Originally Published: June 29, 2018 6:01 a.m.
A lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County alleges that a helicopter crash near Wikieup in 2016 that killed the pilot and his passenger, also a pilot, from Prescott Valley, was a result of the faulty design of the Robinson R-66 helicopter.
Pilot Timothy Brown, 52, from the Phoenix area, and David Cormey, 55, of Prescott Valley, were both experienced helicopter pilots, with 5,220 and 8,000 flight hours, respectively. Both men worked for Guidance Air Service, and, on June 23, 2016, they were flying the jet-powered R-66 from Prescott to Riverside, California for a “check ride” with a Federal Aviation Administration inspector.
The R-66 broke up in flight about 2:25 p.m., but the resulting debris field, some 750 yards long, was not found until the following day.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report on the crash found that “a weather study indicated that conditions were conducive to the development of significant updrafts or thermals of rising air and dust devils, and people near the accident site reported that there were numerous dust devils in the area.
“It is likely that the helicopter encountered turbulence due to updrafts and/or dust devils, and the pilot lost control of the helicopter, which resulted in mast bumping,” the report concluded.
“It’s not hard to imagine some kind of inattention or distraction” happening to the pilots, said Jerry Kidrick, Assistant Professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle. Kidrick, who has extensive experience flying helicopters, added that “the pilot reaction is very important, how slowly and how methodically he takes corrective action … the pilot needs to be very careful about making abrupt movements.”
The president of Robinson Helicopters, Kurt Robinson, said, in an interview with the Daily Courier on Tuesday, June 26, that “we pretty much agree with the NTSB final report … that it was weather-related.”
He pointed to a statement from another R-44 pilot, filed with the NTSB, that said, after he encountered strong updrafts and dust devils in the same general area, “the decision was made to discontinue flying for the day.”
Robinson went on to quote from the report, saying, “the examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of any preexisting anomalies that would have precluded normal operation of the helicopter.”
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Cormey’s wife and child, as well as Brown’s two children, claims the R-66, and other Robinson helicopters with a similar design, are “defective,” in that their design makes it “susceptible” to mast bumping, or contact between the main rotor blades and the fuselage. It also alleges other design flaws. The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages.
Robinson helicopters, from the two-seat R-22, a model in production since 1979, and commonly used in training new pilots, to the R-44, a four-seat model, to the jet-powered R-66, have, for many years, battled a reputation for being a dangerous aircraft to fly.
In February 1995, the FAA issued a Special Federal Aviation Regulation, which mandated specific training and proficiency requirements for Robinson R-22 and R-44 helicopters.
“That had a huge impact on the accident rate and lowered it significantly,” Kidrick said, but that regulation does not apply to the newer R-66.
In 2016, New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission, citing 14 mast-bumping incidents since 1991, put Robinson helicopters on its watch list.
“Overall, they have a little bit higher (mast-bumping) accident rate (than other helicopters),” Kidrick said, but “we out here at Embry-Riddle, our contractor, Universal Helicopters, operates the Robinson, and has for the last seven years, without any kind of a mast-bumping incident like this.”
“We, obviously, have worked for many years to make our aircraft as safe as possible, but flying does require skill and it does require judgment,” said Robinson. “I don’t believe the pilots who actually fly our aircraft believe that (they are inherently more dangerous than other helicopters).”