After deadly Flight For Life crash, Polis urges review of helicopter safety
In a letter addressed to the Federal Aviation Administration, two Colorado representatives urged the agency to advance its review of safety regulations regarding crash-resistant fuel systems for civil helicopters.
U.S. Reps. Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter, both Democrats, wrote the letter in the wake of a fatal helicopter crash in Frisco on July 3 that resulted in the death Flight For Life pilot Patrick Mahany and severely injured flight nurses Matt Bowe and David Repsher.
Witnesses said the helicopter turned counterclockwise at 100 feet before impacting the parking lot below at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center. The accident resulted in an explosion and post-crash fire that consumed three nearby vehicles. While Bowe has recovered since the accident, Repsher remains in critical condition in the University of Colorado’s Burn Center.
“The federal government has a moral imperative to act when the loss of life can be avoided, and we applaud the leadership taken by our federal partners to do so,” the letter read. “We, however, feel it is critical that the FAA act with expediency. Rulemakings often take years, and, while diligence is important to this process, it is also imperative we begin addressing these needless deaths immediately.”
The Airbus AS350-B3E that crashed in July was not equipped with a crash-resistant fuel system (CRFS), despite being manufactured just one year ago. The CRFS is designed to prevent fuel leakage in the event of a crash, resulting in a fire.
The lack of this equipment was listed in a complaint by the families of Bowe and Repsher against helicopter operator Air Methods and manufacturer Airbus Helicopters in late July.
“The antiquated safety standards for helicopter fuel systems and inadequate federal oversight is extremely troubling,” the letter continued.
Although the FAA mandated CRFSs in 1994, several models still do not have this feature, as the regulations only apply to rotorcraft designed after 1994, regardless of manufacture date. The Airbus AS350-B3E was designed prior to 1994.
On July 23, 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote the FAA, recommending that CRFS be required in all civil rotorcraft, regardless of certification date. As of November 2014, only 15 percent of the 5,600 helicopters manufactured since 1994 have crash-resistant fuel systems meeting the requirements, the NTSB wrote.
The report cited the example of a Bell helicopter that crashed while approaching a Wichita Falls, Texas hospital in October 2014.
“Footage from surveillance cameras at the hospital shows a large explosion where the helicopter hit the ground about 6 seconds after impact,” the report said. “The pilot was seriously injured; the flight nurse and paramedic survived the impact but later died from their injuries, which included thermal injuries.”
The NTSB has also investigated 125 accidents in the United States between 1994 and 2003, involving certified helicopters that resulted in post-crash fires. Of those accidents, there were 221 fatalities and 37 injuries. Just three of the helicopters that experience post-crash fires had crash-resistant fuel systems and crashworthy fuel tanks.
“Although these accidents involved circumstances other than post-crash fire that made them nonsurvivable, this sample from the NTSB’s database illustrates how few helicopters in operation today are equipped with the critical post-crash fire-related safety enhancements that the FAA mandated for newly-certificated helicopter designs,” the NTSB safety recommendation read.
In addition, the NTSB noted after the U.S. Army equipped a helicopter fleet with crash-resistant fuel systems, they saw a 66-percent reduction in post-crash fires, a 75-percent reduction in thermal injuries and a 100-percent reduction in thermal fatalities in otherwise survivable crashes.
“Given the significant safety benefit of crash-resistant fuel systems, the NTSB is concerned that, 20 years after needed safety improvement in the design of helicopters was mandated, such a small percentage of US-registered helicopters currently flying meet the requirement for these systems,” the recommendation concluded.
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