Helicopter crash allegations emerge in lawsuit against Airbus, Air Methods
The families of survivors of the fatal helicopter crash in Frisco filed lawsuits against aircraft manufacturers and operators last Friday. Complaints were filed against helicopter operator Air Methods Corp. and manufacturer Airbus Helicopters in the Summit County District Court following the July 3 Flight For Life crash that severely injured flight nurses David Repsher and Matt Bowe and killed local pilot Patrick Mahany.
“We have the strong belief in here that this was a preventable accident,” said Peter Rietz, of Dillon-based Rietz Law Firm. “My clients feel extremely strongly that they don’t want to see this happen to any other Flight For Life nurses or AirMed nurses.”
The lawsuit alleges that the crash was caused by a malfunctioning tail rotor, causing the helicopter to spin out of control. It also states that the crash would be survivable if the fuel tank had not ruptured upon impact, creating a large fire that involved three vehicles in an employee parking lot at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center.
“It is a horrific tragedy,” Rietz added. “These people who rescue people off of mountain tops, from ski areas — they’re unsung heroes. For this to happen to them as passengers is a horrific experience and just tragic, and, if nothing, we want to make these helicopters safer in the future.”
Bowe, 32, who was serving as a flight nurse at the time of the crash, is in stable condition but suffers internal injuries and permanent disability. Repsher, 45, is in critical condition and is currently being treated at the University of Colorado Hospital, with severe burns to more than 90 percent of his body.
The suits lists nine charges against defendants Air Methods Inc., Airbus Helicopters, Inc., of Texas, and Airbus Helicopters, S.A.S., of France, including: defective design and manufacture by Airbus Helicopters, failure to warn of known hazards and failure by Air Methods to maintain, service, overhaul, inspect and operate the helicopter. Both lawsuits seek unspecified damages.
Based on witness descriptions of the helicopter crash, Rietz said the accident may have been caused by a malfunctioning tail rotor. The Airbus AS350-B3e helicopter, which took off from Summit Medical Center that afternoon, was headed to a public relations event at a Boy Scout Camp near Gypsum, Colo. the day of the crash.
As the helicopter lifted off, it rotated counterclockwise, climbing into the air. But, at approximately 100 feet altitude “… witnesses saw the helicopter spin counterclockwise several times before it impacted a parking lot southwest of the helipad, exploded and burned,” according to court documents.
Rietz said this spinning motion matched descriptions of a malfunctioning tail rotor — the small, spinning rotor on the back of the helicopter, which counteracts the torque from the main rotor.
“The helicopter was rotating counterclockwise, counter to the rotation of the rotor,” Rietz said. “If you lose the tail rotor, the helicopter will rotate in the direction that the torque is being applied by the main rotor.”
The lawsuits noted that this failure may have been caused by a “lack of hydraulic assistance for the tail rotor,” the rough equivalent of power steering. With no warning light or sound to tell the pilot the hydraulic system is not functioning, the pilot could take off, assuming the resulting difficulty in steering is a result of tail rotor control failure instead of the hydraulic system. The system can be manually restored with the flip of a switch.
A safety information notice released by Airbus acknowledged this issue in the AS350 B3 and B3e models after seeing at least two instances of helicopters taking off without hydraulic assistance to the tail rotor. In response, the manufacturer added a light to the newer models that would illuminate if the hydraulic switches were not in place prior to takeoff. Older models would have to be retrofitted with this safety addition. The lawsuit accused Air Methods, helicopter operator, of not adding this recommended design change.
Air Methods had no comment on the allegations, aside from a brief statement:
“There is an ongoing investigation, and we are cooperating with the NTSB and FAA, allowing them to do their jobs to determine the cause of the accident. In addition, we need to be respectful of the legal process,” Air Methods stated on Monday. “The safe return of each member of our crew and our patients is our highest priority. Air Methods participates in the FAA’s voluntary Safety Management System program to continue our focus on safety.”
Fuel tank rupture
The lawsuits continue allegations against Airbus, with claims that the helicopter’s fuel tank caused increased injury in what would have been a survivable crash. Upon impact, a fire arose from the helicopter and was fueled by three surrounding vehicles, requiring the attention of several firefighters.
“This fuel tank was not crash-proof, obviously based on Matt Bowe, who survived this crash, and David, who is fighting for his life to survive this crash. If it weren’t for the burns, he wouldn’t be fighting,” Rietz said.
The allegations further state that the aircraft’s fuel tank is incapable of withstanding an impact of a minimal-to-moderate nature. Attorney Ladd Sanger of Dallas-based law firm Slack and Davis commented on his experiences dealing with post-crash fires, including two recent cases in Arizona and Washington.
“Just in the past few years, we’ve seen a number of AS350s that have had post-crash fires,” he said. He added that the July 3 crash “…was the most startling of all of them because it was clearly survivable by all of the occupants.”
He thought the problem could be fixed by using breakaway fuel fittings, which would add flexibility to help prevent fuel leakage in the event of a crash.
“What’s frustrating for me is that it’s economically possible and technologically feasible to stop these post-crash fires,” he added. “On a multimillion-dollar helicopter, it’s not being done.”
Airbus Helicopters, Inc. released a statement on Monday, declining to comment on the lawsuits:
“Everyone at Airbus Helicopters Inc. is extremely saddened by this accident, and our thoughts continue to be with the medical crew and their families and the pilot’s family,” the statement read. “We and our French affiliate, Airbus Helicopters, are actively cooperating with and assisting the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation of the accident.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is still leading the investigation of the crash, which will last at least a year, said Jennifer Rodi, Senior Air Safety Investigator. After releasing a preliminary report of the crash, Rodi said that NTSB does not have a definitive ruling as to the cause of the crash.
The AS350-B3e helicopter was purchased last October, meant to replace the older AS350-B3 model that was previously used by Flight For Life. The company leased the helicopter from Air Methods for $120,000 per month.
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