Jan. 27--Federal safety experts are recommending that owners of Robinson Helicopter Co.'s four-seat R44 choppers replace the aircraft's fuel tanks after crash investigators found accidents resulted in deaths that could have been avoided.
The National Transportation Safety Board said this month it made the recommendation after investigations found crashes of R44 helicopters that were "survivable for the occupants, but fatal or serious injuries occurred because of a post-crash fire that resulted from an impact-related breach in the fuel tanks."
The Torrance company has produced nearly 6,000 of its single-engine R44 helicopters since the first one was delivered in 1993. Most of its sales have been overseas.
Ian Gregor, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency is aware of the recommendation though it has not issued a mandatory fix as of yet.
"The agency takes NTSB recommendations very seriously and will respond within the prescribed time frame," he said.
Robinson said it supports the NTSB recommendation. The company issued a service bulletin in December 2010, calling for the retrofit of the all-aluminum fuel tanks with crash-resistant tanks.
"The retrofit kits are supplied below Robinson's costs and can be performed by any qualified mechanic, service center or at the factory," company president Kurt Robinson said. "To assist owners and encourage compliance, Robinson extended ... [a] $1,000 labor credit."
Since 1973, Robinson has manufactured low-cost helicopters for use by television news organizations, banks transporting money between branches and police departments that use them for surveillance and rescue missions.
Robinson's helicopters are sold for a fraction of the prices of its competitors. The two-seat R-22 sells for $279,000, and the R-44 goes for about $367,000 to $447,000. The company's jet-powered R-66 is priced at $839,000.
Last year, more than 1,200 employees churned out 523 choppers at the company's factory, which hugs almost a half-mile of runway at the east end of Torrance Municipal Airport.
Dun & Bradstreet Inc. estimated Robinson's 2013 sales at $126.5 million.
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