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On 14 September 2008, a Robinson Helicopter Company R44 Raven helicopter, registered VH-RIO, was being operated on a series of scenic flights in the Bungle Bungle ranges area of the Purnululu National Park, which was about 250 km south of Kununurra, Western Australia. At about 1230 Western Standard Time, the helicopter departed the Purnululu Aircraft Landing Area for an 18- minute scenic flight with the pilot and three passengers. When the helicopter did not return by the nominated time, a search was initiated. Shortly after, the burnt wreckage of the helicopter was located. The four occupants were fatally injured.

The pilot had deviated from the regular scenic flight track, speed and profile to operate out of ground effect (OGE) in close proximity to the terrain at a low airspeed or at the hover. The helicopter's estimated OGE hover performance was marginal. It is likely that the high level of engine power required to sustain a hover in the local conditions was not available, or not fully utilised by the pilot, resulting in; an uncommanded descent, overpitching of the main rotor as a result of the pilot's attempts to arrest that descent, and a main rotor RPM decay that significantly increased the rate of descent.

As a result of the investigation into this occurrence, two minor safety issues were identified:

  • There was no Australian requirement for endorsement and recurrent training conducted on Robinson Helicopter Company R22/R44 helicopters to specifically address the preconditions for, recognition of, or recovery from, low main rotor RPM.
  • There was a lack of assurance that informal operator supervisory and experience-based policy, procedures and practices minimised the risk of pilots operating outside the individual pilot's level of competence.

In response, the aircraft operator has since formalised the operating parameters applicable to pilots conducting scenic flights. In addition, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority will be reviewing the training requirements affecting R22/44 helicopters. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has issued a Safety Advisory Notice to encourage operators to address the risk of their pilots operating outside the individual pilot's level of competence.

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