Crash ‘epidemic’


A Queenstown helicopter pilot whose son died in a Robinson crash last year has slammed the chopper maker after a “worldwide epidemic” of crashes.

Louisa ‘Choppy’ Patterson’s son James, 18, and pilot Stephen Combe, 42, died on a flight in February last year when their R44 crashed in the Eyre Mountains near Queenstown.

Since the start of last year there’ve been 90 R44 crashes – about one a week – resulting in 58 fatalities.

Seventy-one per cent of the fatalities, she notes, have occurred while the R44 is mid-flight – due to unknown circumstances, resulting in inflight breakups.

Patterson calls the crashes a “worldwide epidemic”, adding: “I don’t believe that the aircraft should be certified to fly.”

California-based Robinson Helicopter Company stands by its helicopters, with PR flack Loretta Conley saying: “When flown by properly trained pilots [they] are safe and reliable.”

In the last three R44 accidents:

All three occupants were killed in a crash on Russia’s Crimean Peninsula on November 27.

A bride, her brother, a pregnant photographer and the pilot died in a crash in Brazil on December 4 – the bride had planned to surprise her groom by flying in to their wedding venue.

A pilot was killed and three passengers were injured in a crash in India on December 11.

Patterson asks: “If the persons in these unexplained inflight breakups had been in any other helicopter type, would they have crashed?”

She believes the answer is an emphatic ‘no’.

Meanwhile, Patterson (left) applauds bans by government agencies on using Robinsons.

In October, the government’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) placed Robinson helicopters on a safety watchlist.

Patterson dubbed this “a moment of importance for worldwide aviation”.

Two months earlier, TAIC, in its report on the Eyre Mountains crash, found that blades struck the cabin from ‘mast bumping’ due to an inconclusive cause.

“There have been many other fatal mast bump accidents involving Robinson helicopters in New Zealand and around the world that have gone largely unexplained,” the report says.

“This is a serious safety issue that the industry, including pilots, operators, the manufacturer and the regulator, will need to address.”

It’s understood Robinson Helicopter Company president Kurt Robinson met Patterson in Queenstown just before the TAIC report was released.

After Robinsons were put on the watchlist, Department of Conservation and Tourism NZ effectively banned their staff from using this chopper type, and TVNZ reiterated its existing policy.

Patterson, who owns a local chopper company, says “they need to be applauded in my mind for their courage in taking this stand”.

However she wants Tourism NZ, which also won’t allow guests like visiting travel media and celebrities to fly in Robinsons, to go further.

Robinson accident, if it happens to be in NZ and there are tourists onboard, surely their overseas families will ask the question, if your government departments are banning it, including your tourism department, then why are the trusting public still allowed to fly in them?”

Tourism NZ’s comms boss Deborah Gray says: “I can’t comment on aviation rules or regulations”.

The Civil Aviation Authority, which polices aviation standards, couldn’t be reached for comment.