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Police to Use Copters Cited in Safety Reports : Aviation: Federal panel is seeking an FAA probe of charges that R-22 aircraft, used in Gardena and Hawthorne, may be unsafe. But firm blames pilots for crashes.

August 04, 1994|JON GARCIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hawthorne and Gardena police officials say they will continue to use the R-22 police helicopter despite a National Transportation Safety Board report that the craft may be unsafe.

Police departments in both cities began using the helicopter as an airborne patrol unit Friday, only a week after Federal Aviation Administration officials were asked to investigate possible problems with the helicopter's rotor blades.

"We've queried (Robinson Helicopter Co.) and consulted other departments using the helicopter and found no reason to alter our plans," Hawthorne Police Chief Stephen R. Port said.

The safety board's report, issued July 21, examined 21 incidents involving the two-passenger lightweight helicopter since it went on sale in 1981. In those incidents, 32 people were killed, according to safety board records.

According to the report, the design of the helicopter may be flawed. In several of the incidents, high speeds may have caused the rotor blades to hit the body of the helicopter, causing it to crash.

The R-22, which is a little less than 9 feet high and can fit into a large living room, was approved by the FAA in 1979. It has passed every certification requirement and review since then, according to the report.

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Safety board officials sent a copy of the report to the FAA recommending that the advised top speed of the craft be reduced, further tests be performed on the craft's rotor blades and that owners and operators should be warned of possible problems.

FAA officials were aware of possible problems with the R-22 before the report was issued and had independently issued a safety alert about the same time the report was released, FAA spokesman Henry Christiansen said.

The current recommendations from the safety board are under consideration by FAA officials and no date for action has been set, Christiansen said.

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Frank Robinson, president of Torrance-based Robinson Helicopter Co., which manufactures the R-22, said the craft has no design flaws and the accidents should be attributed to other factors.

In a letter to the safety board, Robinson said that in all the accidents in question, the pilots were either students or pilots with little experience in the aircraft.

The police air support program, started in 1991 and run by Long Beach-based U.S. Helicopters in conjunction with local police departments, uses the small helicopters to assist patrol cars in chasing suspects, surveying crime scenes and identifying drunk drivers, said Anthony L. Carone, a U.S. Helicopters spokesman.

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Under the program, the company supplies an experienced pilot, fuel and maintenance, while the police departments supply a flight-trained officer who rides as an observer, officials said.

The program "is the greatest thing in the world. . . . It catches a lot of bad guys," Carone said.

The R-22, which makes up 70% of U.S. Helicopter's fleet, is preferred by law enforcement agencies because it is relatively inexpensive, Carone said.

"Now cities can afford air support," he said. Jet helicopters cost about $800,000 and are expensive to maintain, Carone said. A fully equipped R-22 costs $130,000, said Bob Muse, an R-22 pilot.

Muse, who said he flies an R-22 five times a week and has almost 3,000 hours of flight experience in the R-22, said safety and reliability are the main reasons the company continues to use the craft. U.S. Helicopters has never had one of its helicopters crash, Muse said.

"If I thought there was a problem with the R-22, I wouldn't fly it," he said.

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