By Jim Carlton
The Wall Street Journal
Dave Repsher, who suffered third-degree burns over 90% of his body in a 2015 helicopter accident in Colorado, exemplifies the human toll when fuel tanks lacking the most-advanced safety features rupture in a crash.
Crash investigators determined the emergency medical chopper’s crush-prone fuel system—legal under Federal Aviation Administration rules then and now—doused Mr. Repsher, a nurse who worked on board the helicopter, with fuel just before flames engulfed him.
“I couldn’t move at all” upon regaining consciousness, Mr. Repsher recalled. “The only way I could communicate was moving my lips, a little bit.”
Then, he said, “I spent six months learning how to swallow again.”
After surviving the coma, 50 surgeries and hundreds of medical procedures including multiple skin grafts, he received a $100 million damage settlement from Airbus SE , which built the AS 350 chopper, and its operator, Air Methods Corp. His future medical treatments, rehabilitation and other costs related to the accident are projected to total some $40 million, said his attorney, Gary Robb.
Last week, the U.S. helicopter unit of Airbus reiterated that the settlement “reflects the serious and devastating nature of this accident, which Airbus Helicopters does not take lightly.” The statement also said Airbus has implemented “a series of additional safety improvements in an effort to prevent a similar accident from occurring and to further enhance the safety of the occupants.”
A spokeswoman for Air Methods said it continues “to be inspired by the strength and courage of David Repsher and his family, and hope this resolution provides closure for everyone.” The company also said last week it previously committed to retrofit all 150 of its helicopters needing upgraded fuel tanks, and is roughly one-fifth of the way finished with the $15 million initiative.
Now, Mr. Repsher and his wife have joined the chorus of voices demanding regulatory action on helicopter safety. FAA leaders have “had multiple opportunities to make an impact” on safety, he said in a telephone interview. “And they don’t.”
An avid outdoorsman before the accident—he was a long-distance runner, loved to swim and played competitive ice hockey—Mr. Repsher has been able to resume only one of his favorite activities: hiking up to eight miles a day. His attorney, Mr. Robb, said that Mr. Repsher can’t return to his job because of multiple severe disabilities including loss of hand function and inability to regulate body temperature. The 48-year-old also still can’t shower due to his damaged skin.
The agency has been counting on voluntary industry initiatives to reduce the hazard of fires such as the one that maimed Mr. Repsher and killed the pilot during takeoff from Frisco, Colo., on July 3, 2015. But earlier this year, an advisory committee formally told the FAA that under the current voluntary-compliance approach, “it will be decades before the majority of rotorcraft” operating in the U.S. will get upgraded fuel tanks and other enhanced passenger-protection systems.
Matthew Zuccaro, president of the industry’s leading global trade association, says the current rate of fixes shows the industry is proceeding in good faith to combat the danger. “No matter how fast you do anything, there is going to be somebody [who] probably has the opinion it’s not fast enough,” Mr. Zuccaro said in an interview earlier this year.
On Monday, a spokesman for Mr. Zuccaro reiterated that the association supports retrofits, adding that an industry advisory group is wrapping up a report recommending next steps for regulators.
Fire-prone tanks are just one of the safety challenges facing those who operate or travel in commercial, private and law-enforcement helicopters. Despite years of safety initiatives, both the total number and frequency of U.S. civilian helicopter crashes remains stubbornly high, with roughly four events per 100,000 flight hours.
The rate for accidents with fatalities actually inched up nationwide in 2017 to roughly one in 150,000 flight hours, slightly higher than the two previous years. By comparison, there is approximately one deadly accident per million airline flights around the globe.
—Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.