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Robinson helicopter model in fatal Rowlett crash involved in 68 deaths since 2012

Bella Dinh-Zarr
Andrew Harnik
/
Associated Press
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash of a Robinson R44 helicopter in Rowlett that killed a flight instructor and her student.

The model of helicopter that crashed in Rowlett last month — killing a flight instructor and her student — has been involved in almost 40 fatal crashes in the past decade.

Federal records show that 68 people have died in 39 separate crashes involving the Robinson R44 helicopter since Jan. 1, 2012.

WFAA identified the victims of the March 25 crash as instructor Lora Trout and student Ty Wallis, who were on their second training trip. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board said they were flying from Garland to Rowlett. The NTSB report said evidence indicated the main rotor blade contacted the tail boom. The investigation into the crash is continuing.

The R44 has been involved in crashes that caused 369 fatalities since 2001, according to NTSB data reviewed by KERA.

A federal regulation that applies to the 4-seat R44 and the smaller R22 model requires pilots and pilot instructors to have specific “abnormal and emergency procedures flight training.”

Jon Kettles, a Dallas-based attorney who represents families in aircraft accidents, said this extra regulation is a red flag.

“It’s just a risk that should have been designed out, instead of relying on extra training for the operator,” said Kettles, a former Army helicopter pilot.

The company told KERA it could not comment on the Rowlett crash beyond an emailed statement, because it’s still involved in the ongoing investigation.

“We are devastated by the loss of life and extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by the tragic accident in Rowlett,” said Loretta Conley, a spokesperson with Robinson Helicopter Company. “A senior Robinson investigator was on-site and provided assistance when requested by the NTSB and the FAA.”

Other countries have raised concerns about the Robinson helicopters.

New Zealand’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission placed the helicopters on its “watchlist” in 2016, leading to the Department of Conservation to stop using them, according to the Dominion Post.

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority “issued an airworthiness directive grounding Robinson R44 helicopters fitted with C016-7 main rotor blades,” Flight International reported in 2015.

Closer to home, a Los Angeles Times investigation in 2018 found the R44’s rate of accidents per hours flown was “nearly 50% higher than any other of the dozen most common civilian models whose flight hours are tracked by the Federal Aviation Administration.”

Kurt Robinson, the company’s president, disputed that analysis and “vigorously defended” the firm’s record, the Times wrote.

The Times said the R44 was selling for about $475,000 in 2018.

That is cheap, Kettles said – which is why the model is so widely used.

“Some people act like flying a helicopter is a right,” Kettles said. “But if you can’t afford to do something safely, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it. Especially if you’re going to put other people at risk.”

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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