The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued its report regarding the 2015 Flight for Life crash of an Airbus Helicopters AS350 helicopter, which killed the pilot and seriously injured two nurses on board. After an investigation of the tragedy, the NTSB has concluded that a hydraulic issue linked to a preflight maintenance check caused the survivable crash, but the lack of a crash-resistant fuel system allowed the post-crash fire that killed the pilot.
The lack of a crash-resistant fuel system is not a violation of federal laws, but highlights the need for adequate safety measures to ensure there are no fatalities when a survivable helicopter crash occurs.
Pilot Killed in Survivable Medical Helicopter Crash
On July 3, 2015, a Flight for Life medical helicopter was departing from St. Anthony’s Medical Center in Frisco, Colorado, with three occupants when tragedy struck. Approximately 30 seconds after liftoff, at around 1:40 p.m. local time, the helicopter crashed into a parking lot, hitting a pickup truck. By the time first responders arrived on the scene, the helicopter was engulfed in flames.
The tragic medical helicopter accident took the life of the pilot and seriously injured two nurses. One of the nurses, Dave Repsher, required a year of inpatient treatment for the burns he sustained in the crash. Repsher suffered burns to 90 percent of his body, while the other nurse on board, Matt Bowe, suffered internal injuries and permanent disability.
The force of the crash and a post-crash fire destroyed the helicopter, according to the NTSB.
NTSB Blames Hydraulic Issue, Pilot Error
According to the NTSB report, the initial cause of the crash was a hydraulic issue linked to a preflight maintenance check. During the preflight maintenance check, the pilot is meant to move the yaw servo hydraulic switch to “OFF,” run a test, and then move the switch back to the “ON” position. The NTSB report concludes the pilot likely did not return the switch back to its “ON” position after running the preflight test.
Because there was no alert to warn the pilot that hydraulic pressure had not been restored, the pilot did not realize the switch was left “OFF.” When the helicopter attempted to depart, there was a lack of hydraulic boost which created high pedal forces and a loss of control. The helicopter reached an altitude of 100 feet before it crashed.
“This accident involved multiple issues that together led to the results we have before us today,” said NTSB Acting Chair T. Bella Dinh-Zarr at the opening of the board meeting. “It is likely the helicopter’s system that provides boost to the pedals was misconfigured prior to takeoff. The design of the accident helicopter did not provide an alert to the pilot of this misconfiguration.”
Furthermore, the NTSB found the pilot did not perform a hover check at the required altitude, which would have indicated there were issues with the helicopter’s functionality before a crash would have occurred. Once those issues were identified, the pilot could have safely landed the helicopter.
Flight for Life Crash Was Survivable
Perhaps most devastating for the families of those involved in the crash is that the NTSB found the crash to be survivable, blaming the post-crash fire on a lack of crash-resistant fuel systems. The helicopter was manufactured in 2013 but not subject to new crash-resistance requirements because the design of the AS350-series helicopters was approved in 1977, when there were no such requirements.
“The impact forces of this accident were survivable for the helicopter occupants,” the NTSB writes. “If the helicopter had been equipped with a crash-resistant fuel system, the potential for thermal injuries to the occupants would have been reduced or eliminated.”
Although the helicopter was, in the eyes of the NTSB, properly equipped and maintained in accordance with federal regulations, the tragedy highlights the need for updated safety regulations to prevent fatalities in otherwise survivable helicopter crashes.
Among the safety issues identified by the NTSB:
- The helicopter had no alert system to warn the pilot that the yaw servo hydraulic switch was in the “OFF” position, even though in February 2015, Airbus Helicopters issued a service bulletin advising such an alert system should be incorporated;
- A lack of crash-resistant fuel systems in helicopters not covered by the 1994 fuel system crashworthiness requirements, even though a 2015 recommendation from the NTSB advised the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require all newly built helicopters regardless of design certification date to meet newer regulations, contributed to the injuries and fatality linked to the crash; and
- There is a lack of readily available information for helicopter operators and customers regarding a helicopter’s crashworthiness, which can lead to customers not making fully informed purchasing decisions.
Pilot was Properly Qualified
Pilot Patrick Mahany was a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran and was a recipient of the bronze star and Purple Heart. He had been with Flight for Life since 1987. The NTSB noted that neither fatigue, nor medical conditions or medications were factors in the crash.
In May 2016, Mahany’s widow, Karen, urged Congress to protect air medical crews. According to a report by 9 News, around 85 percent of helicopters currently in use are not required to have crash-resistant fuel systems, even though such regulations have been in force since 1994.
” Patrick died in an aircraft in 2015 that was ill-equipped,” Karen said. “He fell from less than 100 feet, and he couldn’t survive the crash.”
Lawsuits have been filed by the survivors of the helicopter crash, alleging the helicopter was not safe to fly, because it did not meet crashworthiness standards. Among the named defendants are Air Methods Corporation (the helicopter operator), Airbus Helicopters S.A.A. (the manufacturer) and Airbus Helicopters (the distributor).