33 Crashes: Design Flaw Or Pilot Error?

Twenty years ago, Frank D. Robinson was designing helicopters on drafting tables he set up in the living room of his home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Today, Robinson Helicopter Co., of which he is founder and CEO, produces more civilian choppers than any other maker in the world. Police agencies use the Torrance (Calif.) company's lightweight R-22s for air patrols. Radio stations track traffic with them. Hundreds of executives commute in the two-seaters. Because they're relatively inexpensive--$110,000 each, a fraction of the cost of the bigger models made by rivals Bell Helicopter Textron and Sikorsky Aircraft--8 of 10 flight schools depend on them for pilot training.

But along with the growing popularity of Robinson's aircraft has come a troubling string of crashes. During the past 15 years, 57 people have died in 33 in-flight breakups of Robinson helicopters, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The family-run company attributes most of the mishaps to pilot error and inexperience. And the Federal Aviation Administration, which is free to accept or reject recommendations the NTSB makes based on its investigations of accidents, agrees: The agency has consistently refused to ground Robinson copters.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT. On June 6, however, the NTSB board will review a new study of accidents involving the R-22 and its larger cousin, the four-seat R-44. The report's conclusion: The crashes stem from a design flaw. Based on the study, aviation sources predict, the board may renew its call for grounding the helicopters until the company fixes the problem. "The accidents are very similar, and they're still unresolved," says John B. Drake, the NTSB's chief aviation engineer. "We're concerned that we may have more in the future just like them."

An FAA spokesman says the agency hasn't seen the report yet but is still leaning against grounding the 855 Robinson helicopters that fly in the U.S. After the NTSB on Jan. 6 urged the FAA to ground the copters, the agency instead issued an alert, advising pilots not to fly the craft in severe turbulence. Two days later, the FAA made the advisory mandatory, and on Feb. 23 it issued a rule requiring special pilot training for R-22 and R-44 fliers. On May 25, it also issued an order restricting pilots from performing a tricky flying maneuver in Robinson copters.

Frank Robinson argues the FAA is taking the right approach. If NTSB investigators "continue to push that [design flaw] theory, they're doing it without any basis in fact," he says. Rather than ground the helicopters, which he contends have a sound design, the FAA should emphasize "better training on the part of pilots and more restrictions on flight instructors." Because his company has popularized affordable helicopters, it has become a "guinea pig" for regulators trying to grapple with a new trend, Robinson says. Many flight schools support his view. Larry E.

Durocher, president of Northeast Helicopters Inc. in Ellington, Conn., praises Robinson copters as among the world's safest.

Purchases from such loyal customers pushed Robinson to sales of $47 million last year, and Frank Robinson says the company is profitable. But it has attracted NTSB criticism almost from its launch. In 1982, an R-22 broke up in midair near Paige, Tex. Safety investigators called for the FAA to ground the helicopters until changes were made to its rotor system. The FAA, however, concluded that the R-22 met its design requirements and allowed it to keep flying. Robinson blames the crash on pilot error.

STORMY WEATHER. But the problems continued. From 1983 to 1994, the NTSB says, an additional 32 choppers broke up in flight after the helicopters' rotor blades hit the fuselage or tail. And last year, R-22s and R-44s were involved in four similar--and fatal--crashes, three in Europe. The U.S. mishap occurred on Sept. 28, when an R-22 piloted by businessman Robin D. Trogdon, 35, of Garner, N.C., broke apart shortly after takeoff. Robinson again says the cause was pilot error.

Will the FAA continue to let Robinson copters fly? The agency says it's working with Robinson on engineering changes to prevent the speed of the rotor blades from slowing--a cause of many of the accidents. The NTSB, however, doubts that will fix the problems. It's hoping its report will pressure the FAA to take a tougher stand.

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