25 Jul 2017

Robinson safety director blames pilots for crashes

9:19 am on 25 July 2017

A senior executive of Robinson Helicopter Company and the mother of a crash victim have publicly clashed over the safety of the machines.

A file photos shows a Robinson R44 helicopter taking off in Latvia in 2011.

A file photo of a Robinson R44: The manufacturers' helicopters are among the most popular models in New Zealand. Photo: 123RF

The manufacturer's safety director, Bob Muse, told an aviation conference in Hamilton that the helicopters had a better record than some of its rivals, but a woman who lost her son in a crash disagreed.

Mr Muse had flown out from California to speak to pilots and other aviation professionals about their fears over the helicopters.

His trip follows a series of reports that found faults with the Robinson, and it remains on a safety watchlist at the Transport Accident Investigation Commission.

In total, 18 people have been killed in what are called mast-bumping accidents involving the Robinson R22, R44 and R66 helicopters in New Zealand since 1991, prompting several government agencies such as the Department of Conservation to stop using them. The machines make up about a third of the country's helicopter fleet.

Mr Muse told the conference he cared deeply about preventing loss of life in helicopter crashes. It was horrible and tragic, he said; it was like losing a member of the family.

However, he said the helicopters were safer than those of some other brands and insisted New Zealand had to face up to pilot behaviour as the elephant in the room.

"Because of the practice of flying this machine outside its design limitation, New Zealand pilots became desensitised to the hazard of low-g pushover manoeuvres - that is our belief," he said.

Mr Muse showed a video of this kind of behaviour, in which a pilot deliberately caused his craft to swoop about the sky, reducing the helicopter's g-force to a dangerous level.

Not all accidents were caused by this sort of reckless behaviour, he said. Some were caused by inexperience, and others had unknown causes.

Louisa Patterson's son, James, was killed in a Robinson R44 crash near Queenstown in 2015 along with his friend, Steve Combe. She rejected Mr Muse's defence.

Since that crash there had been 118 similar accidents around the world, leading to 65 fatalities, 44 of which were due to unexplained in-flight break-ups, she said.

"And that is not New Zealand, that is America, Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, so this is not a New Zealand problem."

Mr Muse responded by saying 44 fatalities was a tiny fraction of the 35 million flying hours that pilots flying the helicopters had built up.

The meeting then became very heated and media were asked to leave.

Outside the meeting, Aviation New Zealand chief executive John Nicholson said the debate was important.

He said the stand-off over the machines' safety was dragging on - some people liked them, others did not - and was causing the people who owned Robinsons and those who serviced them serious financial difficulties.

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