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NZ Robinson crash leads to grounding of R44 helicopters

6 minute read

Public liability

On 19 February 2015, two men lost their lives when the Robinson R44 Raven II series helicopter they flew in (registration ZK-IPY) failed mid-flight.

Stephen Combe, aged 42 and James Gardner, aged 18 were on board when it tragically crashed in the Lochy River basin, south west of Queenstown, New Zealand. The aircraft was owned by an operator that provides tours around New Zealand.

The fatal crash prompted both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of New Zealand and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) of Australia, to ground all Robinson R44 series helicopters fitted with P/N C016-7 rotor blades, otherwise known as “dash 7” blades. The February 19 crash was not the first time the R44’s rotor blades have come under scrutiny.

The CAA issued a “continuing airworthiness notice” on 26 January 2015 advising of an inflight failure of another R44 II main blade caused by a significant crack which resulted in severe main rotor vibration. The blade in the earlier incident is on its way to the US for inspection and assessment by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The CAA made a recommendation to the effect that all main rotor blades be inspected pre-flight for any defects such as cracks in the blade or paint which could result in a catastrophic failure.

The recent ban by both Australia and New Zealand was lifted on 24 February when the CAA announced in a surprisingly early conclusion on cause, that the blade damage had occurred during the crash impact rather than been the cause of the accident.

Unfortunately, the CAA’s January warning was not enough to save the lives of the pilot and his young passenger.

Australia’s CASA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD/R44/24) prohibiting flight of the R44 helicopters “to prevent the possibility of main rotor blade separation and consequent loss of the helicopter”. The AD provided that aircraft in remote locations could complete one further flight to the nearest appropriate facility before compliance with the AD was required, but only after a detailed visual inspection of the blade skin. That ban was lifted on 24 February, but the need for caution remains as the CAA (NZ) Director said:

we don’t want to see any complacency amongst [R44] operators as there is still a concern with these blades [alluding to the January CAA AD, which is still the subject of examination by the US FAA]

There are nearly 500 of these helicopters registered in Australia, making them the second most common type used for various commercial and private purposes in the country.

The true effects of the widespread, though brief, grounding are yet to be known in Australia, however for the families of those involved in the New Zealand crash, the devastation is very real; and regrettably the fight for justice is not likely to be an easy one.

Shine’s litigation experience against Robinson Helicopter

Some of Shine Lawyers’ most experienced litigators recently won a significant court battle in the case of Graham McDermott & Ors v Robinson Helicopter Company Incorporated [2014] QCA 357 (19 December 2014). The Supreme Court of Queensland website summarises the case here.

In the case our client’s Robinson R22 helicopter crashed during inspections of fence lines on a cattle property near the Queensland/Northern Territory border killing the pilot and seriously injuring our client. The proximate cause of the crash was a failure of a part known as the forward flexplate (the mechanism by which the power of the engine is transferred to the rotor blades). Cracks had developed in it over time which eventually caused separation of the plate mid-flight with catastrophic consequences (loss of power to the rotor with subsequent loss of control of the helicopter).

The case was brought against several defendants. Robinson Helicopter Corporation, a US corporation, denied liability which resulted in a protracted trial in the Queensland Supreme Court.

Despite an initial setback in the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal judgment on liability on 19 December 2014 was favourable. The Court agreed that the aircraft maintenance manual failed to specify and require an adequate inspection procedure, such that a defect with the flexplate would have been discoverable.

Further information about this decision can be obtained from Shine Lawyers senior solicitors Roger Singh or Bill King.

Potential actions and the Shine Lawyers Aviation Department

The New Zealand case is tragic in that potentially another aircraft component failure could be implicated in the death of a highly experienced pilot, as well as a passenger who was only at the start of his adult life.

The quick action of the civil aviation safety authorities of both Australia and New Zealand are an indicator of the potential causes of the accident and the potentially legally liable entities, including the manufacturer. However, under international air law, the official investigation (let alone initial speculation or interim conclusions) cannot be relied on as proof of any parties’ share of legal “blame”.

The Shine Lawyers Aviation Department, having a depth of experience in international aviation law together with close access to the experienced litigators who recently pursued Robinson in Queensland, is a particular force to be reckoned with in the pursuit of justice for families and companies affected by such disasters.

We note that with the large number of Robinson R44 helicopters in use in both Australia and New Zealand, many owners and operators of such aircraft may need legal advice on rights they may have against the manufacturer (e.g. warranties) as well as under relevant insurance policies.

Our team can assist with all matters of this kind.

Moving forward

Our deepest sympathies go to the families and coworkers of the deceased. Shine Lawyers Aviation Department will continue to monitor the investigation in relation to this terrible tragedy and will provide whatever assistance is required to help those affected to seek justice, whether in Australia, New Zealand or in the US with the assistance of our focused and experienced network of aviation legal colleagues, technical experts, and partners.

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