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Papillon Crash Article


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Saturday, November 02, 2002

Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Poor maintenance, pilot error blamed in helicopter crashes


National Transportation Safety Board rulings fault Las Vegas-based aerial tour company





Inadequate maintenance and pilot error by employees of Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters caused separate crashes that injured eight people and destroyed two canyon-touring aircraft, federal investigators determined.


The National Transportation Safety Board's rulings on a crash two years ago near Hoover Dam and another accident five months ago in the canyon are two more serious blows to Papillon, the Las Vegas-based company that last year was involved in the deadliest canyon crash since 1995.


"We've had a run of bad luck here," said Papillon Vice President Rick Carrick, referring to the air tour company's string of three high-profile crashes in three years. "No one deserves it less. We're a respectable company."


The NTSB has not yet ruled on a probable cause of the Aug. 10, 2001, crash that killed six people and left sole survivor Chana Daskal with severe burns over most of her body.


But the federal safety board's rulings last week against Papillon staff members in the two other accidents might bolster a lawsuit against the company that alleges pilot error and mechanical problems caused the crash that maimed Daskal, 26, and killed her husband, four friends and a Papillon pilot.


"I'm not surprised," said New York City attorney Bernadette Panzella, who is suing Papillon and the manufacturers of the helicopter on behalf of Daskal. "Questionable maintenance issues found by the NTSB aren't surprising considering inadequate maintenance may be a contributing cause to the crash that left Chana Daskal's two young boys without a father."


Papillon officials on Friday partially disputed some of the federal investigators' findings, but they acknowledged their staff members had made serious mistakes that injured tourists and destroyed helicopters with a combined value of $1.5 million.


The NTSB's recently issued rulings concern Papillon accidents in September 2000 and in May.


In the first crash, a Papillon Sikorsky S-55 helicopter on a sightseeing flight from Las Vegas lost engine power and crashed Sept. 18, 2000, near Hoover Dam with six tourists and a pilot on board, injuring all of them and destroying the helicopter.


The NTSB spent two years reviewing company maintenance records, interviewing employees and examining the aircraft's engine before ruling last week that engine oil and drive gear problems repeatedly ignored by Papillon mechanics caused the loss of engine power during flight.


A federal report on the crash says Papillon maintenance staff ignored pre-crash engine oil test results "that indicated an impending internal engine failure."


George Petterson, the NTSB air safety investigator who oversaw the crash inquiry, wrote in the report that pre-crash reports about the aircraft's oil contained comments such as "Alert" and "Iron Appears High."


"Anytime you have an oil analysis that shows a high level of iron or any other metal, you automatically suspect that something with the engine may be going bad," said William Waldock, a professor of Aeronautical Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., who reviewed the NTSB reports for the Review-Journal.


"In this case, it was showing iron and magnesium, and that means the drive system is showing wear and exhibiting indications it may be about to fail."


Carrick initially disputed the NTSB finding that Papillon mechanics ignored the oil tests, saying he believed the remanufactured engine in the helicopter had been installed only two days before the crash and that there were no previous oil records. But Carrick's timetable of the engine's installation could not be confirmed with certainty Friday, he said, because the aircraft's maintenance logs now are stored in Florida.


"If the NTSB's saying it, well, generally those guys are right," Carrick said. "I'm not going to call the NTSB liars, but I think we only had that engine in there a few days."


The NTSB also found that Papillon staff ignored an advisory, issued by the manufacturer of the helicopter's engine nine months before the crash, that recommended the immediate replacement of components in the engine's drive gears.


Such an advisory, called a service bulletin, occasionally is issued by a manufacturer to advise everyone operating a certain model of aircraft that some action should be taken to ensure continued performance and safety. That action could recommend anything from a quick inspection of a part to the replacement of a major component because new information indicates it could fail.


"It's where the manufacturer will issue an advisory, often in the form of a flier, where they're saying, 'We think this is important, you need to take a look at it and do something about it,' " said Waldock, associate director of the Center for Aerospace Safety Education. "Most operators do not ignore them."


Carrick said the company's mechanics typically follow all service bulletins, even though compliance is not required by law.


"We never cut corners, but this one slipped through the cracks somewhere," he said. "In the NTSB's eyes, this should have been done. But that's their opinion, and these are not required service bulletins. We didn't do anything wrong."


Carrick noted that Papillon's mechanics at the time were not very familiar with the S-55, the model of helicopter involved in the accident.


Sikorsky stopped manufacturing the aircraft decades ago. The S-55 was used heavily by the U.S. military in the 1950s and early 1960s and often is seen in war movies from that era. Papillon's S-55 was fabricated from a former military aircraft that had been remanufactured and modified, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.


"They (Papillon's mechanics) were a little inexperienced with this particular model because it was just being introduced to us," Carrick said, adding that the mechanics only recently had completed instruction on how to care for the aircraft.


In the May 28 crash, Papillon pilot Simon Sweetnam was descending along a canyon wall to pick up passengers in a Bell 206 when the aircraft's tail was severed when it hit a rock. According to the federal report, a witness told investigators the helicopter began to "spin out of control" and then struck terrain, bounced 60 feet and cartwheeled before coming to rest on its left side.


"When you lose the tail rotor, you lose the ability to steer and it sends you into a spin," Waldock said. "He just blew the landing, basically. This could have been a pretty horrendous accident, especially since he was coming down a canyon wall."


Papillon initially described the incident as "a hard landing," but the impact actually wrecked the aircraft, said Arnold Scott, the NTSB air safety investigator who headed the inquiry.


"He failed to maintain clearance (above the ground)," Scott said. "He hit rock, and the helicopter was destroyed."


Sweetnam suffered minor head injuries in the accident. He was transported to University Medical Center, where he was treated and released within a few hours.


Papillon fired the 55-year-old pilot two days later, and he now works in a Las Vegas casino.


Asked about Sweetnam's crash, which destroyed a $500,000 aircraft, Papillon officials said they were not surprised by the pilot error ruling.


"He made a bad mistake, that's all," Carrick said. "He's a lovable old guy, but he's just getting to the point where he just wasn't paying attention, was talking to somebody on the radio or was somehow distracted."


In an interview this summer, Sweetnam told the Review-Journal that the May crash was the only accident of his 19-year piloting career.


But in the NTSB report, federal investigators noted that Sweetnam "was involved in a similar accident on December 7, 2000, near Henderson."


That accident caused more than $30,000 in damage to the aircraft. It was witnessed by an FAA inspector who was on board the test flight to approve the renewal of Sweetnam's commercial pilot's license, according to federal records. At the time, Sweetnam was working for Heli USA Airways, but he left his job there months later to join Papillon.


Papillon and Heli USA, which fiercely compete for customers in the lucrative Grand Canyon aerial tour industry, share a hangar at the Las Vegas Executive Air Terminal at McCarran International Airport.


Papillon officials said they knew about the prior accident when they hired Sweetnam to ferry passengers from the Grand Canyon's rim to the bottom.


"We wouldn't hire someone we weren't comfortable with," Carrick said.




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