By Andy Pasztor
The Wall Street Journal
The helicopter industry is changing course to embrace tougher fuel-tank fire standards for many models in production after years of stiff resistance to the safety fixes as unnecessary and expensive.
The shift also portends retrofits for at least several thousand additional rotorcraft already in service—the vast majority of which have decades-old safeguards against hazardous fuel leaks that can ignite in a crash.
But independent safety experts and lawyers representing accident victims and their families say the true test of the industry’s safety commitment is still ahead: debates about sweeping proposals to switch to energy-absorbing seats and more rugged interiors intended to ensure that all commercial, corporate and non-military government choppers across the U.S. provide enhanced passenger protection in the event of a crash.
Matthew Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International, the industry’s largest global trade organization, sees growing support for safer fuel systems as a watershed event.
“There is a major cultural shift in the international helicopter community,” he said during an interview. As the industry’s approach matures the message is simple: “You got our attention and we’re going to participate.”
A string of high-profile accidents in recent years, including two fatal crashes in less than three weeks this month, has ratcheted up pressure on manufacturers and operators to make changes, with some already choosing voluntary efforts to upgrade fuel systems. In many instances, occupants survived the impact only to succumb to fuel-fed fires afterward.
On a slower track, the Federal Aviation Administration has asked an advisory group for recommendations and is moving to mandate solutions in this area, likely along with other structural modifications. The goal is to make older choppers more survivable in relatively minor accidents, such as rollovers and harder-than-normal landings. That process, however, could stretch out for years. As is typical with the FAA, it first gets recommendations from an advisory group before formulating regulations.
At this juncture, industry critics are impatient for results. They contend that during the past two decades potentially hundreds of fatalities and serious burn injuries, caused by post-impact fires in otherwise survivable accidents, could have been avoided with widespread adoption of more crash-resistant fuel tanks and hose couplings.
The National Transportation Safety Board repeatedly has called for such improvements on commercial models, but until recently both industry leaders and FAA officials have balked. The FAA believed it had dealt with the issue in the 1990s with new designs and was waiting for voluntary retrofits.
With the benefit of extra fuel-system protections, “so many people would have been able to literally walk away from crashes,” according to Gary Robb, a plaintiff’s attorney who specializes in rotorcraft litigation.
Plugging the fuel-system safety gap for existing chopper fleets eventually could take an investment of $500 million or more, according to industry estimates, without including ancillary costs such as temporarily taking choppers out of service. The focus is on single-engine models, which traditionally have relied on less robust hardware than larger ones powered by twin engines.
The overall number of U.S. commercial helicopter accidents has declined by roughly 25% since 2007, but the number of annual fatalities has remained virtually unchanged.
Mr. Zuccaro, of the Helicopter Association, expects ongoing fuel-system efforts to chip away at those stubbornly high fatality counts. “We’ve had significant support by the [helicopter association] membership,” he said.
But even some senior industry officials acknowledge that the anticipated upgrades—typically costing about $100,000 per chopper for retrofits—amount to relatively painless safety enhancement. It is substantially less expensive to incorporate the modifications on assembly lines.
“I would say they amount to low hanging fruit” in the safety world, according to Mike Allen, president of domestic medical services for Air Methods Corp. , the country’s largest operator of air ambulances.
Spurred by two fatal fiery crashes in the past few years, the company, which operates more than 400 total aircraft, months ago decided to voluntarily retrofit fuel systems on some 130 Airbus AS350 models. Flight tests are set to begin early in 2016 and FAA approval is expected later in the year.
“The real challenge is getting the devices certified” by the FAA, Mr. Allen said.
From the start, air ambulance companies have been leading the way for safety improvements. Yet in an interview, Mr. Allen said he and his top management are still undecided about whether to opt for other, potentially more costly, occupant-protection features.
Major manufacturers are moving, on their own, to create kits needed to upgrade fuel systems on rotorcraft already flying. “Lighter weight and lower cost technologies have made crash-resistant systems more attractive to operators,” according to a spokesman for the helicopter-making unit of Airbus Group SE, which developed safer fuel tanks more than a decade ago but didn’t market them at the time because there was no demand. The upgrades are now standard equipment on all models the company sells in the U.S., while retrofit parts are expected to be available by the middle of next year.
In an email response, the spokesman for the Airbus Group’s U.S. helicopter unit said “we are not aware of any plans to offer retrofit kits” for more crash-resistant passenger seats. Bell Helicopters also has agreed to install safer fuel systems on models coming out of the factory and those already in service.
The latest safety push follows years of NTSB recommendations that went nowhere, combined with the FAA’s historic unwillingness to impose tougher standards on newly-manufactured models that initially were certified before the mid-1990s. The majority of rotorcraft manufactured since then had been grandfathered in under that principle. The NTSB has said it is satisfied with the latest FAA moves.