A crashed helicopter burns in a remote section of the Grand Canyon on Feb. 10, 2018. Video courtesy of Teddy Fujimoto
PHOENIX — In March 2015, a medical helicopter approached a private landing pad in St. Louis, crashed and caught fire. The pilot died.
In July of that year, another medical copter slammed into a parking lot near a Colorado hospital, then caught fire. Two nurses aboard were severely injured, and the pilot died.
Investigators would later attribute both crashes at least in part to piloting errors. But they would also conclude the impact, in both cases, would probably have been possible to survive. The fatalities resulted not from the crash, but from the fire that started afterward.
Such fires, a review of federal safety records shows, could be prevented, if helicopters simply conformed to a fuel-system safety standard — one established almost 25 years ago, but one many models still don’t have to follow.
Over the weekend, another helicopter crashed, deep inside the Grand Canyon, as it was ferrying a group of British tourists who had gone on “the trip of a lifetime.”
And though the cause of the three deaths in that crash had not been publicly released, one thing was clear: The downed helicopter had been on fire.
Eyewitness photographs showed the wreckage in flames. Four other people who had been aboard remained hospitalized with severe burns and other injuries.
Like most things about the crash, the cause of that fire is still under investigation. Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board did not know Monday if the Airbus EC130 B4 had been updated with a crash-resistant fuel system.
The owner, Papillon Airways, did not reply to a request for comment.
But if that helicopter had the updated fuel system, it would be in the minority.
Twenty years after the safety rules took effect, the NTSB noted in a report after the 2015 crashes, only about 15% of the nation’s helicopters had fuel systems that met the 1994 requirements.
“This is a dirty big secret,” said Karen Mahany, a former flight nurse whose husband was the pilot at the controls of the Airbus helicopter that went down in a Colorado parking lot in 2015.
Surveillance video showed that helicopter caught fire three seconds after it hit the ground. As a later report stated:
“It is likely that the postcrash fire significantly decreased the pilot’s chance of survival … and directly contributed to his death.”
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Stephen Stein holds a press conference in Boulder City, Nevada, on Saturday’s fatal crash of a tourist helicopter in the Grand Canyon. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Post-crash fires are rarely the primary cause of death in helicopter crashes. Blunt-force trauma is typically listed as the cause. Flames can cause more damage and injuries, as well as make it more difficult for first responders to work in the area.
So Federal Aviation Administration rules say modern helicopters must have crash-resistant fuel systems. The new tanks are designed to withstand impact. Typically, they’re built to flex rather than break open. That keeps fuel from leaking out after a crash and erupting in flames.
The rules also specify “self-sealing breakaway couplings” that prevent leaks if hoses or other connections are severed during a crash, and tank attachments that deform rather than rupture upon impact.
But the FAA’s rules allow aircraft designed before 1994 to keep their old systems. So many newer single-engine helicopters — often higher-tech versions of older models — slip through.
Evidence shows the crash-resistant systems work. When the U.S. Army equipped its helicopters with crash-resistant fuel systems, the NTSB reported, the rate of post-crash fire in “survivable accidents” dropped by 66%.
Still, adoption in some areas of civilian aviation has been slow.
In 2015, when the two medical helicopter crashes led to fatal fires, Airbus — which had built both aircraft — did not yet have a retrofit system available for at least some of its existing models. That year, the NTSB issued a specific recommendation that the FAA actively urge all owners to update their existing fuel systems “as soon as practicable.”
Airbus did not respond to inquiries from The Arizona Republic seeking comment Monday.
The EC130 and similar models are popular because they’re inexpensive — a new one retails for around $3 million — and durable. It does not appear the FAA or the NTSB believe the helicopters crash more frequently than other aircraft.
At least one retrofit fuel system is now available for various versions of the Airbus EC130. And the EC130 T2, an upgraded version, has been made with a crash-resistant fuel system since 2012.
But the model in the Grand Canyon crash was an older EC130 B4, the NTSB confirmed. Many existing EC130s, experts say, use the old fuel systems.
The B4 model is powered by a single engine, and can be modified to hold as many as seven passengers. But that idea raises safety concerns for some.
“Packing seven people in that, going out over the Grand Canyon, I wouldn’t consider that in my wildest dreams,” said Mike Abernethy, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Wisconsin with extensive experience in helicopter flight.
Faith in the system
Attorneys earlier this month announced that Airbus Helicopters had agreed to pay $55 million of a $100 million settlement stemming from the 2015 crash that killed Karen Mahany’s husband, Patrick.
That AS350 helicopter crashed shortly after taking off from Frisco, Colo. It slammed to the ground and burst into flames, killing Patrick Mahany and severely injuring two flight nurses. One nurse, David Repsher, sued Airbus Helicopters and the flight operator. The suit claimed, in part, that the aircraft did not have a crash-resistant fuel system.
Between 1994 and 2013, the NTSB investigated at least 135 helicopter crashes that resulted in a fire. Those crashes claimed 221 lives.
Only three of the helicopters met requirements.
“People just have an enormous amount of faith that the system is keeping them safe,” Karen Mahany said. “It’s not. The system is not keeping them safe.”
NTSB investigators said a preliminary report on the crash and its causes would be available in five to 10 days. A full report could take as long as 18 months.
The three people who died in Saturday’s Papillon crash had been identified as Becky Dobson, 27; Jason Hill, 32; and Stuart Hill, 30.
Pilot Scott Booth, 42, and passengers Ellie Milward, 29; Jonathan Udall, 32; and Jennifer Barham, 39, survived, and were taken to a Las Vegas hospital.
At a media conference Monday afternoon, NTSB inspector Stephen Stein said investigators were in contact with the survivors and working to get info from them. They had not yet recovered enough to provide statements.
Stein said the question of whether the Papillon helicopter had a fire-resistant fuel system installed was an important one, but declined to answer whether he knew.
Follow Alden Woods on Twitter: @ac_woods
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