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R44 fuel tank risks

By Martin Dolan, Chief CommissionerMartin Dolan

We recently released a preliminary investigation report into the fatal accident of a Robinson R44 helicopter at Bulli Tops in NSW. The R44 caught fire after striking a tree and hitting the ground. Tragically, the pilot and three passengers died in the accident.

In that report we highlighted the similarities of this low-energy impact accident with others involving R44 helicopters where their all-aluminium fuel tanks ruptured, resulting in a fuel-fed fire. The post-impact fire effectively made surviving the accident impossible. 

Our advice in that report was clear: all-aluminium fuel tanks are dangerous and need to be replaced with improved bladder-type fuel tanks as soon as possible. 

The improved bladder tanks substantially reduce the risk of a post-impact fire—their fitment is a very important safety enhancement that could save lives.

The Robinson Helicopter Company (the R44 manufacturer) has previously issued a service bulletin that requires owners to replace the all-aluminium fuel tank with the bladder-type tank before 30 April 2013. And Australia’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, has confirmed that R44 helicopter owners are legally required to replace their fuel tanks before 30 April 2013. 

Despite this, we remain concerned that up to 100 R44 helicopters in Australia are still at an elevated risk of post-impact fire after an accident because their fuel tanks will not have been retrofitted with the bladder tanks by 30 April 2013. 

This is an issue that needs to be taken extremely seriously. The improved bladder tanks substantially reduce the risk of a post-impact fire—their fitment is a very important safety enhancement that could save lives. 

Through our SafetyWatch initiative, launched last year, we’ve highlighted the ongoing risks of the all-aluminium fuel tank and have urged operators to act as quickly as possible. 

As well as the R44 fuel tank risks, SafetyWatch highlights the top safety priorities in Australia that need heightened attention from the aviation, maritime and rail communities. If you’re involved in transport, I encourage you to check out SafetyWatch (on the ATSB website) and consider how the safety risks highlighted by SafetyWatch might affect your operation and what might need to be done as a result.  

Written by Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner at 10:00 AM


Philip Argy said...

Logically all R44s without the bladder tanks will be grounded by CASA from 1 May 2013, right?

April 15, 2013 11:10
Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner (author) said...

This is more a regulatory matter for CASA, although CASA has confirmed that all R44 owners are legally required to replace their all-aluminium fuel tanks with a bladder tank by 30 April 2013. You might like to read the ATSB preliminary investigation report AO-2013-055 into last month’s fatal R44 accident at Bulli Tops, NSW. The report has the CASA interpretation and likely action laid out in their safety action (see page 11). See website link below.

April 15, 2013 11:55
Sylvia Else said...

Looking through some of the material issued by CASA in relation to the R44 tank issue, I can see how operators would be given the impression that fitting of the replacement tanks is optional. The word "recommend" and its derivatives appears frequently.

A notice issued as recently as Feburary 12, states: "This requires the operator to review manufacturer’s recommendations and associated data and, where appropriate, to incorporate those recommendations."

A financially pressed operator might easily conclude that it's not appropriate.

CASA could have just issued an airworthiness directive requiring installation by a due date, and left it at that. Then no one would have been in any doubt as to whether they needed to spend the money.

April 15, 2013 11:22
Wally Sturgeon said...

           R44 SERVICE BULLETIN SB-78B

TIME OF COMPLIANCE: As soon as practical, but no later than 30 April 2013.

When you read the above there is no difficulty with interpretation, other than the straight forward "Do it by 30 April 2013". Use of words like 'recommend' are only a smoke screen to gloss over what you should in effect actually do.

For too long there has been an Industry myth and misconception that only Airworthiness Directives have to be complied with. In reality it is the actual content within the Manufacturers's Instructions for Continued Airworthiness (commonly referred to as ICAs) which is the important part, irrespective of what that particular OEM may name their ICA Publications (e.g. Service Bulletins, Service Instructions, Service Letters etc.)

Most of these Maintenance or Service Publications are issued in the name of continuing improvement, or product enhancement etc. where the Top and Bottom lines are all about AIRWORTHINESS and SAFETY. Procrastination and varied weaselling interpretations should not get in the way of  words like 'Compliance and Mandatory', irrespective of the Publication that they are detailed in.

May 2, 2013 15:19
Dennis Hill said...

I do not have all the information required to identify what has occurred in this accident, but to me the real issue is with the fact that the helicopter was being operated into a small grass area surrounded by trees, a building, power lines, and a cliff face that can have high winds and turbulence. The adjacent car park is often frequented by families with small children (to go sight seeing). This is an extremely dangerous place to be landing a helicopter. To me the real issue to discuss is the fact that the helicopter was being operated into an inappropriate location. I wonder if any risk assessments were done prior to flight? I have done a lot of risk management work with Helicopter EMS operators in the USA, Canada, and Australia and most of the operators started to use risk management tools to assess the landing areas. As soon as I heard about this accident I knew straight away that the landing site was not appropriate.

When can we expect to see some safety recommendations on the appropriate selection of a landing area for Helicopters? The last time I looked the regulations on helicopter landing area was virtually non existent.

June 11, 2013 21:00
Martin Dolan, Chief Commissioner (author) said...

Our investigation of the Bulli Heights accident is continuing and we will pursue a number of lines of inquiry. Important though the issue of fuel tanks is, it would be even better if we could find ways of reducing the likelihood of a collision with terrain in the first place. At this stage of the investigation, though, we’re not able to comment specifically on the points you make.

June 13, 2013 13:58