By Keith Rogers
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL
Gary Robb knows how to piece together clues on why helicopters crash.
He has been doing it for 30 years and has written a book about helicopter crash litigation, a specialty that earned him the title of “most successful helicopter crash trial lawyer in the country” by Forbes Magazine in 2009.
So far, there are only limited clues to the cause of a tour helicopter crash near Lake Mead last week, said Robb, who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the families of a couple from India killed in the crash.
“We have a puzzle of 500 pieces, but right now we have 20 pieces,” he said, using the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle that will become a more recognizable image as more clues are found.
And that is what he has vowed to do.
Robb filed a wrongful death lawsuit this week on behalf of the families of Lovish Bhanot, 28, and Anupama Bhola, 26, who were killed with three others when a Sundance sightseeing helicopter crashed Dec. 7.
Robb said he has some ideas on what might have gone wrong with the Eurocopter France AS350-B2 before it slammed into the bottom of a ravine 14 miles east of Las Vegas and burned.
A preliminary report by National Transportation Safety Board investigators cites radar records showing that about one minute before the crash, the helicopter climbed 600 feet off the normal route returning from Hoover Dam, made a sharp left turn, then dropped 800 feet and headed northeast for 20 seconds before making a left bank turn and plunging into the narrow River Mountains ravine. The final NTSB report isn’t expected for a year.
“The only conceivable explanation for the erratic and abnormal flight maneuver just prior to the crash is loss-of-control problems that were either pilot-induced or mechanical-based,” Robb said in a telephone interview from Kansas City, Mo.
The pilot, Landon Nield, 31, of Las Vegas, and passengers Delwin and Tamara Chapman, both 49, of Utica, Kan., were killed in the crash with the newlyweds from Gurgaon, India.
Robb won a $38 million settlement in 2005 for Chana Daskal of New York, who was severely burned and injured when a Papillon Airways sightseeing helicopter crashed near Meadview, Ariz., in 2001, killing six.
The helicopter in that crash also was an AS350-B2. The NTSB report blamed the crash on the pilot, who had engaged in dangerous flying practices on a prior flight.
But Robb said an investigation by his office showed the crash was attributable to a malfunction in the helicopter’s hydraulic system and a faulty fuel tank design that led to a fire in the passenger cabin.
Similarly, Robb said his staff will conduct its own investigation of the wreckage of the Dec. 7 crash and will review flight and maintenance records and witness accounts.
“The whole works,” he said.
He said his team will try to determine whether the pilot was operating the aircraft outside safe parameters or whether there were mechanical problems.
“It could be a dozen things,” he said.
It could have been a leak in the hydraulic system or failure of a part or parts that control flight, including an actuator — a type of motor for controlling rotors — or an accumulator, a device that stores hydraulic pressure, he said.
Actuators in the tail and main rotors had been replaced the day before the crash as part of routine maintenance that included replacing the engine.
A spokeswoman for Sundance Helicopters, Sabrina LoPiccolo, said she would not speculate on what might have caused the crash because the investigation by the NTSB was ongoing.
She released a statement from Larry Pietropaulo, chief executive officer of Sundance, who said: “Sundance Helicopters sends our deepest condolences to the families of Lovish Bhanot and Anupama Bhola for their losses. Sundance will continue to work openly with all parties involved in the investigation.”
The Eurocopter AS350-B2 helicopter “is a challenging aircraft to fly and also has a number of systems which are not compatible,” Robb said.
“These were human beings who got into that aircraft on Dec. 7. We should never lose sight of that,” the lawyer said.