The supply of "rogue" aircraft parts is back in the spotlight following New Zealand's grounding of some helicopters.

Paul Phelan/NELSON

A FATAL helicopter crash in New Zealand has triggered the grounding of about 5% of civil helicopters in that country, the suspension of engineers' licences and operators' certificates, and continuing New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority and police inquiries, including a police manslaughter investigation.

New Zealand authorities have passed on all information, including the identity of a US supplier, to Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which is now considering similar action and has already issued two airworthiness directives (ADs), one of which mentions the same supplier.


A New Zealand CAA AD, ordering the immediate removal of all components sourced from the supplier, says: "The CAA has been actively investigating the supply of unapproved aircraft parts after a fatal helicopter-accident in October 1995. This investigation is continuing, but has revealed serious concerns regarding the airworthiness of any components supplied by Cherry Air Specialties [CAS International, of Torrance, California, USA]. The CAA has evidence of false documentation and time-expired components being sent to New Zealand."

The death of a pilot and passenger in a Robinson R22 in New Zealand in October 1995 sparked a full-scale CAA purge on bogus US-sourced helicopter spares, and tighter controls on spares documentation and maintenance shops. Investigators have since been told in a facsimile transmission from helicopter manufacturer Frank Robinson that six sets of time-expired main rotor blades were "somewhere in New Zealand". The New Zealand log books for one pair of blades, removed from an R22 which crashed for unrelated reasons, show that they could be flown legally for another 607h before their 2,000h retirement. The New Zealand CAA, however, with help from the US Federal Aviation Administration and the manufacturer, traced US documentation showing that they had been previously scrapped in the USA, having been flown for their maximum 2,000h. The time in service recorded on the New Zealand documents was derived from a Cherry Air Specialties document giving what US authorities say is a non-existent address.

New Zealand police are separately pursuing a manslaughter investigation into the deaths of the R22 occupants last October: "They died because a tail rotor was removed from the scrap heap, incorrectly glued back together, repainted, and fitted to a helicopter they later bought," says CAA deputy director Max Stevens. The investigation has already identified components from Bell, Hughes and other Robinson helicopters. A New Zealand Aviation Industry Association conference in Nelson on 18 July was shown an ex-military Bell UH-1B main-rotor blade removed from a New Zealand-registered civil helicopter, which had been deliberately damaged beyond repair with dents and punctures inflicted by a heavy metal bar, a knife or axe, and numerous bullet holes. It had subsequently been filled with automotive repair filler, painted over, and sold as a mid-life serviceable component. The defect was spotted by a pilot as a hairline crack which proved to be an incipient failure.

Identifying bogus parts

To date, between ten and 15 New Zealand helicopters have been identified in the continuing inquiry, involving main rotors, tail rotors, main transmissions, tail-rotor drive shafts and tail-rotor gearboxes. "Some of the bogus parts were still in boxes, some main-rotor blades were complete sets; in some cases just single blades were involved," says the CAA.

Action is now in progress against an individual and a supplier, and the CAA is initiating further certificate actions and prosecutions separately from police investigations. Inquiries are expected to implicate other US and, possibly, Australian suppliers.

CAA safety analyst Ian Stobba says: "I fear that we have merely tipped the iceberg. The way our investigation is tracking leads me to fear that there will be a further directive in the next month or so which will drastically affect a great number of people.

"We have a cancer in our midst, and the CAA is determined to cut it out," he asserts.

Source: Flight International