By Thomas Frank
Half a century after aviation officials first grew concerned about people burning to death in helicopter crashes, a federal safety agency is urging the installation of equipment that would prevent fuel leaks that have caused hundreds of fires, leading to scores of deaths and serious injuries.
The National Transportation Safety Board, in a July 23 letter, urged the Federal Aviation Administration to require rugged, crash-resistant fuel systems in all newly built civilian helicopters. Similar systems have been used in Army helicopters since the 1970s.
Fires have long been a helicopter hazard because they erupt after low-impact crashes and hard landings that pilots and passengers would survive if they weren’t engulfed in flames or smoke. A USA TODAY investigation in 2014 found that 79 people had been killed and 28 injured by helicopter fires that occurred after low-impact crashes.
The NTSB pointed to the fiery crash Oct. 4 of a medical helicopter in Texas that caused a flight nurse and a paramedic to die from burns. In March, a helicopter pilot died from smoke inhalation and trauma following a crash in Mississippi that left a passenger with extensive burns.
The Army, facing major helicopter casualties in the Vietnam War, virtually eliminated the fires by installing high-strength, flexible fuel tanks and fuel lines that avoid rupture. But the civilian sector has been slower to respond,
“It’s a huge loophole,” said Gary Robb, a Kansas City, Mo., personal-injury lawyer who represents a paramedic who was burned across 90% of his body on July 3 when his medical helicopter crashed and burned in Colorado. “He would have walked away if this proposal had been implemented years ago. But he was horribly burned in the post-crash fire because of the defective fuel-system configuration.”
But even if the FAA accepts the recommendation, many of the roughly 10,000 helicopters flown in the U.S. would continue to operate for years or decades with easily ruptured fuel systems.
Installing a rugged fuel system on a new helicopter increases the manufacturing cost by 1% to 2%, said Tom Harris, the recently retired CEO of Robertson Fuel Systems, which makes crash-resistant tanks. Harris said that requiring the systems on new helicopters might encourage owners to add them to their old helicopters.
The FAA, which has until late October to reply to the recommendation, said in a statement that “crashworthy fuel tanks can make a difference,” although the agency took no official position. The FAA in recent years has been working to reduce the number of helicopter crashes. There were 143 helicopter crashes in the U.S. in 2014, causing 36 deaths, according to NTSB records. Most helicopter deaths are due to impact.
The FAA tried in 1994 to reduce fire-related helicopter deaths by requiring rugged fuel systems to be included in all new helicopter designs. But that regulation failed to eliminate the deaths, the NTSB said, because most new helicopters are built according to old designs, making the new helicopters exempt from the safety requirement.
Just 15% of the U.S. helicopters that were built since the 1994 regulation took effect have rugged fuel systems, the NTSB said, adding that without its recent proposal it would take until 2050 for half of the helicopter fleet to have the safety improvement.
“The NTSB has long been concerned about crash-resistant fuel systems in helicopters,” NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
In late 2010, after nine people were killed when a firefighting helicopter crashed and burned in Northern California, the NTSB urged the FAA to require rugged fuel systems to be added to large helicopters being flown in the U.S. The FAA rejected the recommendation, saying that despite the nine deaths it lacked “adequate safety data” to determine whether there was a widespread problem that would merit a fleet-wide retrofit.