Helicopter decision affects few Central Otago operators

One of Over the Top Helicopter's Robinson 44 helicopters.
Nicole Mcbeth

One of Over the Top Helicopter's Robinson 44 helicopters.

The decision to ground certain types of Robinson R44 series helicopters following a fatal crash last week is believed to have put just a handful of Central Otago-based aircraft out of action for now.

A maintenance engineer, who asked not to be named, said out of 25 R44 Central Otago aircraft his company serviced, he was aware of just two or three that were grounded.

The maintenance engineer said he did not know if all aircraft with a dash-seven blade must be checked before they can fly again.

"We don't know what to do yet. We are waiting to hear. But it will have a massive impact around New Zealand," he said.

"In Central Otago, as far as I am aware, only two or three are affected. And the ones that are operating are perfectly okay."

The Civil Aviation Authority directive is the largest-scale grounding of aircraft in New Zealand's aviation history and a similar directive has affected Australian aviation industry.

About 80 aircraft in New Zealand and 400 in Australia are reportedly affected by the grounding.

All Robinson R44 series helicopters fitted with main rotor blades P/N CO16-7, otherwise known as dash 7 blades, have been banned from flying.

The directive was issued in response to an investigation into an R44 accident near Queenstown on Thursday, which killed Stephen Anthony Nicholson Combe, aged 42, of Wanaka, and James Louis Patterson-Gardner, aged 18, of Queenstown.

The men worked for the Over the Top company operated by Patterson-Gardner's mother, Louisa "Choppy" Patterson. The company has an unblemished record.

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It appeared the aircraft's main rotor blade had failed during flight and it is now en route to the manufacturer and the US Federal Aviation Administration for analysis.

Wanaka Helicopters pilot Pete Spencer-Bower said his company's R44 was not grounded as it did not have the dash 7 type rotor blade. 

Wanaka Helicopters has a long association with using Robinson aircraft and chief pilot Simon Spencer-Bower is the world's most experienced Robinson pilot.

The fleet includes R22, R44, and Squirrel aircraft and also has access to a Hughes helicopter.

Wanaka Helicopters owns a related company, Greenstone Helicopters, which has two grounded R44s. They have the the newer type of rotor blade that is subject to the CAA directive.

Civil Aviation Authority director Graeme Harris said advice from Transport Accident Investigation Commission safety investigators indicated severe blade vibration similar to an R44 partial blade failure in January, which did not result in a crash.

CAA communications manager Mike Richards said he could not give a final date when the directive would end because it depended on when the director of CAA was satisfied safety concerns had been resolved.

"The investigation will help the director decide," he said.

While New Zealand aviation accidents can take many months to resolve Richards said having two agencies working on the investigation, "should accelerate the findings".

No-one wanted to put pressure on the investigators, and in the meantime it was not worth the risk to anybody to have any of the affected R44s in the air, he said.

"Even with a shadow of doubt the safest thing to do is to keep them on the ground," Richards said.

Robinson company representatives are understood to be travelling from the US to New Zealand to work alongside the investigators.

 - Stuff

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