On July 4, 2020, a Robinson R44 helicopter crash in Western Australia killed two people and left two others in serious condition. The fatal Robinson crash occurred in the suburbs of Broome, a tourist town on the Indian Ocean known for its white sandy beaches.
According to investigators, the R44 experienced “unusual” in-flight vibrations just after takeoff, which caused the aircraft’s tail assembly to break apart. The helicopter fell to the ground out of control and crashed, killing the pilot, 40-year-old Troy Thomas, and an unidentified 12-year-old girl from Perth.
Mr. Thomas’ daughter, also 12, and 24-year-old Maddison Dowd, were taken to a Perth hospital in serious condition.
Thomas was well-known in the tourism industry and the community of Broome. An experienced and skilled pilot, Thomas owned the tour company Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures.
“It’s hard to really believe that it could happen to him, knowing how skilled he is and knowing that something went wrong, that reflection on him makes it even harder,” said longtime friend Adam Barnard.
ATSB Investigating the Cause of Robinson Crash in Broome, Australia
According to investigators from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), a pilot who flew the downed R44 on July 2, days before the fatal crash, stated that the aircraft experienced “unusual vibrations” in the tail rotor. Mr. Thomas performed a short flight after learning of the issue and confirmed the unusual vibrations. On July 3, maintenance personnel performed a dynamic tail rotor balance but could not find any issues on the ground.
ATSB has obtained CCTV footage of the Robinson crash in Western Australia and has conducted an interview with the pilot who flew the aircraft on July 2. According to government records, the downed R44 was relatively new, manufactured in 2018, and had logged 286.9 hours of service.
In the agency’s preliminary report on the Broome Robinson R44 crash, ATSB determined that the helicopter’s “tail rotor gearbox, tail rotor and tail assembly separated from the helicopter soon after take-off…While the investigation is on-going, the ATSB urges any R44 pilot that experiences unusual vibrations through the tail rotor pedals to land as soon as possible.”
The official cause of the Robinson R44 crash near Broome will likely not be known for a year or more. General aviation accident investigations like this typically take between 12 and 18 months or more to complete.
Aviation Attorney with Experience Litigating Against Robinson Helicopters Discusses Design Issues
While the agency has said it does not know at this time why the unusual vibrations occurred, veteran aviation attorney Ronald L.M. Goldman says Robinson has persistently ignored known safety issues for years. Mr. Goldman and the law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman have litigated numerous helicopter crash cases against Robinson over the last two decades.
According to Goldman, Robinson helicopters share the same design characteristics and are especially susceptible to catastrophic failures, for instance, due to the design of the main rotor head and main rotor system. Mr. Goldman currently represents the family of Buffalo, New York businessman Mark Croce, who passed away in a Robinson R66 crash earlier this year. We have seen other instances where tail rotor malfunction was implicated in Robinson helicopter accidents. There needs to be a thorough independent investigation with experts who know and understand Robinson helicopter design, to determine why the tail rotor system broke off during this R44’s last brief flight.
“If a pilot reports unusual vibration, and successfully lands, the pilot needs to be believed. In our opinion that helicopter must be grounded until the cause of the vibrations is isolated and fixed, and not returned to service just because they could not find the problem”, Goldman said.
“Sadly, this is business as usual for Robinson,” Mr. Goldman said after filing a lawsuit against Robinson on behalf of the Croce family.
“It isn’t just that Robinson helicopters crash more than other manufacturers; the circumstances surrounding these crashes often share similarities, including mechanical failure in the same parts of the aircraft. Robinson has had every opportunity to study these issues and make needed design changes to protect their consumers, but they choose not to. As a result, people are dying or sustaining serious injuries in crashes that are entirely preventable.”