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Utah aviation experts say Robinson R-44 is safe despite deadly crash

Benno Anthony Penna, 32, and his wife, Megan Michele Hawk Penna, also 32, were killed on impact when their helicopter crashed in the mountains north of Alpine sometime Friday. This photo was posted on Facebook about 10 a.m. Friday by Megan Penna. The Uintah County couple leave behind a son, age 6, and a daughter, age 5. Photo: Facebook

ALPINE — The deaths of Megan and Benno Penna left two young children without their parents. It also renewed questions about the safety of the helicopter they were flying before Friday’s accident near Alpine — concerns Utah aviation experts feel are largely unfounded.

A Los Angeles Times report last year found the Robinson R-44 helicopter was 50% more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than similar models. Some federal investigators believe the helicopter’s light frame may be to blame, with the paper also noting crashes where the aircraft seemingly came apart mid-air for reasons that are still not fully explained.

But flight schools in Utah think that report is biased and are confident in the safety of the R-44.

“The R-44 is a very capable aircraft. It’ll easily handle winds. From a training standpoint, we’ll run training up to 35-knot wind speed,” said Michael Mower, the Executive Director of the Southern Utah University Aviation Department.

The R-44’s lightweight body and lower price make it a popular choice for flight schools.

Many experts pointed out that the majority of crashes are due to pilot error, though the cause of Friday’s accident is still under investigation.

“With proper maintenance and good piloting techniques, it is by far the best helicopter out there. We’ve never had any issues,” Mower said. The school has a fleet of 10 R-44s.

Three people died in crashes involving the R-44 in the US last year.