Another tragic Robinson R-44 accident has struck Washington. This one occurred at approximately 4:20 p.m. on June 19, 2024, near Bluestem, Washington. The pilot was a very experienced retired commercial pilot and flight instructor. The passenger was a rated airplane private pilot but was apparently not rated in helicopters. The passenger was also a retired physician and current aviation medical examiner. Both pilot and passenger died in the accident. The R-44 II, FAA Registration number N323TT (serial no. 14626), was owned by RTW Adventures LLC, located in Post Falls, Idaho. It was practically a brand-new aircraft being manufactured in 2023.

This accident really hits home at ALG because we have been involved in at least one other R-44 case that had a similar wreckage signatures.

Here, the weather at the time of the accident was good with clear skies and at least 10 miles visibility. The wind was 6 knots at 30 degrees.

Based on flight data information obtained by ALG, the flight originated from Boeing Field in Seattle earlier that day around 1:30 p.m. and flew through Snoqualmie Pass mostly following I-90 to Ellensburg, where it stopped at Ellensburg’s Bowers Field Airport. This leg took approximately 67 minutes.  The only noted significance during the flight are fluctuations in ground speed while in cruise flight throughout at least half of the flight, where the speed regularly went up and down from approximately 70 to 110 knots per hour. The altitude went from near sea level to 3400 feet and then descended to Ellensburg Airport, which has an elevation of 1763 feet above sea level. While at Ellensburg the N323TT took on 14 gallons of fuel.

After being on the ground approximately 30 minutes, N323TT departed Bowers Field at approximately 3:11 pm and continued its flight toward Spokane. The helicopter flew a direct route, flying over the Columbia River at 2125 feet just south of Crescent Bar, and proceeded to nearly stop and hover in flight for a moment, until it continued eastbound just south of Quincy. The helicopter continued in an east direction until the accident which occurred approximately 71 minutes into the flight. During nearly the entire flight, while the altitude varied between 2500 and 3800 feet, the ground speed again regularly fluctuated between 70 and 110 knots per hour until the time of the accident, averaging approximately 100 knots. At one point, about 50 minutes into the flight the helicopter rapidly slowed down to 40 knots grounds speed, and then quickly returned back to 100 knots ground speed.

The final data point reflected the N232TT at 3050 feet above sea level, which at that location was 740 feet above ground. The groundspeed was 69 knots, and this location was only 50 southwest of the accident site, as N323TT was travelling in a northeast direction.

The accident site was at an elevation of 2182 feet, and the wreckage field indicated that the heading of the helicopter was about 086 degrees when it impacted the ground, in an area of hilly terrain.

Of great interest was the fact that the tail rotor assembly and about 2 feet of the tail cone had separated from N232TT and were found 340 feet southwest of the fuselage. Helicopter part fragments were found in the debris path between the fuselage and tail rotor assembly. Most of the fuselage was consumed by a post-accident fire.

Source: LA Times Investigative Reporting from 2018

A History of Failures

How or why the tail rotor of N323TT came off the helicopter while in cruise flight is not known. However, based on experience ALG attorneys expect the NTSB to be looking at either the main rotor or tail rotor blades coming into contact with the tail boom in flight.

This accident is commonly referred to as a mast bumping. Robinson Helicopters, including the R-44, have a history of this occurring and numerous fixes have been attempted throughout the years. Indeed, the NTSB issued a series of recommendations to the FAA following crash of an Alaska State Trooper R-44.

Most of those recommendations have not been adopted by the FAA and R-44s continue to crash at alarming rates.

While it is too early to determine the probable cause, ALG attorneys are sensing that the helicopter’s design and/or assembly or maintenance related to the main or tail rotor has to be suspect.

The NTSB is investigating the accident. It is not currently known if any witnesses actually saw the accident, although at least one witness heard the impact and went to the accident location. A post-accident fire burned approximately one acre of vegetation before it was extinguished.

ALG attorneys have handled numerous Robinson Helicopter accidents, including a multi-death R-44 accident in which a King County Superior Court Judge ruled that the helicopter was defective as a matter of law because it allowed its tail rotor to come into contact with the tail boom, slicing the tail boom off, which caused the accident, in violation of a federal regulation. That case initially seems similar to this accident.

ALG attorneys have handled numerous helicopter and airplane accident cases in Eastern Washington, and have taken to trial aviation accident cases in Spokane County and Asotin County Superior Courts.

ALG attorneys continue to represent families who lost loved ones in helicopter accidents, and currently are involved in numerous helicopter accidents.

The full text of the NTSB Preliminary Report follows: