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OEMs, Not Regulators, Answer Airworthiness Implementation Data Questions

By Frank Wolfe | July 26, 2019
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Heligo Leonardo AW139. Photo courtesy of Milestone Aviation.

Heligo Leonardo AW139. Photo courtesy of Milestone Aviation.

If you would like to know whether a helicopter has met airworthiness directives (ADs) set by the FAA, don't bother with the agency. Go to the OEM. That's where the FAA will direct you.

But the OEMs do not typically respond to such queries, and why a federal regulatory agency would delegate maintenance of safety implementation data to the very helicopter companies who build the products in question is unclear. The FAA did not respond on July 25 and 26 when asked why.

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And, if the helicopter has been in a crash and you'd like to know the same AD compliance data, wait for the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board.

"The investigation will determine whether this particular aircraft had been retrofitted," NTSB spokesman Marcia Adams wrote in an email when asked on July 25 whether a Leonardo AW139 involved in a July 4 fatal crash in the Bahamas had met all required airworthiness directives. The crash killed coal billionaire Chris Cline and six others near Grand Cay, Bahamas.

On July 26, Leonardo Helicopters said that the company does "not envisage the need to take any airworthiness actions as a result of present investigation outcomes."

Leonardo is aiding the NTSB in the investigation of the July 4 crash, along with Canadian officials — where the Pratt & Whitney PT6 engines are built, according to the Bahamas Air Accident Investigation Department.

The AW139 has been the subject of EASA and FAA airworthiness directives, including one a decade ago, which mandated periodic inspections and repairs of the aircraft after reports of de-laminations of tail boom assemblies. Altogether, the AW139 has been the subject of 33 FAA airworthiness directives since the helicopter first came off the assembly line in 2007. Other helicopters have similar numbers of FAA-issued ADs. For example, the Sikorsky S-92 has had 33 ADs issued since 2005. ADs are searchable by make and model on the FAA's website.

The 139 has been a workhorse for offshore oil and gas companies and for law enforcement agencies in the United States, including the Maryland State Police and the New Jersey State Police.

A witness to the July 4 Bahamas crash, who was nearly two miles from the crash site, "reported seeing the helicopter lift off and climb to between 40 and 50 feet above ground level; then shortly thereafter, he noted blue and white lights spinning to the left at a rate of about 1 to 2 seconds between rotations while descending," according to a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report issued this week. "He estimated that the helicopter rotated to the left three to four times. He then heard a 'whoosh whoosh whoosh' sound, and lost sight of the helicopter, which was followed by the sound of an impact."

The pilot of the helicopter, operated by Florida-based Challenger Management LLC, had filed an IFR plan because of the night flight and was taking Cline's daughter and another passenger to Fort Lauderdale for medical treatment. The AW139 originally lifted off from Palm Beach International Airport just before 1 a.m. and had picked up the passengers on Grand Cay about a minute before the helicopter crashed at 1:54 a.m., the report said.

About 15 hours later, local residents in the Bahamas found the aircraft inverted about 1.5 miles from the crash site in 16 feet of water.

"The tailboom was separated from the aft fuselage and was recovered in multiple pieces," according to the report. "All five main rotor blades were separated but recovered. The tail rotor assembly, which was also separated was subsequently recovered. All four tail rotor blades were separated, and one tail rotor blade was not recovered. The recovered wreckage was retained for further examination, to include examination of the airframe, engines, flight controls, seats and restraints."

Geoffrey Painter, the pilot of the aircraft was a retired Royal Air Forces pilot and had more than 13,000 flight hours of experience in helicopters, according to his LinkedIn page. The AW139 that crashed came off the assembly line more than a decade ago and between 2008 and 2017 was in the fleet of British Columbia-based London Air Services until being sold in September, 2017 to the Cline-owned Challenger Management LLC.

While pilot error is a frequent cause of helicopter mishaps, safety consultants believe that the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, P.L. 115-254, may help spur international helicopter safety cooperation on the equipment side. Section 242 of the law allows, but does not require, the FAA to accept airworthiness directives issued by foreign aviation safety agencies, such as EASA, if the U.S. has a bilateral aviation safety agreement (BASA) with a given entity or country.

 

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