Content originally published by Summit Daily on February 17th, 2016.
With recent concerns regarding crash-resistant helicopter fuel systems, Rep. Jared Polis, a democrat whose district includes Summit County, is pushing to close a legal loophole allowing helicopters to be manufactured without crash-resistant systems.
After writing a letter urging the Federal Aviation Administration to more quickly revise safety standards in October, Reps. Polis (CO-02) and Ed Perlmutter (CO-07) took matters further. On Friday, they introduced a bill that would require the FAA to finalize a rulemaking by Dec. 31, requiring that all newly manufactured helicopters be built with crash-resistant fuel systems.
“The FAA’s dangerous, antiquated safety loophole has already cost far too many lives,” Polis said in a statement. “Last summer’s tragic Flight For Life crash in Frisco highlights the urgent need for action. The technology exists to prevent these tragedies, and Congress has a responsibility to act when federal safety regulations are failing the people they are meant to protect.”
According to a preliminary report of the crash by the NTSB, the Airbus AS350 B3e helicopter crashed after ascending about 100 feet from the hospital’s helicopter pad.
“The helicopter continued to spin counterclockwise several times before it impacted a parking lot and an RV to the southwest of the Flight For Life hangar and helipad,” the report noted. “The helicopter came to rest on its right side, was damaged by impact forces and was charred, melted and partially consumed by fire.”
The July 3, 2015 helicopter crash, which took the life of pilot Patrick Mahany and seriously injured two flight nurses, was just one of many reported accidents resulting in post-crash fires.
“While this dangerous failure in policy has been in place for over a decade, I was made aware of it through the Flight For Life crash and concluded that the current policy unnecessarily places people’s lives at risk,” Polis noted.
Between 1994 and 2003, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated 125 helicopter accidents that resulted in post-crash fires, including 221 fatalities and 27 injuries. Of those investigated, just three of the helicopters that experienced post-crash fires had crash-resistant fuel systems.
While the FAA has required newly-certificated helicopters to have crash-resistant fuel systems since 1994, the requirement does not apply to newly manufactured rotorcraft. According to the NTSB, of the 5,600 helicopters manufactured since 1994, just 15 percent have crash-resistant fuel systems meeting the requirements.
The AS350 B3e involved in the crash had been manufactured just a year ago and was not equipped with a crash-resistant fuel system.
HOW FUEL SYSTEMS WORK
According to a “Study of Helicopter Crash-Resistant Fuel Systems” by the FAA, the development of crash-resistant fuel systems began 50 years ago, as statistics showed accidents with post-crash fires had a much higher fatality rate. From 1950 to 1960, the FAA worked to develop crash-resistant fuel tanks and self-sealing breakaway valves that would be used in aircraft fuel systems.
An FAA study of 1,317 military and civilian helicopter accidents showed that while just 8.7 percent of accidents resulted in a fire, 60.4 percent of all fatalities occurred in those fire accidents. The study also noted that 78.5 percent of post-crash fires could be attributed to ruptured fuel cells or fuel lines.
Jeff Bracken, chief operating officer of Robertson Fuel Systems, said the three main elements to the fuel systems are crash-resistant bladders, which must sustain a 50-foot drop test while full of fuel, breakaway valves, to prevent fuel leakage, and frangibility, or the ability of the material used to be deformed without shattering.
While Bracken’s Tempe, Arizona-based company primarily works with military aircraft, he said they were looking to diversify more into commercial in light of the recent FAA action.
“It’s been challenging because the requirements are sometimes not there,” he said. “Those are challenges we have in the commercial world.”
He added that while the cost of implementing the new fuel systems varies between rotorcraft, the fuel bladder and other material add weight and volume as well.
“There are solutions out there, it just goes back to tradeoff of weight, volume and cost,” Bracken said. “They all want light and they all want cheap.”
On Nov. 5, 2015, the FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) was tasked with evaluating potential changes to helicopter safety regulations. The process, as it currently stands, is expected to take at least two and a half years, with a cost-benefit analysis in May followed by 18 months of study.
Tony Molinaro, a FAA spokesman, said the Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group will work on a cost-benefit analysis and report regarding occupant protection standards for newly manufactured rotorcraft this spring.
After that report is complete, he added, the FAA may ask the group to make specific recommendations about changes to occupancy protection standards, or propose new safety regulations.
Polis and Perlmutter, on the other hand, argue that giving the FAA until Dec. 31, 2016, will be enough time to complete the rulemaking.
“A year is plenty of time, and it must not linger on any longer when this policy has such a large impact with regards to safety,” Polis said. “Since completing the rulemaking is something the FAA has committed to doing regardless, I think accelerating the process benefits safety and protects human lives without costing any additional money.”
He expects the bill to have bipartisan support, and noted they were working with stakeholders to ensure the new legislation is both achievable and effective.
“We’re optimistic. I think the FAA and manufacturers we’re aware of are moving in that direction,” Bracken added. “I hope we can get solutions out there quickly before more people perish.”