AVIATION safety officials have again baulked at grounding a popular type of helicopter with a known fire risk, despite investigating another crash in which two people were burnt alive.

The latest investigation involves the crash of another Robinson R44 helicopter, which is widely used by joy flight and charter operators. The investigation again highlights a known problem with its fuel tank design that allows petrol to spill out on impact or if the aircraft tips over. Yet a recommended fuel tank modification kit to cut the risk of fire remains in scarce supply, and no safety regulator has made it compulsory.

The drama aboard the Robinson R44 began when a lock-nut holding flight control linkages together broke soon after take-off from Cessnock Aerodrome in New South Wales on February 4 last year, rendering the chopper uncontrollable. A flying instructor wrestled the controls but the helicopter banked sharply, hit the runway, tipped on its side, and burst into flames. One pilot on board managed to scramble out of the wreckage but the injured instructor and a passenger trapped inside were incinerated. ”Fatal injuries sustained … were due to the post-impact fire,” investigators said.

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Queensland cattleman Graham McDermott, his wife and the grazing company he owns, have filed suit in the Queensland Supreme Court against the Robinson Helicopter Company as the first defendant, claiming damages based on a liability for personal injury in the order of $75 million resulting from the crash of a Robinson R22 helicopter on May 30, 2004.

Co-defendants are five Australian companies engaged in helicopter operations and maintenance, but sources say a confidential out of court seven-figure settlement has been reached with those entities.

Mr. McDermott was a passenger aboard the helicopter when it suffered a mechanical failure, crashing and burning during a property inspection at Tobermorey Station, his 599,400 acre (242 ha) property straddling the Queensland/NT Border. Both occupants survived the crash but the pilot, Kevin Milton Norton, died at the scene. Mr. McDermott suffered permanent disabling injury including disfigurement from burns.

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