Suspect rotors on EKAB ’copters

Italy’s civil aviation authorities issued an emergency airworthiness directive last July warning that Agusta helicopters such as the three Greek ones that have crashed in the past two years had problems with their tail rotor blades. The bathysphere Thetis was due to begin searching off Icaria today for the four-man crew and fuselage of the National First Aid Center (EKAB) helicopter that disappeared while about four nautical miles off the island early Tuesday. A sea and air search turned up some debris only. Two other Agusta A109E Power helicopters operated by Italian company Helitalia for EKAB have crashed, one in January 2001 and the other in June 2002, with the loss of 10 lives. Supreme Court prosecutor Evangelos Kroustallakis has ordered an investigation into all three accidents to see if criminal charges can be filed. EKAB’s remaining three helicopters have been grounded and medical airlifts will be conducted by EKAB crews flying on military aircraft. Also, the Defense Ministry will set up a single agency to operate all aircraft belonging to state agencies. The emergency directive by Italy’s Ente Nazionale per l’Avazione Civile issued an airworthiness directive on July 29 warning that Agusta A109E helicopters had to undergo very careful inspections before every takeoff and after five hours of flying time, with visual checks of the tail rotor blades on both sides for a crack. Technicians had to use a strong magnifying glass, the directive said. The actions specified were intended to prevent failure of the tail rotor blade and subsequent loss of control of the helicopter. This directive could help shed light on the accidents. Experts investigating the latest crash are said to have found damage on the helicopter’s tail rotor blade that could tie in with the Italian directive.