Frisco Flight For Life widow featured in campaign ad for Jared Polis touting helicopter safety
Two years after her husband Patrick was killed in a Flight For Life helicopter crash, Karen Mahany is still speaking for him.
“A few years before his crash, Patrick and I were talking about another crash that had happened and how they always blamed the pilot first before backpedaling,” Mahany told the Summit Daily. “And he said to me, ‘Honey if anything happens, you will be my voice. Please protect my legacy, that is all I have left.’ I had to be his voice because all of Patrick’s other friends had already died in helicopter crashes.”
Patrick’s voice is now being heard through Karen across the state, as she now features in a new TV ad endorsing Jared Polis for his campaign to become Colorado’s next governor. In the ad, a 60-second spot titled “Karen,” Mahany described how Polis stood by her in her crusade to update federal helicopter safety regulations that will protect future emergency medical helicopter crews from tragedies like her own.
The ad begins with chilling closed circuit footage of Flight For Life Lifeguard 2 as it lifted off from the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center helipad in Frisco on July 3, 2015. As soon as the Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3e lifts, it begins spinning out of control.
The subsequent 20-month NTSB investigation, one of the longest and most extensive in its history, found that the loss of control was caused by a lack of hydraulic pressure to the tail rotor, which was itself caused by a lack of a warning light that would have let Patrick know he needed to flip one simple switch to restore the pressure.
What keeps Karen Mahany, a former Flight For Life nurse, up at night is the fact that Patrick could still have survived the crash, had it not been a loophole in helicopter safety legislation.
Back in 1994, the FAA mandated a series of safety updates for helicopters, including improvements to structural integrity, seat belt safety and crash-resistant fuel tanks. However, the new rules only applied to newly certified helicopters, not newly manufactured helicopters.
The ad summarizes how the Airbus AS350 B3e was not equipped with these critical updated safety features, including the crash-resistant fuel tanks, despite being manufactured in 2013 because the model was certified back in the 1970s.
“Patrick died mainly of blunt force trauma from the lack of structural integrity, but the smoke from the fire contributed to his death,” Mahaney said. “Fuel leaked and a fire started immediately because the fuel tanks were basically plastic canisters and not crash-resistant.”
The fire also nearly killed the two flight nurses on board, Dave Repsher and Matthew Bowe. Respher, who suffered horrific burns to 90 percent of his body, reached a record $100 million personal injury settlement in February with Airbus and the contracting carrier Air Methods.
A 9News investigation revealed the loophole that probably killed her husband, and that 85 percent of helicopters flying are not required to have crash-resistant fuel tanks because of that same loophole. Mahany was spurred into action.
“I held my husband as he died,” Mahany remembers with a voice choked with grief. “I was able to whisper to him to thank him for loving me and choosing me. He was my gift. I don’t want one more person to have to go through that. It almost destroyed me. The thought of doing something good, that could save people from what he and I went through, that kept me going.”
Mahany said that within days of the crash, Reps. Polis and Ed Perlmutter reached out to her.
“Within days, Jared had the American flag flown at the Capitol in honor of Patrick,” she said. “They reached out to me multiple times for support, without me needing to ask, and he and Rep. Perlmutter were so incensed when they found out the loophole and how so many helicopters don’t meet minimum safety standards, that they proposed legislation.”
The legislation Mahany speaks of is an FAA reauthorization bill with an amendment for mandating crash-resistant fuel tanks which has passed the house, with an identical version now going through the Senate with the backing of Sens. Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner. If the bill passes the Senate without change, Mahany expects it will go to President Trump to get signed into law by the end of the year.
Mahany recalls how Polis sat next to her during a congressional hearing, one she had feared to sit in front of ever since Patrick warned her about how they often blame pilots for fatal crashes. That gesture alone makes Mahany eternally grateful to Polis, so much so that she was willing to speak his praises in a campaign ad.
“Jared is a spectacular person,” Mahany effused to the Summit Daily. “I feel like I need to shout it from the top of the mountain; that this is a quality person who does what he does because it’s the right thing to do. It means everything to me that he’s willing to help with this effort. Not to just to save hundreds, but thousands of lives.”
As far as what it means to her that future emergency medical flight crews may be spared the horror and tragedy she had to endure because of their collective efforts, Karen said it was akin to the lights being switched back on in her life.
“It makes everything in life worthwhile,” she said. “I was filled with so much sadness after the crash, I lost all my happiness. Patrick was an integral part of my life, and without him my soul was at risk of drying up and I almost lost who I am. But now, I know I am honoring Patrick’s legacy he pushed for his whole flight career. He always put safety first, and he always put his crews first. Knowing something good is coming out of his loss means everything to me.”
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