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The ATSB is concerned that a significant number of R44 helicopters are at risk of fire after an accident because their fuel tanks have not been retrofitted with a safety improvement. 

In its preliminary investigation report, released today, into last month’s fatal R44 helicopter accident at Bulli Tops in NSW, the ATSB highlights the similarities of this accident with others involving R44 helicopters with all-aluminium fuel tanks.

The Bulli Tops accident occurred on 21 March when an R44 helicopter caught fire after striking a tree and colliding with the ground. The pilot and three passengers died in the accident. The circumstances of this accident are consistent with two recent R44 accidents in Australia where the all-aluminium fuel tank ruptured, resulting in a fuel-fed fire after impact. 

The Robinson Helicopter Company (the R44 manufacturer) had previously issued a service bulletin that requires owners to replace the all-aluminium fuel tank with a bladder-type tank before 30 April 2013. Bladder tanks substantially reduce the risk of a post-impact fire.

Australia’s aviation safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), confirmed to the ATSB that most owners of R44 helicopters are legally required to replace their fuel tanks before 30 April 2013. Despite this, the ATSB has assessed that about 100 Australian R44 helicopters will not have met the service bulletin by the due date.

The ATSB remains concerned at the significant risk facing many R44 helicopters and has recommended that CASA take further action to ensure compliance with the manufacturer’s service bulletin. CASA subsequently issued an Airworthiness Bulletin reminding registered operators of R44s about their maintenance responsibilities and making it clear that CASA would regard as deficient any system of maintenance that did not include the service bulletin.

The fitment of bladder-type fuel tanks to R44 helicopters is a very important safety enhancement that could save lives. The ATSB has also suggested that regulators and investigation agencies in other countries take note of its preliminary report and consider what steps they can take to increase compliance with the manufacturer’s safety bulletin.

The preliminary investigation report into last month’s R44 helicopter accident at Bulli Tops is available on the ATSB website at www.atsb.gov.au.

Media contact: 1800 020 616
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Last update 25 June 2013