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FAA Issues Warning to Pilots of Robinson Helicopters : Aircraft: Announcement comes on the heels of a safety board report asking the federal agency to ground the Torrance-based company’s R22 and R44 models.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Federal Aviation Administration officials have warned pilots of the best-selling, two-seat Robinson R22 helicopter not to fly in severe or very windy weather.

The warning, issued Jan. 12, came a week after National Transportation Safety Board officials asked the FAA to ground the helicopter and the newer, four-seat R44 while an investigation team tests the crafts.

The FAA decided to allow the helicopters to be flown as tests continue in the United States, but officials in Switzerland grounded both of the Robinson crafts.

Both helicopters were designed and manufactured by the Robinson Helicopter Co., which is situated just off the runway at Torrance Municipal Airport.

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In a report issued Jan. 6, safety board officials say that in four crashes involving the helicopters, the main rotor blades either hit the cockpit or the tail while in flight. In those incidents, seven people were killed, according to the report.

A previous board report issued in July, 1994, after two years of investigation also questioned the operation of the rotor blades. That report cited 21 crashes since 1981 involving the R22 in which 32 people were killed.

“We’re not sure if it’s a helicopter problem or a pilot problem,” said FAA spokesman Scott Horn. “It might do fine in some conditions and not others.”

Company founder and President Frank D. Robinson maintains that the problems should be attributed not to the design of the chopper but to other factors.

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“In each case, the pilots presumed to be at the controls were very inexperienced, and in several of the cases they were flying in severe weather conditions,” Robinson said.

The safety board report, however, says that the “pilots-in-command (during each of the crashes) were experienced and . . . had been adequately trained in the R44 and R22.” According to the report, each pilot had under 500 hours of flight time in Robinson helicopters.

But Robinson disputes the safety board’s definition of experience. “We don’t have these types of accidents with pilots who have over 500 hours of experience,” he said.

In the three of the four incidents cited, investigators failed to find evidence of mechanical or material failure before each helicopter crashed, according to the report.

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The safety board reports have hurt business, Robinson said. From 1991--when a record 402 R22s were sold--sales last year slid to 89.

“We’ve had reports of people holding off on orders or canceling them altogether,” he said. “What we don’t know is how many customers just won’t place orders after hearing about the report.”

The board reports are the latest in a series of setbacks suffered by the company, which employs about 500 people.

In 1994, completion of a new 260,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in the midst of lagging sales forced the company to lay off 60 temporary and full-time employees, Robinson said.

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Adding to Robinson’s financial headache was a decision by an Orange County jury in September, 1994, that found his company partially liable for the crash of an R44 in which a prominent surgeon was killed. The judge ordered Robinson to pay $4.5 million in damages.

“It’s been a lousy year,” says Robinson, an engineer who designed and built the first R22 in his Palos Verdes home more than 20 years ago.

Robinson says because of the lawsuits and potential liability, he has stopped selling the R44 in the United States. The costs have also led to increased prices, Robinson said. The price of each helicopter was increased $10,000 earlier this month--the single largest price increase in company history, he said. The R22 now sells for $125,000 and the R44 for $255,000.


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