The same make and model helicopter flown by Mark D. Croce in last month's fatal crash in Pennsylvania has been involved in at least three other deadly crashes where the aircraft fell apart in midair, according to a federal regulator's incident database and published news reports.
The Robinson R-66 Turbine experienced an "in-flight break-up" in crashes in South Dakota in 2011, New Zealand in 2013 and Arizona in 2016, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigations and media reports.
Croce, 58, the high-profile Buffalo developer and businessman, was piloting an R-66 on Jan. 9 when it crashed in a backyard in Silver Spring Township, Pa. The crash also killed his passenger and friend, Michael Capriotto, 63, an Orchard Park businessman.
Croce's helicopter started falling apart in the sky before what was left of the aircraft hit the ground in a residential neighborhood, according to a preliminary NTSB report released Friday.
Pieces of Croce's helicopter, described as "outlying wreckage," were recovered, including a section of the main rotor blade, tail rotor assembly, tailboom and main rotor mast. Photos posted on news website Pennlive.com show pieces of the aircraft scattered around the neighborhood where the crash occurred.
Since the R-66 received its Federal Aviation Certification in August 2010, the helicopter model has been involved in 32 incidents across the globe that led to accident investigations, according to the NTSB's Aviation Accident Database.
Of those 32 investigations, there were 16 crashes in which 35 people were killed, according to the database. Not every crash was fatal.
Thirteen of the investigations were for incidents that happened in the United States; five involved crashes.
The R-66 is the latest helicopter model built by the Robinson Helicopter Co., of Torrance, Calif. Questions have been raised about the safety of some of the company's products.
Robinson R-44s were involved in 42 fatal crashes between 2006 and 2016, more than any other commercial helicopter, according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times. A number of lawsuits have stemmed from fatal crashes of the R-66 model.
A representative of Robinson could not be reached for comment Saturday. Kurt Robinson, the company's president, said that the vast majority of accidents involving Robinson aircraft are the fault of pilots, not the machines, according to the L.A. Times investigation published in November 2018.
On Oct. 1, 2011, an R-66 crash near Philip, S.D., was likely caused by an "in-flight separation of the main rotor mast following a mast-bumping event," the NTSB final report found. The aircraft was destroyed during "an in-flight break-up," the agency concluded.
According to the Times investigation, which focused on the R-44 model, Robinson "uses its own version of a two-bladed main rotor that teeters on a hub atop the mast. All teetering rotor systems are susceptible to a phenomenon called mast-bumping, which occurs when the seesawing becomes so extreme that the hub or the inner ends of the rotor blades strike the mast.
"Mast-bumping often occurs in low-gravity – or 'low-G' – conditions, which can be induced by incorrect pilot inputs or turbulent weather," the Times reported.
Calling for further research and testing, the NTSB in 1995 asked the FAA to ground Robinson helicopters, according to the Times. The FAA then issued a "special flight aviation regulation" requiring extra instruction about mast-bumping risks and low-G conditions, as well as specific flight checks for R-22 and R-44 pilots. The FAA said no other helicopter make is subject to such a regulation, according to the Times.
An R-66 crashed in Turangi, New Zealand, on March 9, 2013, in which the aircraft broke up in-flight, according to a report by the Dominion Post of Wellington, New Zealand, citing results of a government investigation.
That crash involved a "mast bump" and turbulence was found to be a "very likely" factor, according to the Dominion Post.
A fatal crash near Wikieup, Ariz., on June 23, 2016, was likely caused after turbulence "resulted in mast-bumping and an in-flight break-up," the NTSB found.
A wrongful-death lawsuit filed in 2018 over the crash alleged the helicopter's main rotor blades contacted the airframe "resulting in a sudden and immediate catastrophic in-flight break-up in the middle of the desert," the Associated Press reported.
The first reported crash of an R-66 happened near Girardot, Colombia, on July 12, 2011. In that case, a witness told investigators the helicopter was seen flying before "a crack sound" was heard and something was seen separated from the aircraft, according to a summary of an investigation by the government of Colombia posted to the NTSB website.
The aircraft's tailcone and tail rotor were found on the ground about 150 feet from the main wreckage, that investigation found.