On Day of Elba Crash, FAA Published Document on Tail Rotor Problems on Bell 429 Helicopter

April 29, 2022

Apr. 29—The same day two pilots died in a helicopter crash in Elba, the Federal Aviation Administration released an official document describing an ongoing problem with the tail rotor of that specific helicopter model.

Mercy Flight pilot James E. Sauer and Bell training instructor Stewart M. Dietrick were killed around 1 p.m. Tuesday during a training exercise when their Bell 429 helicopter crashed along the shoulder of Norton Road in Elba, a town in Genesee County. The FAA, which sent members to Elba Wednesday to begin its investigation, had published an update regarding a long troublesome part of the Bell 429.

While previous FAA directives dating to 2016 had demanded regular inspections of tail rotor parts — vulnerable to corrosion — on Bell 429s, Tuesday's rule read more urgently.

This Airworthiness Directive (AD) on tail rotors was "prompted by a report of a worn pitch link, and the FAA's determination that all TR pitch link assemblies are affected by the unsafe condition," the document read. The FAA further indicated that a worn pitch link, if not corrected, "could result in pitch link failure and subsequent loss of control of the helicopter."

Officials have not determined the cause of the fatal crash in Elba and likely won't for some time. The National Transportation Safety Board and Bell Flight members joined the FAA in Elba to begin the preliminary investigation; a full investigation for a fatal accident can take up to 24 months to complete, said Jennifer Gabris of the NTSB.

Ron Goldman, a Los Angeles-based attorney not involved in the Elba investigation, but with experience handling lawsuits involving helicopter crashes, cautioned Wednesday against jumping to quick conclusions about why a crash occurs. But he also noted the considerable flying experience of the two pilots onboard the training mission exercise Tuesday.

"One has to be suspicious of some kind of mechanical failure in an event like this," Goldman said.

NTSB investigator Aaron McCarter said Wednesday that the helicopter's tail was found separate from the body of the helicopter, confirming witness accounts. A boom was also heard by witnesses before the helicopter struck the ground, The News reported.

Concerns have long loomed around the 429 model of the Bell helicopter, which has been involved in three accidents in New York in the last seven months and two fatal accidents in the United States in the last year. The incidents were concurrent with several Airworthiness Directives released by the FAA related to problems identified with the model's tail rotor, which rotates to counteract the force of the main rotor, keeping the aircraft in flight.

Located at the rear of the helicopter, the tail rotor comprises several small parts vital to the aircraft's movement and stabilization; copters.com lays out a detailed view of the part.

Tuesday's directive, which was said to affect 120 Bell 429 helicopters in the U.S. registry, was set to go into effect May 31. Then, the FAA would require Bell 429 owners to replace pitch link bearings, a crucial connecting piece in the tail rotor, and continue inspections of the TR pitch link assemblies.

No further information was given regarding the location or source of the worn pitch link reported, although the directive did include the range of serial numbers of Bell 429s affected by the rule. The crashed Mercy Flight helicopter's serial number, 57332, fell within the 57001 and 57401 boundaries.

Attempts to contact Hal Jensen, the contact for the April 26 FAA directive, were forwarded to the FAA's Public Affairs office and not returned. A phone call, voicemail and email to Lindsey Hughes, the Bell Flight contact for corporate communications, were not returned.

In the last six years, the FAA has released seven directives regarding the Bell 429 tail rotor, many connected to its vulnerability to various types of corrosion and specific to the pitch link bearing bores, pitch link assembly and sealant. Four of the FAA's directives involving tail rotors have come since March 16, 2020, while a fifth advised setting life limits and certified maintenance requirements for the Bell 429. Some of these directives were written for very specific serial numbers of the Bell 429, while others — like Tuesday's — touched a much broader range.

The mechanical tail rotor issue was first identified in an FAA AD prompted by Transport Canada in 2016, with a rule implemented requiring "recurring inspection of the sealant and repeating the inspections for corrosion and pitting if any sealant is missing." The directive was sparked by an "incident in which a helicopter experienced an in-flight failure of a T/R (tail rotor) link," according to the document.

The FAA superseded that directive four years later after determining "additional part-numbered T/R pitch link assemblies are affected by the same unsafe condition and that an additional repetitive inspection is necessary to address the unsafe condition."

Another directive was put into effect Nov. 1, 2021, requiring "repetitive torque checks of the tail rotor gearbox attachment hardware, and corrective action if necessary."

Helicopter accidents in the last year involving Bell 429s

—Army veteran Shane Keebler died in a Bell 429 helicopter crash April 28, 2021, reported the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. Two other passengers were injured. Keebler was completing routine work for Duke Energy at the time of the crash, and the cause has not been determined.

—A Bell 429 helicopter owned by the New York City Police Department was in an accident on Dec. 13, 2021. Two people were on board, and neither died, according to the NTSB preliminary report. No cause has been determined.

—A Bell 429 helicopter operated by the Nigeria Police Air Wing crashed Jan. 26, 2022, with six passengers on board, none of whom was injured, reported BusinessDay, a Nigeria business outlet. According to the article, the Accident Investigation Bureau — Nigeria announced in preliminary reports that the aircraft did not have a serviceable radio beacon.

—Genesee County was the site of another Bell 429 Mercy Flight accident in October 2021, when helicopter N505TJ experienced a hard landing. No patients were on board and none of the four Mercy Flight crew members was injured, according to the NTSB preliminary report. Multiple media reports cited fog as a deterrent for landing. A Buffalo Business First report from March 16 of Mercy Flight's $8.5 million purchase of a new Bell helicopter noted that the impending addition to the fleet was a replacement for the aircraft damaged in October's accident.

Problems with tail rotors are not specific to Bell and the 429 model. A published scientific study, using FAA and NTSB data, on Nature.com shows how the loss of tail rotor effectiveness has been a common cause of helicopter accidents at large.

Bell recently has been working on solutions for its Bell 429 helicopter tail rotors. Engineers at the Quebec headquarters developed an electrically distributed anti-torque system (EDAT) demonstrated in February 2020, intended to replace several tail rotor parts with "fans driven by electric motors," according to Aerospace Testing International. A helicopter's safety, weight and noise levels could be improved by this EDAT system, the report reads.


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