ALPINE —The helicopter at the center of a fatal crash in Utah County Friday is described as one of the most popular models in the world, but recent news reports have questioned its safety.
Megan Michele Penna and Benno Anthony Penna, each 32 from Ballard, Utah, were flying in a four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter when it crashed into mountainous terrain near Alpine. Megan Penna posted a video on Facebook of her and her husband flying above clouds in the helicopter shortly after 10 a.m. Friday. The aircraft was reported overdue about four hours later and the wreckage was spotted early Friday evening.
What caused the crash remains in question. It was cloudy and rainy in the area of the crash about the time it happened, but Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon said it’s too early to tell if weather factored in the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are handling the investigation, and it could take months until the final cause of the crash is determined.
However, the R44 helicopter model has been one of the more scrutinized helicopters in recent years.
In November, the Los Angeles Times analyzed NTSB and FAA data from 2006 through 2016 and found R44 helicopters had the highest death rate per 100,000 flight hours among all helicopter models flown in the U.S. at the time. It reported there had been more than 600 people killed in crashes related to the Robinson aircraft around the world since 1982 and at least 65 product liability lawsuits filed against the company.
In 2015, the Orlando Sentinel reported there had been 10 fatal crashes in Florida involving Robinson helicopters from Jan. 1, 2000, through April 2015. During that same time, they reported 165 people had been killed in 96 crashes across the U.S.
Those reports have received blowback from some pilots familiar with flying the aircraft. Michael Mower, executive director of aviation and chief flight instructor at SUU, said he has not experienced any problems flying that particular helicopter model. In fact, the university’s helicopter fleet in Cedar City currently includes 10 R44s along with two Bell 206 L4 helicopters. All students in SUU’s program go through at least 200 hours piloting the R44 helicopter, according to Mower.
“The R44 has really been the industry staple from a training standpoint. The R44 is really the bigger brother to the R22 (Robinson’s other major helicopter model) — the R22 is fairly underpowered and I think that’s why a lot of folks, including us, have moved away from the R22 to either the two-seat or four-seat version of the R44,” he explained. “It has additional performance, overall better handling characteristic. It’s much better suited to specifically Utah — we have higher elevation that we all fly around in.”
John Zimmerman, a pilot who created airfactsjournal.com, critiqued the Los Angeles Time article in January, writing there were just seven fatalities from 2016 through 2018. In a further look at the crashes, two involved pilots who were flying illegally and three involved hitting objects at low altitude.
Mower said there are limitations to the helicopter model regarding the type of turbulence a pilot should fly in, but added that’s true of every aircraft. Students at SUU’s program learn to fly R44 helicopters in wind speeds as fast as 40 mph.
“The aircraft itself can take more than that, it’s just no longer effective for training but it is a capable aircraft,” he added. “With proper maintenance and good piloting techniques, it’s by far the best helicopter out there.”
Much like investigators, Mower said it’s too early to speculate on a cause of the crash. The Pennas didn’t go through the SUU program and Mower said he didn’t personally know them; however, he was saddened when he learned about Friday’s crash in Utah County.
“It’s sad there was a mom and dad that were lost in this,” he said. “We always hate to see any accident, but in particular when it’s somebody in the very small helicopter community. It’s always painful.”
Contributing: Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com