The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has long asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to change crashworthiness standards for helicopter fuel tanks because fuel-fed fires in the wake of helicopter crashes continue to happen, and they continue to needlessly claim lives.
The good news is that the FAA appears to have taken the NTSB’s advice by announcing that the agency is drafting new safety rules that will require all newly built helicopters to have rugged fuel tanks and fuel lines capable of resisting ruptures and leaks. The agency asked an advisory committee to begin drafting the new helicopter fuel tank regulations, according to a letter sent to the NTSB in late September.
The bad news is that the FAA will not be requiring retrofits for existing helicopters, which means that it will likely be years before the new rules will make a dent in the number of preventable fuel-fed fires.
According to recent data collected by KUSA, 202 fatal helicopter accidents have resulted in post-crash fires since 1994. In those helicopter crashes, 455 people lost their lives. Safety advocates argue that what makes this statistic all the more disturbing is that a good number of these crashes were survivable had it not been for fuel tank ruptures and leaks.
Why has it taken so long for the FAA to act?
‘Ninety-Seven Percent of Her Body Was Burnt…’
At a memorial service last year, friends and family from all over Texoma gathered to honor Leslie Stewart, a 27-year-old flight nurse who died after an Air Evac medical helicopter crashed and exploded. “Service before self. She was a magnificent child,” her father Richard Searle said after her passing.
Stewart, along with a pilot and flight paramedic, was transporting a patient to Wichita Falls, Texas on October 4, 2014, when the Air Evac medical helicopter entered a violent spin and crashed. According to Stewart’s sister, the 27-year-old flight nurse survived the impact and was able to get out of the chopper, but when Stewart was about six feet away, the helicopter exploded.
“Ninety-seven percent of her body was burnt. That’s everything except your feet,” her sister said. Stewart clung to life for four days after the crash. She was pronounced dead at a hospital in Dallas. Johan van der Colff, the 51-year-old flight paramedic on the ill-fated Air Evac medical helicopter, was also killed in the post-crash fire.
In the NTSB report on the medical helicopter crash, the agency said the Wichita Falls crash could have been survivable. The report blamed the deaths of Stewart and van der Colff on the medical helicopter’s faulty fuel system.
According to the NTSB report, the “fatal or serious injuries occurred because of a post-crash fire that resulted from an impact-related breach in the fuel tanks,” the report concluded.
‘Luckily, He Made It Out’ – On Fire
On December 23, 2012, Trygve Svard piloted his Robinson R22 helicopter from his home in Plymouth, Minnesota to his son’s home in Corcoran. The flight was uneventful until he landed at his son’s house.
According to Svard, the Robinson R22 was on the ground when a tarp was reportedly blown into the helicopter’s tail rotor, causing it to spin and slide sideways. The helicopter’s main rotor then cut into a metal trailer, ripping out the transmission and crashing it into the R22’s cockpit. The impact caused the helicopter’s rigid aluminum gas tanks to rupture.
Svard recalled that he felt gallons of gasoline all over him before the helicopter caught fire. Within seconds, he was engulfed by flames.
He acted quickly and was able to get out of the burning helicopter, shedding clothes as he ran from the wreckage. He then rolled around in the snow and looked around to see if any other parts of his body were burning. Luckily, aside from burns to his arm and singed eyebrows and lashes, Svard was unscathed. He called his good fortune a “Christmas Miracle.”
Others, like Leslie Stewart, were not so lucky. In the aftermath of his brush with death, Svard felt like he needed to learn more about how this kind of catastrophe could have happened. He sent letters to Robinson and to the NTSB, but never got a response.
How Did We Get Here?
NTSB warnings concerning the crashworthiness of helicopter fuel tanks (or the lack thereof) began as early as 1980. But the concept of improving the crashworthiness of helicopter fuel tanks predates even the early NTSB warnings.
The U.S. Army recognized the dangers of fuel-fed fires in survivable helicopter crashes during the Vietnam War. By the time war had ended, the Army virtually eliminated post-crash fires using improved fuel system technology in its helicopters.
This should serve as clear evidence that manufacturers can turn on a dime and implement improved fuel tank systems in a relatively short amount of time if they were required to do so.
Finally, after warnings had been issued on the dangers of fuel-fed fires for over a decade, the FAA decided to act in 1994, requiring more stringent fuel tank standards. The problem: the standards only applied to helicopters certified-not built-since 1994. It might not seem significant, but the wording it this way means those helicopter manufacturers are allowed to build based on previously certified designs.
Take the medical helicopter crash in Frisco, Colorado last July-less than three seconds after the helicopter impacted with the ground, it burst into flames. The three men aboard the burning chopper struggled to crawl out of the inferno. Pilot Pat Mahany succumbed to his injuries a day after the crash. Flight nurse Dave Repsher sustained burns to over 90 percent of his body and remains in critical condition.
The medical helicopter-an Airbus AS350 B3e-was built in 2014 but was equipped with a fuel system that was certified in 1977.
No More Waiting, Make Helicopter Fuel Tanks Safer Now
It isn’t as if the technology isn’t there-it has been for many years. And yet thousands of helicopters in use throughout the country have fuel systems that were certified in the 1970s. Some were certified even before then.
According to KARE 11, more than 85 percent of civilian helicopters have been “grandfathered in,” only having to meet fuel system standards that are 38 years old. Again, it is a good thing that the FAA decided to act and make changes. But it’s too little, too late for so many and who knows how long it will be before the new rules actually make a difference?
Leslie Stewart’s sister, Lauren, puts it simply: “How many more people does this have to happen to?”