or other direct evidence about what led to a mast bump.

Statements in investigation reports about probable cause are essentially the same: "The divergence of the main rotor from its normal plane of rotation for an undetermined reason."

"The Robinson rotor head will mast bump sooner than other types and the reaction from mast bump will be much quicker and more severe," Tom McCready, an engineer and veteran accident investigator, told the Herald.

In other helicopters, you may walk away with a fright and a dented mast, says the former CAA investigator. Mast-bump accidents in Robinsons in New Zealand have been catastrophic.
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A mast-bump could occur so fast, McCready says, an instructor may not be able to recover the situation when a trainee is flying.. "When it turns to shit, it turns to shit very quickly."

Robinson purposely built a helicopter for the masses and its machines have a place, says McCready. It may be that the helicopter is sometimes pushed beyond what it is designed for.

The owner of a flight instruction company that uses Robinsons, but who did not want his name published, notes they were designed as an executive commuter. Kiwis were the first to put a hook on a Robinson. They are used for mustering and deer recovery. "Kiwis being Kiwis have taken it to a whole different level. And in the right hands they are capable of doing that, but you just have to know where those limits are."

Back to McCready. "It is not a big, tough helicopter. If you relate it to motorbikes, which are also about balance and power and handling, it's a scooter. I ride a good 1200cc motorbike. They handle well, have got good brakes, the power to get you out of trouble, got all sorts of things going for them. But a scooter doesn't.

"You're on a scooter and you get between two logging trucks. Now relate the trucks to mountains where it is windy. A lot of accidents that have happened is not the fault of Robinsons but because they are Robinsons."
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Robinson says he doesn't know how McCready reached his view about the rotor head design risk. The Robinson company had looked at it "a lot and we can't find anything to it." And an FAA rotor craft panel had looked at the Robinson tri-hinge design in the 1990s and "explicitly found that it makes no difference to the susceptibility to low-G mast bumping".

However, research into the dynamic behaviour of lightweight helicopter main rotor systems was not completed because it was not thought safe to conduct flight tests of the response to abrupt control inputs.

Georgia Tech School of Aerospace Engineering subsequently worked on a computer simulation model but ran out of funds and the work was dropped in 1998 after the FAA decided it would have "limited application" and that "subsequent validation . . . would involve extensive testing with significant risk to flight safety".


In calling for unfinished testing to be reinstated, New Zealand's accident commission said it "is likely that mast-bump accidents with Robinson helicopters will continue to happen unless the dynamic behaviour of the main rotor preceding such a catastrophe is fully understood."
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Ilyas Akbari is a partner specialising in transport accidents for Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, a Los Angeles law firm that has acted in numerous actions arising from helicopter accidents.

All of the firm's cases involving blade strikes were Robinson helicopters, Akbari told the Herald.


"Robinson Helicopters says it is operational error, you shouldn't be flying in high wind areas. But in my opinion, a lot of it also has to do with the design. If you can make the blades more robust, in addition to stiffening the vertical structure around the main rotor mast, I think it would go a long way to stabilising this helicopter."

The blades had less mass and were more flexible than comparable helicopters. "When you have less mass you have less ability to recover," Akbari says.

"I don't know how much consideration Robinsons has given that. Their position is they have 30-million flight hours and comparatively there are few accidents, when in reality per thousand hours of flight time they have by far the highest number of deaths or crashes compared to other manufacturers."

According to data collected by the independent Aviation Safety Network, the four-seater R44, for example, has been in 95 accidents internationally 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.

Akbari: "One of the things that puzzles me is that there are very experienced pilots dying. It is one thing to blame the pilot but at the same time a lot of experienced pilots are dying in these helicopters."

Wanaka helicopter instructors in September 2008. Photo/Supplied

From 2015:
NTSB: Robinson helicopter crashes have killed 19, injured 41 in Florida since 2000
The cause behind Central Florida's deadliest helicopter crash two weeks ago likely awaits a yearlong investigation to figure out what went tragically wrong in the last minutes of the three victims' lives.

Recreational pilot Bruce Teitelbaum became so concerned just minutes after takeoff March 22 from Orlando Executive Airport that he decided he had to turn back. After Teitelbaum radioed the control tower, his rented Robinson R44 II helicopter crashed into a home in the College Park neighborhood and burst into flames.

The crash is the 10th tenth fatal Robinson helicopter accident in Florida during the past 15 years.

Since Jan. 1, 2000, there have been 165 people killed in 96 crashes involving Robinson helicopters in the United States, according to National Transportation Safety Board records. There have been 512 deaths in 291 Robinson crashes worldwide since 1982.

That's second only to Bell Helicopter, which has been in business 37 years longer than Robinson and has built more than three times as many helicopters, records show.

Nationwide, there have been 229 people who died in 122 Bell helicopter crashes since 2000. There have been nearly 1,100 deaths worldwide in at least 485 crashes since 1982, NTSB records show.

The Robinson helicopters are the most affordable brand, ranging in price from about $250,000 to $850,000, records show.

But critics, including aviation law firms, say low prices mean Robinson does not provide the safety features and durability of more expensive brands.

"People who really want to fly can afford to fly them," said attorney Ilyas Akbari, who works with the California-based law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman. "It's the cheapest by far in comparison to any competitor."

The law firm has handled nine lawsuits involving 17 deaths and five injuries in Robinson helicopter crashes since 2001. Six ended in confidential settlements, and the other three remain in court.

As an example of the questionable safety features, Akbari cited the company's rotor blades that were so light and flexible they became known as "linguini blades" and sometimes struck the helicopters, causing crashes.

On Jan. 15, the FAA ordered the owners of 2,643 Robinson R22 and R44 helicopters registered in the U.S. to replace their blades with safer models over the next five years at a projected total cost of $122 million, records show.


Akbari said another example is a rubber drive belt in Robinson aircraft engines that is the same type of belt used in some lawn mowers.

Pilots are supposed to check the belt closely during the first 50 hours of operation to make sure it doesn't slip or slide off track, he said.

The firm's cases involving confidential settlements included an Aug. 2, 2007, crash of a Robinson R44 II that killed the pilot and three passengers in Oregon.

After the tail rotor allegedly malfunctioned, the pilot tried to land safely, but the helicopter caught fire and 485 acres burned for several days, according to court records.

Robinson mass produces helicopters and sell them relatively cheaply to the masses. There is debate whether the high number of inexperienced pilots choosing Robinson are to blame or if there is a design flaw with Robinson's three models. In any case, it seems that Robinson helicopters are disproportionately crashing. If Robinson were a car company, there'd be mass recalls everywhere.
 

Volimar

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Jun 11, 2011
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I've heard that Robinsons handle pretty lousy at even slightly windy conditions because they're so light. Couple that with amateur pilots and it could get pretty scary.
 

FrankCanada97

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Feb 24, 2016
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how about gyrocopters? If these Robinson things are so bad, the rest of the userbase should move to gyros

Companies are also using Robinsons as light utility helicopters. Others are using them as transport or for heli tours. Not sure a gyrocopter can fulfill the same roles.
 

Darth Pinche

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Jul 30, 2009
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I've seen these Robinson helicopters fly around town for tourist flights and they always looks sketchy. Can't put my finger as to why, but I get nervous when they fly overhead. They look like something built in your garage.
 

jellies_two

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Jun 14, 2014
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One problem they had was the fuel tanks were prone to bursting in a crash so there is a very expensive option to replace them internally with rubber bladders many owners don't feel the expense is worth it.

A little while ago there was the video released in the news from a camera in a heli filming a bride on the way to her wedding: the Robinson crashed in limited visibility after it hit trees and the wreckage burned to a crisp. I thought about that fuel tank issue when watching that.
 

FrankCanada97

Roughly the size of a baaaaaarge
Feb 24, 2016
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One problem they had was the fuel tanks were prone to bursting in a crash so there is a very expensive option to replace them internally with rubber bladders many owners don't feel the expense is worth it.

A little while ago there was the video released in the news from a camera in a heli filming a bride on the way to her wedding: the Robinson crashed in limited visibility after it hit trees and the wreckage burned to a crisp. I thought about that fuel tank issue when watching that.

Speaking of videos, there seems to be a lot of youtube videos of different Robinson helicopter crashes from around the world. I guess that just comes with the popularity of the make.