WILLIAMSBURG — The small, four-seat helicopter was in the air only a few minutes before something went wrong.
The Robinson R44 Raven II had flown about a mile from the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport on Sunday when it crashed into the Bristol Commons townhome complex off Ironbound Road, setting a 10-unit building on fire.
Witnesses to the crash said they heard an explosion before seeing the building go up in flames.
Bristol Commons resident Jean Lonchak Danylko, 91, and pilot Henry E. Schwarz of Alexandria, Virginia, were killed in the crash, authorities confirmed.
Since 1995, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued a handful of special airworthiness information bulletins for the Robinson R44, which is not uncommon.
But some aviation lawyers say the R44 can experience certain mechanical issues and post-crash fires.
“The R44 does have a statistically higher accident rate than other helicopters,” said Ladd Sanger, a helicopter pilot and aviation attorney with Texas-based firm Slack Davis Sanger. “The question on this case is why did the helicopter come out of the air in the first place?”
Other pilots, such as Ray Jarman, membership coordinator for the Virginia Helicopter Association, say the R44 is safe.
“The R44 is one of the most popular models around,” Jarman said. “I take issue with that. That’s untrue as far as I’m concerned. They are not unsafe. Any aircraft can be unsafe if it operated outside of its design limits.”
Bristol Commons crash
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Doug Brazy said the four-seat, single-engine Robinson R44 helicopter left the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport around 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
The helicopter ended up crashing “halfway between the front and back” of the condo building, located in the 1100 block of Settlement Drive, Brazy said.
Fire officials worked through the night Sunday into Monday morning to put out the fire and remaining hot spots, allowing NTSB and FAA investigators to enter the building and approach the aircraft.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said investigators are typically on the scene for two to three days following aircraft crashes. The NTSB will release a final report on the cause in 12 to 24 months.
Brazy said Monday that he believed Schwarz was properly certified for flying helicopters and other aircraft.
Flight data on Schwarz’s helicopter shows he traveled to various states, including Texas, along the coast of California near Los Angeles, Arizona and more.
In response to the crash, Robinson Helicopter Co. also released a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families, loved ones, and friends of those affected by the accident,” Robinson spokeswoman Loretta Conley said. “Robinson’s accident investigators are currently onsite assisting the FAA and NTSB with the investigation, which prevents us from commenting on this particular incident.”
So far in 2018, NTSB records show there have been 11 crashes — three of which were fatal — involving Robinson R44 helicopters in the United States.
Since January 2000, 158 of 432 crashes involving R44s worldwide since have been fatal. The NTSB reports the cause of several recent crashes — including in Alaska and Wisconsin — as pilot error.
““When you encounter turbulence, you have to slow down,” Jarman said. “It’s like riding down an interstate highway at 70 mph and all of a sudden it turns into a secondary state highway and then gravel. If you don’t slow down that vehicle will be damaged.”
The New Zealand Department of Conservation no longer allows some Robinson helicopters, including the R44 and R22, to fly in that country’s airspace, according to news reports.
Since 1995, the FAA has issued 10 special airworthiness information bulletins for the R44. The bulletins cover parts such as carbon monoxide detectors, navigation equipment, rotor blades, alternator belts and a fuel tank bladder retrofit.
Special airworthiness information bulletins are not uncommon. In the past 60 days, the FAA has issued six bulletins for several manufacturers, including the Boeing Co. Other popular helicopter manufacturers, such as Airbus, have also seen bulletins issued for various models.
The R44 fuel tank was the subject of a Robinson service bulletin in December 2010, Conley said. The FAA also issued a special airworthiness bulletin for the same fuel tank issue in December 2012.
The service bulletin required R44 owners to fit the fuel tank with a bladder to improve the fuel system’s resistance to post-crash fuel tank leaks and fires.
The FAA did not mandate the replacements, according to NTSB records.
Several years before, in 2006, Robinson released a safety notice advising pilots and passengers to wear fireproof suits, gloves and helmets.
Sanger said a settlement in one of his cases in 2010 prompted the requirement for retrofitting tanks with bladders.
Conley said manufacturer’s records show that Schwarz’s R44, which exploded moments after impact Sunday, had been retrofitted with a bladder-type fuel tank.
“You can’t prevent all fires, but we’re looking to prevent post-crash fires in otherwise survivable accidents,” Sanger said.
Sanger added that it’s unlikely many helicopters are flying today without the bladder retrofit, although some may still have the original fuel tank.
“These tanks have proven to be extremely effective in minimizing fires in survivable accidents,” Conley said.
Knudson said the NTSB does not have additional comment or information on the crash beyond what was released Monday.
Sanger has been practicing law for two decades and said he’s been involved in about a dozen R44-related cases.
There are several safety issues with R44s, including “mast bumping,” drive-belt system failures and rotor blade delamination.
In some situations, the high mast — the tower that extends from the top of the cabin to the rotor — can be hit by the rotor, causing an unbalanced condition in which the blades may hit the cabin, Sanger said.
Conditions such as turbulence, high travel speeds or certain pilot maneuvers can cause mast bumping.
The lamination on the rotors can also start to peel away if the helicopter is used in sandy or humid climates, making the aircraft less aerodynamic, Sanger said.
FAA compliance and regulations
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said the issue of post-crash fires and crash-resistant fuel systems involves all makes of helicopters.
The NTSB has recommended that all newly manufactured helicopters have crash-resistant fuel systems installed.
According to the FAA, only seven manufacturers have built helicopter models that are fully compliant with the administration’s crash-resistant fuel-system safety standards. One Robinson helicopter, the R66, is on that list.
When developing aviation-related regulations, the FAA also must operate within the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which includes stipulations such as seeking the advice of interested parties, like the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.
“We also must, under federal law, consider the cost and benefits of any regulatory actions,” Molinaro said.
The rulemaking advisory committee released a final report with recommendations on crash-resistant fuel systems on March 29. The report analyzed various helicopter crashes and determined the survivability of each crash, whether there was a post-crash fire, and the cause of the fire.
The Robinson R44 is mentioned once in the report, in a section about the material of fuel-tank liners for small versus large aircraft. In the section, the report states in-tank bladders have “ a proven field history of significantly reducing post-crash fire rates as was demonstrated in this report.”
WYDaily reporter Andrew Harris contributed to this report.
Sarah Fearing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org