Choppers in safety scare before fatal Queenstown crash

GROUNDED: Robinson 44 helicopters are being investigated, like this one owned by Over the Top, the company involved in a ...
Nicole Mcbeth

GROUNDED: Robinson 44 helicopters are being investigated, like this one owned by Over the Top, the company involved in a double fatality in Queenstown.

The helicopter model involved in a double fatality in Queenstown was the subject of a national warning issued a month before, after a rotor blade cracked during a flight.

Pilots across New Zealand have raised concerns the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) did not ban the Robinson R44 choppers sooner.

The authority grounded all Robinson R44 series helicopters fitted with main rotor blades P/N CO16-7 - known as dash 7 blades - on Saturday after the death of two Over the Top Helicopters staff members last week.

It was followed by an urgent directive from Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which banned 500 affected helicopters from flying while the crash investigation takes place.

Stephen Anthony Nicholson Combe, 42, of Wanaka, and James Louis Patterson-Gardner, 18, of Queenstown, died on Thursday when the R44 helicopter they were in crashed in the Lochy River basin near Queenstown.

It appeared the aircraft's main rotor blade had failed during flight.

In January, the CAA issued a "continuing airworthiness notice", advising of an inflight failure of a Robinson R44's main rotor blade, which resulted in "severe main rotor vibration". The pilot was forced to make an emergency landing, and a large crack was found on the blade.

The CAA recommended all main rotor blades on the choppers be inspected before each flight for "defects which may initiate a crack and result in a catastrophic failure".

A Christchurch helicopter pilot believes the warning was not enough.

The pilot, who wished to remain anonymous, said the CAA was "notoriously slow at acting on these sorts of things".

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"At the end of the day, the CAA were well and truly aware of this serious problem and could have saved an 18-year-old and a well-respected pilot's life," he said.

"[It's a] shame they had to wait for fatalities before taking further action."

CAA communications manager Mike Richards said there was "no cause" to ground the helicopters after the January incident.

"The pilot landed safely[...] There may be no connection at all - we are simply taking a precaution."

The cracked blade was sent to the Federal Aviation Administration in America for inspection.

Pictures of the helicopter involved in last week's crash were now being sent to the FAA for comparison, Richards said.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission called for a review of safety training and standards for Robinson helicopters last year after an investigation into another fatal helicopter crash.

Wanaka Helicopters instructor Graham Stott, 31, and trainee Marcus Hoogvliet, 21, were killed when their two-seater Robinson R22 broke-up mid-flight and crashed near the head of the Arawhata River in Mt Aspiring National Park.

The larger Robinson R44 helicopter is the second most common helicopter type in Australia, and 80 of the 184 choppers registered in New Zealand are now grounded. It is the largest grounding of aircraft in New Zealand's aviation history.

New Zealand Helicopter Association executive officer John Sinclair said the agriculture industry would be hit particularly hard, as the chopper was commonly used for spraying and seeding.

"You're talking about people's livelihoods here. It's going to be really hard going for those guys."

The CAA had done "the responsible thing" in grounding the choppers, but he was aware there had been previous issues with them.

"I don't know why the CAA didn't act when that one came to light in January, but I'm sure they had a pretty good reason."

Salt Air chief executive Grant Harnish, who operates in the Bay of Islands, said the grounding of one of three choppers in his fleet would "create pressure on the base".

"We're just lucky we operate different types we can still continue to operate," he said.

"But there's a lot of operators out there who only operate Robinsons, and they'll be hurting."

However, he said the CAA did "the right thing".

"The biggest problem you've got is something like that would show up in the air. When something cracks it cracks in a matter of seconds."

 - The Press

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