Like airplane transportation, helicopter transportation is regulated by laws that govern how helicopters must be manufactured and maintained. These helicopter regulations, however, do not apply across the board to all helicopters meaning, some helicopters are still manufactured that do not comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards. It’s a situation that illustrates how some manufacturers put profits ahead of safety, and it shows how helicopter manufacturers unnecessarily put lives at risk.
FAA Safety Regulations Don’t Apply to Older Helicopter Systems
The FAA sets out regulations designed to protect the lives of people who are transported by helicopter-often people who are working in life-or-death situations, such as transporting accident survivors to a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, some of those regulations don’t apply to helicopters manufactured today, even though the regulations have been in effect for decades.
The FAA’s fuel system crash resistance standards, for example, were adopted in 1994. Those standards are designed to guarantee that helicopters do not catch fire after the crash. It’s an important rule because not all fatalities in helicopters are due to the actual crash. In some cases, victims survive the crash but die due to a fire that starts after a helicopter crash. The FAA’s 1994 standards, which require breakaway fuel valves and Kevlar bladders, would eliminate “nearly all thermal injuries in survivable accidents,” if they were widely implemented.
The issue, however, is those helicopter manufacturers were allowed to continue building helicopters using old fuel systems that were certified before 1994. So even though the helicopter itself is new, if the fuel system design is old, the helicopter manufacturer isn’t required to meet the fuel system crash resistance standards. This means that thousands of helicopters could needlessly catch fire after a crash, killing people who otherwise would have survived the accident.
Fight for Life Crash
That’s what reportedly happened in the 2015 Flight for Life crash in Frisco, Colorado. The crash, which took the life of one pilot and injured two nurses, was blamed on a mechanical issue, but when the helicopter hit the ground the fuel tank ruptured, engulfing the helicopter and two nearby vehicles. Lawsuits filed on behalf of the nurses-one of whom suffered burns to 90 percent of his body-allege they would not have suffered such serious injuries if the fuel tank had not ruptured. The fire was also cited as a contributing factor in the pilot’s death.
Is Cost a Factor in Aviation Safety Decisions?
According to a final report submitted by the FAA’s Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group, the helicopter industry would have to spend around $764 million over 10 years to fully comply with FAA crash resistance standards. That’s more than five times higher than the expected economic benefits and a powerful motivation to use outdated fuel systems.
The Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group was established by the FAA in 2015, after the Frisco Flight for Life helicopter crash and other notable helicopter accidents.
“The total number of U.S. helicopter accidents has steadily declined over the past 10 years, but the aviation community has not made sustainable progress in reducing the number of fatal accidents,” the FAA noted when it announced the working group.
At the time, the FAA conceded that because new helicopters that used older designs did not need to meet current safety standards, most helicopters being produced do not include life-saving components such as the crash-resistant fuel systems. According to the FAA, by the end of 2014, only 16 percent of the U.S. helicopter fleet has crash-resistant fuel systems, while only 10 percent have energy absorbing seats.
Furthermore, the FAA found that from 2008 to 2013, 39 percent of fatal accidents involving certain helicopter models that did not have crash-resistant fuel systems resulted in a fire, and those fires were a contributing factor in 20 percent of fatalities.
The working group’s mission is to advise the FAA on developing rules regarding the protection of helicopter occupants for older certification models.
Are the FAA Working Group’s Costs Accurate?
The working group includes twenty members of the helicopter industry, including people who represent manufacturers and industry associations, and according to the FAA, the recent report did not use the agency’s methodology when assessing the economic costs of implementing current safety standards. That means the $764 million the working group assessed as the cost of implementing safety measures could be valued far higher than the FAA would value it, especially compared with a potentially low assessment of occupant injuries.
Krista Haugen, a member of the working group, wrote a statement of non-concurrence pointing out that a lack of detailed information about survivor’s injuries can lead to inaccurate assessments of the cost-benefit analysis of crash-worthiness standards. She cited the nurse who suffered burns to 90 percent of his body in the fire following the Flight for Life crash and noted “it must be emphasized that he literally would have walked away with minor blunt injuries, were it not for the post-crash fire.”
Helicopter Safety Must Come First
There is no excuse for preventable fatalities and injuries due to fires in helicopters that do not meet current safety standards. Helicopter manufacturers continue to put profits ahead of safety by refusing to protect the occupants of their aircraft. Attorneys at Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, are experienced in investigating helicopter accidents and fighting for aviation safety standards. We have brought lawsuits against a variety of helicopter manufacturers and operators on behalf of clients whose lives were drastically affected by a helicopter crash.