The Story Behind Special FAR 73
The story behind Special FAR 73 begins with a July, 21 1994 letter, in the form of a Safety Recommendation from Jim Hall, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to the FAA. The letter expressed concern resulting from three earlier R22 accidents. Because of this concern the NTSB made two, in their terms, “Class I, Urgent Action” recommendations to the FAA (A-94-143 &144) and one “Class II Priority Action” recommendation (A-94-145). First, the NTSB wanted the FAA to issue an AD to reduce the R22’s Vne. The NTSB felt (incorrectly so) that high airspeed had somehow contributed to these accidents. Second, the NTSB recommended that Robinson in conjunction with NASA conduct wind tunnel and computer modeling tests to see if there was some inherent instability in the R22 rotor system. The “priority recommendation” concerned the appropriateness of a Designated Engineering Representative (DER-appointed by the FAA to insure engineering data complies with airworthiness standards) also being a senior executive at small aircraft manufacturing companies. In response, during the late summer of 1994 the FAA conducted an in-depth analysis of Robinson accidents and the Executive Summary of its report dated September 12, 1994 made three findings: the R22 accident rate was “not out of line with piston helicopters in general”, the pilots in command had ‘relatively low levels of experience in rotorcraft and, particularity in the R22” and to “expand educational efforts for R22 operators to students and personal use pilots in all piston helicopters”. So, in Oct 1994 the FAA responded to the NTSB’s recommendations by saying they had convened a panel to research the R22 in-flight breakup accidents, to recommend a course of action for the FAA to follow concerning testing and evaluate the cause of the breakups but would not restrict any R22 flight operations including reducing the Vne.
In Dec 1994 the NTSB expressed dissatisfaction with the FAA stating it “was disappointed that the FAA did not respond to the urgency of the recommendations…” and classified their two “urgent action” recommendations as “Open—Unacceptable Response”. Then, on Jan 6, 1995 Mr. Hall wrote another letter in the form of another Safety Recommendation to the FAA. This time, citing four additional accidents (2 R22 & 2 R44) and again displaying disappointment with the FAA’s response, the NTSB made eight additional recommendations, three of which were classified “Class I, Urgent Action” (A-95-1, 2 and 3) and six classified Class II, Priority Action (A-95-4 through A-95-8). The first two “Urgent Action” recommendations (A-95-1 and A-95-2) were to ground both the R22 & R44 (“prohibit further flight”) until adequate research & testing could be accomplished. The other six recommendations involved the low RPM warning system, “T” bar cyclic and to conduct “special studies and reviews” of the certification, blade design and manufacturing process of the main rotor blades.
It was clear that the Robinson Helicopter Company was now caught in a struggle between the NTSB and the FAA over the R22 and R44. It was highly unlikely that in the mid-1990s the Robinson Helicopter Company could not have survived an extended grounding of both helicopters and to the FAA’s credit they ground neither helicopter. Instead, in late Jan 1995 the FAA convened a Flight Standardization Board (FSB) to study the R22 and R44 accidents.
Four members of the FAA’s FSB spent almost two weeks at the Robinson factory. They reviewed many evaluations of the R22 including design modifications, the rotor blade manufacturing process and also attended the Robinson Pilot Safety Course including the flight portion of the course. The FSB report, issued on Feb 15, 1995, outlined the ground and flight training requirements that would soon become Special FAR 73. Over the years I’ve heard people speculate that Robinson “wrote the SFAR” or Robinson was “all for the SFAR”. That’s not the case at all and Robinson certainly did not write the rule. Look at it from Robinson’s standpoint: either a special FAR dealing with pilot training and experience requirements or a grounding of both helicopters for an undetermined amount of time which would likely sink the company. Not a real difficult decision to make.
Interestingly, during the 1994-1995 time period that all this back and forth between the FAA and NTSB occurred and the FSB was being conducted, Robinson was purposely not delivering R44s to the US market. Deliveries of the R44 had started in early 1993 and the foreign market was so strong a long backlog of R44 orders existed. Not wanting to incur the increased liability in the US with the new four-seat R44, Robinson required some very demanding insurance endorsements for the US market. Consequently, during this time there were only four R44s operating in the US. This being the case, the R44 was not discussed or flown in the factory Safety Course as it would be later and most of the FSB’s attention focused on the R22. I think the FAA, Robinson and, for that matter, myself were quite shortsighted in what I now consider offhandedly including the R44 in Special FAR 73. I believe that if the same attention had been shown towards the R44 flight characteristics as was later done with the R66, the R44 would not (and should not) have been included in the SFAR. However, the political atmosphere between the FAA and NTSB at the time may have made the R44s inclusion inevitable.
Special FAR 73 (SFAR 73) was issued on February 27, 1995, two weeks after the FSB final report. On March 27, 1995, just six weeks after the FSB’s final report, SFAR 73 appeared as a final rule in the Federal Register. It should be noted it took over a year for Robinson and the FAA to conduct all the NTSB’s requested flight, ground, simulation and computer modeling tests. Imagine what the Robinson Helicopter Company would have looked like, if it still existed, had the company been unable to deliver helicopters during this time. Once all the testing the NTSB requested was finally completed their final report (NTSB Special Investigation Report, adopted April 2, 1996, notation 6405B) stated “During this investigation, the Safety Board found no direct evidence of an unstable blade or rotor system design.” I think it’s fair to say that if the NTSB had had its way in 1994 the R44 would not have gone on to be the most popular helicopter ever produced and today, there would be no such thing as an R66.
The original SFAR 73 expired on December 31, 1997; however, the FAA renewed it for another two years and eventually eliminated an expiration date. Through the years the FAA has tweaked the rule by allowing R22 time to help meet the experience requirements for the R44 but one glaring problem has yet to be rectified. The flight portion of SFAR 73 requires “Effects of low G maneuvers and proper recovery procedures”. In the 1980s Robinson had developed an inflight training maneuver for the recognition and recovery from low G conditions that was taught at all our Safety Courses (Low G mast bumping was not well known in the FAA world at the time. It was not covered in the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook, during pilot certification or by any Advisory Circular.). The FSB members saw this maneuver when they attended Robinson’s Safety Course and included it in the Special FAR. However, after a low G accident in Germany with an R44, the FAA issued an airworthiness directive (AD 95-11-09) effective July14, 1995, some three months after the SFAR was issued. The AD prohibited low G cyclic pushovers in the limitations section of the Pilot’s Operating Handbook and required a placard reading “Low G Cyclic Pushovers Prohibited” be placed on the cyclic. The result was on one hand we now have a regulation requiring an inflight maneuver and on the other hand an AD prohibiting it. Believe it or not, this conflict still exists today. After numerous attempts by Robinson to address this contradiction, the FAA has done nothing.
In August 2010 the FAA conducted another FSB to determine if the newly certified R66 should be included in Special FAR 73. Its report, dated October 13, 2010 said “... the R66 did not demonstrate unique or unusual handling characteristics in the subject areas specified in the SFAR 73…” and “R66 inclusion in SFAR 73 is not appropriate…” Special FAR 73 does not include the R66. However, I sure everyone with an appreciable amount of experience in both the R44 and R66 would agree the difference between the two is not worthy of any special regulations.