Preliminary report released 30 April 2013 

What happened

At about 1207 local time on 21 March 2013, a Robinson Helicopter Company R44 helicopter (R44), registered VH-HWQ, was manoeuvring at a grassed area at Bulli Tops, New South Wales. Shortly after landing, the helicopter lifted off and turned to the right. The main rotor struck branches of a nearby tree, and the helicopter descended and then rolled over onto its right side. A fire started on the grass under the rotor mast and the cabin. The pilot and the three passengers were fatally injured.

What the ATSB found

The circumstances of this accident are consistent with two recent R44 accidents in Australia involving low-energy impacts that resulted in the all-aluminium fuel tanks being breached and a fuel-fed fire. R44 accidents result in a significantly higher proportion of post-impact fires than for other similar helicopter types. The accident helicopter was equipped with an all-aluminium tank.

On 20 December 2010 the Robinson Helicopter Company issued Service Bulletin SB-78 providing for the replacement of all-aluminium tanks in R44 helicopters with bladder-type tanks that substantially reduce the likelihood of post-crash fires. On 28 September 2012 the Robinson Helicopter Company revised and reissued the service bulletin as SB-78B. This revision brought forward the compliance date for the service bulletin to 30 April 2013. The ATSB has assessed that about 100 Australian R44 helicopters will not have met the service bulletin by the due date.

What's been done as a result

In response to this accident, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has confirmed its understanding that the great majority of Australian R44 helicopter owners are legally required to comply with Service Bulletin SB-78B. CASA has also undertaken to contact owners who may not be required to comply and then consider further action depending on the response to that contact.

The ATSB remains concerned at the significant risk that many R44 helicopters will not comply with the service bulletin and has recommended that CASA take further action to ensure compliance.

Safety message

The fitment of bladder-type fuel tanks to R44 helicopters is a very important safety enhancement that could save lives and is very strongly encouraged. In addition, regulators and investigation agencies in other countries should take note of this report and consider what steps they can take to increase compliance with the manufacturer’s safety bulletin.