Sunday, February 22, 2015

Australia follows New Zealand in helicopter ban

Australia has followed New Zealand in banning a popular model of helicopter after investigations into a fatal crash near Queenstown identified an issue with rotor blades.

James Louis Patterson Gardner, 18, of Queenstown and Stephen Anthony Nicholson Combe, 42, of Wanaka were found dead on Thursday at the scene of the crash of a Robinson R44 helicopter operated by Queenstown-based Over the Top.

Mr. Patterson Gardner was the son of the company's owner and Mr. Combe was a former Royal Marine pilot. Tributes have flowed for the pair, including from Prime Minister John Key who had met Mr. Patterson Gardner.

The NZ Civil Aviation Authority issued a ban on Saturday, prohibiting pilots from flying Robinson R44 series helicopters fitted with CO16-7 rotor blades, affecting about 80 helicopters in New Zealand.

Australia's flight safety watchdog, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), imposed the same ban, affecting about 485 helicopters.

Investigators at the scene of the Queenstown crash identified a main rotor blade failure in their initial examination.

They say there may be similarities with an earlier R44 incident in January where the pilot experienced severe vibration but managed to land safely.

The blade from Thursday's fatal crash is being sent to the manufacturer and the United States Federal Aviation Administration for analysis.

The R44 is the second most common helicopter type in Australia.

"We don't want to keep the aircraft on the ground a minute longer than is necessary," CASA spokesman Peter Gibson told news agency AAP.

The precautionary grounding would not affect aircraft providing Queensland and Northern Territory cyclone relief, he said.

"The R44 is used in passenger charter transport, mustering and aerial agriculture but not typically used in those sorts of rescue applications," Mr Gibson said.

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