Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Trial begins in civil suit against Robinson Helicopter for 2006 crash

For more than a decade, Torrance-based Robinson Helicopter Co. knew about vibrations in the R-44's main rotor mast that contributed to a 2006 crash in Riverside County that killed an experienced pilot and his brother-in-law, an attorney told a jury Wednesday.

"They had 13 years to fix it and they never did," attorney Kevin Boyle said during opening statements in trial of a Los Angeles Superior Court civil suit filed against Robinson in April 2008. "They masked the problem instead of solving it."

Boyle represents the widow and family of Leo Straatman, who was a passenger in the Robinson R-44 Raven II that went down about 2:30 p.m. near Desert Center on May 1, 2006, after the tail boom shook off and the main rotor hit the cabin, slicing off one of pilot Frank Verellen's legs.

The chopper was 85 minutes into its maiden voyage from Zamperini Field in Torrance to southern Ontario, Canada, where it was being ferried by Verellen to Zimmer Air Services Inc., an authorized Robinson dealer, according to lawyer Brian Panish, who represents the Verellen family and also gave an opening statement.

Verellen, 63, was Zimmer's chief pilot and Straatman, his 64-year-old passenger, owned part of the company, according to Panish.

But according to Robinson Helicopter's Raymond Hane, the likely cause of the accident was that Verellen entrusted the controls to Straatman, who did not have a pilot's license. He said a Robinson test pilot checked out the chopper before the keys were turned over to Verellen.

"He found no problems with the helicopter," Hane said.

However, Boyle said Robinson's chief engineer admitted in a deposition that the vibration in the main rotor mast could cause the gearbox to shake violently. He said the company even coined a word for the problem: "chugging."

The engineer also acknowledged the cause of the chugging was unknown, Boyle said.

"They continued to sell these things every day, and they didn't know the cause," Boyle said.

The company made minor adjustments to the rubber mounts, but nothing more, Boyle said.

According to Panish, Verellen's flight experience "was as high as it gets anywhere in the world," logging more than 7,600 hours without any previous accidents.

Verellen also flew fixed-wing aircraft and was an expert crop duster, Panish said, as he narrated a video of Verellen piloting a plane and spraying crops. He also flew John Cusack during filming of the 1993 film "Map of the Human Heart," Panish said.

But Hane said Verellen should have removed the left-side cyclic control of the helicopter before he and Straatman left the ground because his passenger was not licensed to fly.

"This is the point where Mr. Verellen made what turned out to be the fatal mistake," Hane said.

The main controls of a helicopter are on the right side, where Verellen was sitting. Cyclics are similar to joysticks in a conventional aircraft and are used to change the pitch angle of the rotor blades.

The attorney said Verellen likely let Straatman take the controls to get him acclimated to the sensitivity and feel of them while the aircraft was traveling over the desert at 125-130 mph. But Hane said the controls are very sensitive at high speed and an incorrect move can cause a fatal crash such as the one that killed both men.

Verellen was married for 41 years and had five children and 16 grandchildren, Panish said. He said his relatives' economic damages are about $960,000.

Straatman was married for 40 years and had four children and eight grandchildren, Boyle said. He said the survivors' economic damages are about $2.3 million.

Straatman and Verellen both owned farms and their widows are sisters.

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