One contentious engine failure

 - May 2, 2008, 6:55 AM

The president of a helicopter supply company whose actions were determined by the NTSB to be a contributing factor in the January 2006 crash of a Eurocopter AS 350D has claimed that the Safety Board left out pertinent information in the probable cause report. Furthermore, the NTSB acknowledges that it never investigated the complete ownership history of the engine.

The helicopter, N90Q, lost engine power during a sightseeing flight in Hawaii and suffered “substantial” damage during the landing. Neither the commercial-rated pilot nor the six passengers were injured. Investigators attributed the loss of power to “significant” engine-bearing damage and heat distress caused by an oil-starvation event seven years before the crash. The Safety Board also concluded that a contributing factor was the failure of the engine leasing agent, Spring, Texas-based Sunrise Helicopters, and the helicopter Part 135 operator, Kahului, Hawaii-based Alika Aviation (operating as Alex Air), to ensure the engine’s airworthiness.

According to Sunrise president John Peacocke, the NTSB failed to include in its report the fact that the oil-starvation event occurred under the ownership of Lafayette, La.-based Petroleum Helicopters (PHI), the original owner of the engine. Sunrise purchased the engine from PHI in 2003. The oil-starvation event occurred in 1999.

A spokesman for the NTSB confirmed to AIN that the Safety Board never investigated the ownership of the engine at the time of the oil-starvation event. “We didn’t get into the question of who owned it at the time,” he said, adding that investigators noted only that evidence of the event existed and that it contributed to the accident seven years later. “We don’t really see that [the ownership] is relevant.” However, the NTSB report did state that a 2003 logbook entry “indicated that the engine was sold in an as-is condition,” so the Safety Board was aware that Sunrise did not own the engine at the time of the event.

Robert Bouillion, PHI director of safety, environmental and auditing, told AIN that he could not confirm whether PHI owned the engine at the time of the original oil-starvation event. “There’s no indication that we ever owned that engine,” he said. “It’s hearsay.”

Peacocke stated that before leasing the engine to Alex Air in 2005, Sunrise brought the engine to Aero Aviation, an FAA-approved maintenance shop. “We had the engine tested at Aero Aviation, and the engine ran flawlessly and was released into service [with an FAA Form 8130],” Peacocke said. The director of maintenance at Alex Air then installed the engine into the (accident) helicopter on Dec. 30, 2005, inspected the helicopter and determined that it was airworthy, according to the NTSB report. “So we purchased a serviceable engine, stored it, had it tested, and the customer accepted it and determined that it was airworthy,” Peacocke said. “We did everything we had to do. The bearing failing had nothing to do with us.”

Furthermore, Peacocke questions whether the oil-starvation event even contributed to the bearing failure. “The NTSB trying to say that the bearing failed because of a previous oil starvation event is really kind of strange,” he told AIN. “It’s unheard of for a bearing failure to stop an engine, and it happened 1200 hours before the [January 2006] accident. That’s ridiculous.”

Cockpit Illumination
Another possibility, according to Peacocke, could have been the pilot’s failure to correctly monitor the engine in flight. The NTSB report states that the pilot had failed to move the caution warning panel (CWP) light switch to the maximum brightness position, which is required during daylight operations. The CWP lights illuminate when engine performance deteriorates, as in cases where oil pressure is lost or the engine bearings are failing.

Investigators reviewed a videotape provided by a passenger on the accident flight and noted, “At no time during the flight in which the CWP was visible were any of the bulbs in the CWP visibly illuminated. At all times during the flight when the CWP was visible, the toggle switch (brightness control) was observed in the ‘-’ position, and the flight occurred during bright daylight conditions.”

“A failure warning isn’t something that causes an engine to stop,” Peacocke said. “The warning lights on the helicopter were dimmed, so the pilot didn’t see the aircraft CWP lights. Who knows how long he was flying the helicopter with the engine lights on? I’m assuming the pilot continued flying while [the engine] was failing for God knows how many hours.”

Because of the NTSB’s findings, lawsuits have been brought against Sunrise and the engine bearing manufacturer.