French rescue org suffers third fatal EC 145 crash

 - June 3, 2009, 10:07 AM

A Eurocopter EC 145 operated by France’s emergency preparedness organization, Sécurité Civile, crashed on April 25 on the French island of Corsica, killing all five occupants–both flight crewmembers, one doctor, one young mother and the baby she had given birth to in flight. The twin-turbine helicopter was flying above rugged terrain in bad weather. It was the third fatal crash of a Sécurité Civile EC 145 since its entry into service in 2002.

The helicopter was flying at about 7 p.m. from Ponte-Leccia, where it had picked up the young woman, to a hospital in Bastia. The flight was planned to last about 15 minutes, and the crew had already performed a series of rescue missions earlier that day.

This latest accident brought the two previous accidents back into the spotlight. In 2006, an EC 145 crashed during a rescue training exercise in the Pyrenees Mountains. The accident claimed the lives of three and injured one. In 2003, during a rescue operation in the same mountain area, one occupant was killed and another three injured in the crash of another EC 145. Both accidents happened in the hover or at low speed.

Yves Darmendrail, the lawyer working for families of victims of the 2006 crash, filed a complaint on April 29. He explained to AIN that this would give him access to key documents. A two-year preliminary investigation had left families dissatisfied, and Darmendrail said that the filing of the complaint had been planned before the crash in Corsica. “We believe there is a link between the 2003 and 2006 accidents in the Pyrenees,” he said.

According to Darmendrail, expert analysis has shown there may be a problem with the EC 145’s tail rotor. “It loses effectiveness at altitude, thus impeding yaw control; several EC 145 pilots have encountered such a problem, although it did not turn into an accident,” he asserted. Eurocopter required incorporation of a modification shortly after the 2006 crash, Darmendrail noted. “The modification [involved] a servo control; without the change, pilots felt a false stop on the left pedal,” he said.

The investigators’ report on the 2003 accident did mention loss of tail rotor effectiveness as a cause. However, it emphasized this can happen to any helicopter–not only the EC 145. Local winds, combined with insufficient preparation for a maneuver, can trigger the phenomenon, the report states.

However, according to Xavier Roy, secretary general of a Sécurité Civile helicopter pilot union, pilots have consistently requested more tail rotor authority. Roy deemed the problem “small.” Since entry into service, the Sécurité Civile’s EC 145s have undergone two retrofits but none involving the tail rotor, Roy said.

The way pilots operate the EC 145 has been influenced by the first accident. For example, pilots are now taught always to keep an avenue for escape on their right-hand side, which is helpful if the tail rotor has lost some effectiveness and the left antitorque pedal is already at its stop, Roy explained.

Roy confirmed to AIN that the investigation report on the 2006 accident has not been published yet. “I have not read it,” he said. Bertrand Gausserès, head of the Sécurité Civile’s helicopter group, insisted to AIN the accident in Corsica “should not be lumped together with the first two.” The April accident is unlikely to share common causes with the previous two because the circumstances are different–this time, the helicopter is understood to have been in cruise flight. A Eurocopter spokesperson told AIN that “lots of tests were performed after the 2003 accident, showing there was no problem with the tail rotor–no more than with other helicopters.” The spokesperson also mentioned a story in a local newspaper, Le Dauphiné Libéré, in which two Sécurité Civile EC 145 pilots were quoted as saying they had no safety concerns with the helicopter.

As for the accident in Corsica, Roy expressed hope that a new maintenance-
oriented flight data recorder installed on the helicopter will shed light on the causes.