It is the world’s best-selling civilian helicopter, a top choice among flight schools, sightseeing companies, police departments and recreational pilots.
It also is exceptionally deadly.
Robinson R44s were involved in 42 fatal crashes in the U.S. from 2006 to 2016, more than any other civilian helicopter, according to a Times analysis of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports.
That translates to 1.6 deadly accidents per 100,000 hours flown — a rate nearly 50% higher than any other of the dozen most common civilian models whose flight hours are tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Robinson points out that the flight hours reported to the FAA are likely undercounted (e.g., if an owner/operator gets sick of onerous annual surveys and tosses them into recycling… not that I know of anyone that irresponsible…)
I’m not surprised that an owner-flown $400,000 R44 is twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident than a professionally-flown $3 million Airbus AStar.
Having been an instructor in the Robinson R22, however, I’m shocked that the fatal accident rate for this $200,000-ish (rebuilt) flight school mule is comparable to that of a $3+ million Bell 407 (i.e., less than half the rate for the much-more-forgiving R44). I guess this shows the advantage of being in the training environment, in which encountering bad weather is much less likely than when an aircraft is used for transportation. Alternatively, you could say that this shows the safety advantage of a two-pilot crew. A higher percentage of R22 hours are student and instructor rather than a single pilot. (The Schweizer 269‘s accident rate is even lower; this is a machine that is essentially exclusively used for training.)
Here’s a cited accident that would have been much less likely to occur with two pilots on board:
Take the case of Jim Bechler, an Orange County attorney who had piloted Robinson helicopters for more than 30 years and bought a new R44 in 2008. He was flying home from a business meeting near Temecula when he stopped to refuel at Corona Municipal Airport.
Minutes later, as the helicopter lifted off with 40 gallons of fuel in its tanks, its rotor blades clipped a metal canopy over the fuel island. The R44 flailed briefly, dropped a few feet to the pavement and burst into flames.
(This also shows the tragic backwardness of certified human-occupied aircraft compared to $500 drones. A consumer drone wouldn’t fly itself into an obstacle as described above.)
Given the numbers, the LA Times could have cast the story as “local company makes an inexpensive helicopter that is remarkably safe when flown by two pilots”. The story’s focus on mast bumping does not make sense. The statistics in the article show that the Bell 206, which has a two-bladed rotor system subject to mast bumping, has a lower rate of fatal accidents than the Bell 407, whose 4-bladed rotor system isn’t at risk.
Personally I would like to see robot copilots for both helicopters and airplanes.Full post, including comments