NTSB Identification: WPR17LA097
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Friday, May 05, 2017 in Santa Barbara, CA
Aircraft: ROBINSON HELICOPTER R44, registration: N981RR
Injuries: 3 Serious.
This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
On May 5, 2017, at 1402 Pacific daylight time, a Robinson R44, N981RR, lost engine power and landed hard following an autorotation near Santa Barbara, California. The helicopter was registered to Spitzer Helicopter LLC, and operated by Santa Barbara Helicopter Tours, as a revenue sightseeing flight under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91. The flight instructor and two passengers sustained serious injuries, and the helicopter was destroyed by post impact fire. The local flight departed Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, Santa Barbara, California, about 1345. Visual meteorological conditions prevailed and no flight plan had been filed.
The flight was planned to be a standard 20 minute "City Tour" for the two passengers, which included a roundtrip flight from the airport to the Santa Barbara Zoo area, about 10 miles east.
The outbound flight was uneventful with the pilot requesting a special VFR (visual flight rules) clearance due to low cloud ceilings. On the return leg, the weather had not improved, and the pilot requested a special VFR clearance to land. The airport controllers directed the pilot to hold outside of the airport's airspace due to landing traffic, and the pilot circled the city for about 10 minutes until the landing request was granted. He then proceeded to follow the 101 Highway west towards the airport, and a brief time later he noticed that the engine began to lose partial power, coincident with the clutch actuator light illuminating. He reset the clutch actuator circuit breaker while evaluating his landing options. He began to maneuver the helicopter for landing at a golf course, rather than the highway or congested areas below, and a few seconds later the helicopter lost all power.
He immediately initiated an autorotation, with the intention of landing on the golf course. During the final stage of the descent, he realized he would not be able to reach the grass area due to a wall, so he landed just short in a parking lot. During the landing flare, the helicopter's main rotor blades struck the roof of a building, and the helicopter landed hard, spreading both skids. All occupants egressed from the helicopter, while the golf course superintendent, who heard the impact, attempted to extinguish a fire which had developed at the rear of the helicopters fuselage. Within a few minutes the fire had spread, ultimately engulfing the main cabin as the local fire department arrived about 5 minutes later.
Multiple witnesses reported seeing an object fall from the helicopter as it flew over the highway, and post-accident examination revealed that the engines number 3 cylinder head assembly and piston were missing. A search was conducted by volunteer search and rescue personnel from the Santa Barbara County Sherriff's Department, and the assembly was located the following day, in a field about 1/4 north of the wreckage location.