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Crash of helicopter on Catalina is fourth fatal accident of this model since April

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A helicopter crashed on Catalina Island, killing one person, authorities said Tuesday.
(Los Angeles Times)

The crash of a Robinson R44 helicopter on Catalina Island this week was the fourth fatal U.S. accident involving the popular four-seat model since early April, federal aviation records show.

Search crews spotted the wreckage of an R44 in rugged terrain on the northwest end of Catalina on Tuesday morning after the pilot’s family reported that he failed to return to Torrance Airport from one of his frequent pleasure flights over the island, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Sgt. Craig Harman said.

Paramedics who rappelled to the crash site from a sheriff’s helicopter found the body of the pilot, who was believed to be the sole occupant of the R44, Harman said. The pilot’s identity has not been released pending the notification of relatives, Harman said.

The cause of the crash is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration, according to FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer.

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As is common practice, a Robinson Helicopter representative will participate alongside federal investigators, company President Kurt Robinson said, declining to comment on the circumstances of the crash.

“We are devastated by the loss of life in this tragic accident,” he said in an email to The Times. “Our thoughts and sympathies are with the families and friends of the pilot. As always, our first concern and priority is the safety and welfare of the people involved with our aircraft.”

The R44, manufactured in Torrance by Robinson Helicopter Co., is the world’s best-selling civilian helicopter, a top choice among flight schools, sightseeing companies, police departments and recreational pilots.

It also has been involved in scores of fatal accidents, including several recent ones, according to NTSB records.

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On May 17, a pilot and his passenger died when an R44 crashed in mountainous terrain near Alpine, Utah.

On April 29, all three people aboard an R44 on a sightseeing flight perished when it plunged into a residential neighborhood near Kailua, Hawaii.

One person was killed on April 4 when an R44 made a forced landing on a roadway near Tampa, Fla. The pilot and passenger were not injured but flying debris from the wreck killed a passenger in a nearby vehicle.

Those accidents remain under investigation by the NTSB, as does the January 2018 crash of an R44 that killed three people in a Newport Beach neighborhood.

Robinson R44s were involved in 42 fatal crashes in the U.S. from 2006 to 2016, more than any other civilian helicopter, according to a Times analysis last year of National Transportation Safety Board accident reports.

That translates to 1.6 deadly accidents per 100,000 hours flown — a rate nearly 50% higher than any other of the dozen most common civilian models whose flight hours are tracked by the FAA.

Robinson Helicopter Co. disputed The Times’ analysis, contending that the FAA undercounts the flight hours for the R44, leading to an inflated accident rate. The company vigorously defended its record, maintaining that its aircraft are safe and reliable when flown within their operating limits.

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colleen.shalby@latimes.com

@cshalby

kim.christensen@latimes.com

@kchristensenLAT


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