The widow of 2015 Flight For Life crash victim won’t stop until helicopters are safer
July 3, 2017
This is the second installment of a two-part series remembering the 2015 Flight For Life helicopter crash. Part one, published on July 3, is available here.
The feel of the wind on her face as she stood flat-footed, watching the wreckage burn — it's a sensation that returns whenever Karen Mahany remembers first reaching the scene of her husband's death.
Only moments earlier, Flight For Life's Lifeguard 2 helicopter crashed next to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco shortly after takeoff with 64-year-old Patrick Mahany at the controls. Flight nurses Matthew Bowe, 32, and Dave Repsher, 45, were also on board and both seriously injured when the aircraft abruptly tomahawked from out of the sky and back to the pavement on July 3, 2015.
Nearby hospital staff would battle a mix of flames and emotion as they rapidly worked to get each member of the crew over to the emergency room. Through medical interventions, Patrick — a pilot with the organization since 1987 following a decorated Army career in Vietnam — held on long enough for his wife to race over from Dillon and tell her physically shattered husband it was all right if he let go, that she'd eventually find a way to be OK again.
"That was so hard, but I knew I needed to do that for him because I didn't want him to worry about me," said Karen, who lost her husband not quite two weeks after their 12th wedding anniversary. "That has been so helpful moving forward that I didn't have any regrets. I mean, I wish he was here and we were on the lake waterskiing in Missouri. I hate that that's not happening, but there wasn't anything left (unsaid) between us."
Rather than allow the crippling grief to win out, Karen has chosen a different path. Since that Friday afternoon, she's channeled her energy into research and meeting with members of Congress to lobby for improved aviation safety measures on helicopters just like the Airbus model AS350-B3e Patrick was piloting.
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The unshakeable aim for Karen, who met Patrick in her prior career as a flight nurse with Flight For Life for nearly eight years, has become preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.
"It would have been easy to just close the doors to my house and shut the world away and ignore it," she said. "But any time I see a helicopter that's gone down and there's been life lost, it's like I relive that day all over again, watching Patrick die. I don't want one more wife to have to bury her husband or one more flight crew to have to come to a funeral or have to do the bedside vigil."
The National Transportation Safety Board released its initial findings from the incident in March of this year at a hearing in Washington, D.C. The federal investigative agency that reviews civilian accidents blamed a hydraulic issue and the lack of a sufficient alert system to warn Mahany of the problem before the crash. The board also stated the accident was preventable and pilot error was a contributing element.
Few questioned Patrick's abilities, but the document noted that had he performed a standard "hover check" during takeoff, he would likely have determined the complication before the helicopter begun spinning wildly.
"I've seen him do just some crazy, incredible things with a helicopter," said Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons. "I've been out in the middle of nowhere and Pat's landing a frigging helicopter where no one else could have done it, and getting the rescue out there and picking up the subject that's injured. I've seen Pat put a skid on a rock on the side of a mountain while we load the helicopter, with the blades seemingly inches from a cliff face. So it makes no sense."
The NTSB added that it was a survivable event, but absent a crash-resistant fuel system the chances escalated significantly for it to be fatal. Along with Repsher and his wife Amanda, Karen Mahany attended that meeting in the nation's capital.
"They flat out said this was a survivable crash if it had the proper safety equipment," said Karen. "They said, 'He should be sitting here with you if the safety equipment was there,' and that sent me into a tailspin."
That final report, with its concluding recommendations for the Federal Aviation Administration, has yet to be submitted, but Bowe and the Repshers wasted no time hiring attorneys and filing civil cases in Summit County District Court. In identical but separate lawsuits against Englewood, Colorado-based helicopter operator Air Methods Corporation and manufacturer Airbus Helicopters, they charge negligence and liability based on inadequate servicing and maintenance, and flawed design. That jury trial is set for next spring.
"We want to share our heartfelt condolences with Patrick Mahany's family, friends and colleagues. And our thoughts and prayers are with Dave and Matt, and their families," Air Methods said in a statement released at the time of the legal filings. "In addition, we need to be respectful of the legal process. The safe return of each member of our crew and our patients is our highest priority."
"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 manufacturer added in its own statement.
While believing the litigation process needs to play itself out for Bowe and the Repshers, Karen felt circumstances were different for her. Once she was able to come to terms with her husband's death, she decided to increase air travel safety through legislation.
Karen, now a resident of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and a nurse anesthetist, started with her own probe of federal aviation standards. She found that technologies already exist to help save flight crews in crashes, but because the FAA does not require them she believes manufacturers do not pursue installing them on their aircraft. She discovered a loophole in the language allows choppers built after 1994 to sidestep updated fuel systems.
Then she began dialing the nation's representatives.
From there, meetings scheduled with a group of U.S. senators on the topic, including John McCain, R-Arizona, and Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, produced the suggestion she attempt to gain bipartisan support through her state's congressmen. Karen contacted Colorado's senators and representatives and quickly started to gain some traction.
In October 2015, Reps. Jared Polis and Ed Perlmutter together sent a letter to the FAA pushing for revisions to its helicopter fuel systems. They upped the ante in February 2016 by introducing a formal bill requiring newly manufactured copters to have the spill-resistant systems.
That proposed legislation floundered last year, but the two U.S. representatives from Colorado have now followed it up with by introducing a new version as of five days ago as part of the FAA's reauthorization for funding.
"It's a start," said Karen. "First you have to make sure that they're on the new aircraft that are being pumped out. It's a move in the direction of putting it out there that people know it's a problem — and it's not a problem, it's a massive problem."
She's also met with the two U.S. senators from Colorado, Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican. Sen. Gardner is currently working on language that would mandate that helicopter manufacturers inform operators when retrofits are available to raise safety levels for crews and the patients they bring aboard.
Karen Mahany is not stopping there. On top of addressing the fuel systems, she wants improvements made to helicopter structures as well as the seating and restraints — what she calls "the big three." Each was a factor in the injuries sustained by her husband, Bowe and Repsher. She hopes to inspire Congress to use tax incentives to get manufacturers behind adopting the changes.
"I'm not going to stop until the structure, the seating and the fuel tanks are on all aircraft and crews are protected," she said. "That may be when I'm 95 if I'm still alive, but I hope not. It's like slogging through wet sand. But it keeps clicking forward and again, you have to make our congressmen want to do it. So I would rather keep it in the public eye than slink away and lick my wounds under a rock."
Two years later, Karen desperately misses her husband, his blunt but convivial personality and his seemingly unending number of well-known "Mahanyisms." At the same time, she said she does not view herself as a tragic figure, but rather as one of the luckiest people in the world for having had Patrick in her life as long as she did. The desire to soldier on and continue living a life Patrick would be proud of, particularly on his beloved July 4 holiday, is what acts as her daily motivation and why she shows no signs of quitting.
"I can't live with myself if in 10 years, there are more crashes and deaths of flight crews," said Karen. "It will destroy my soul, so for my own self I have to keep trying to do something about it and make it part of the public psyche that something gets done. Nothing happens quickly in government, and I know that, so I have to be persistent and just have to stay with this. It's given me a purpose and is done in Patrick's honor."