A Robinson helicopter crashed in northeast Harris County yesterday, killing the pilot and passenger. Helicopter pilot and Slack Davis Sanger aviation attorney Ladd Sanger has handled multiple Robinson helicopter cases, including an R-22 photo flight in Houston, Texas, and an R-44 crash in Fredericksburg, Texas (which involved a survivable post-crash fire much like yesterday’s crash). In the Fredericksburg crash, Sanger represented the family of the pilot.
Sanger often is asked to share insight and information related to his findings. He speaks from experience, considering that he has handled almost a dozen cases involving crashed Robinson helicopters.
Robinson R-44 helicopters manufactured prior to December 2010 and all R-22 helicopters (like the one involved in yesterday’s crash) have a fuel tank that is susceptible to rupture. This fuel system design has resulted in numerous deaths in crashes that would have otherwise been survivable.
Several of these crashes have been in the news recently, including a similar helicopter crash that occurred in Australia.
“One of the most tragic examples was the crash of an R-44 near Fredericksburg” said Sanger. “All of the occupants survived the crash, but three of the four occupants died as a result of the post-crash fire.
“For years, Robinson Helicopter Company has been aware of the susceptibility of their helicopters to severe post-crash fires. But instead of redesigning the fuel system, RHC published Safety Notice 40, telling pilots to require all occupants to wear fire proof suites, gloves and helmets.”
In fact, Robinson at one time was the only major helicopter manufacturer whose fuel system design was unlikely to survive a 50-foot drop. When the FAA issued a proposal to require helicopter manufacturers to design the fuel system to survive a 50-foot drop, all of the other helicopter manufacturers supported the change to the certification standard except Robinson, who actively opposed the regulatory change.
Finally, in February 2012, after numerous post-crash fires, Robinson issued Service Bulletin 78B, making the installation of the more crashworthy fuel tanks mandatory by December 31, 2013.
Robinson has not, however, initiated a recall of the old-style fuel tanks or asked the FAA to issue an Airworthiness Directive to require replacement of the problematic fuel tanks. According to Sanger, there are still thousands of Robinson helicopters with the unsafe, “bladderless” fuel tanks.
“Until the fleet is retrofitted, we will continue to see preventable tragedies like the one that happened yesterday in Harris County,” Sanger said.
Important note: The R-44 and R-22 helicopters basically have the same fuel system design. While Service Bulletin 78B makes installation of new fuel tanks mandatory on the R-44, RHC has not even attempted a retrofit – or a plan – for the R-22.