Fueling the fire: Legislation proposed to make helicopters safer

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Washington, D.C.-, June 29, 2017 | comments

Twenty months after 9Wants to Know started an investigation looking into antiquated helicopter fuel systems, members of Colorado’s congressional delegation appear ready to act on many of the investigation’s findings.

Thursday, Rep. Jared Polis and Rep. Ed Perlmutter introduced what they’re calling the “Helicopter Fuel System Safety Act.” The legislation, an extension of previously proposed legislation, would require helicopter manufacturers to place crashworthy fuel systems onboard every newly built helicopter starting a year after the bill’s passage.

“It’s time to move on this,” Perlmutter told 9Wants to Know by phone Thursday afternoon. “There has been enough studying of this. It’s time to move this forward.”

9Wants to Know began looking into fiery helicopter crashes following a Flight for Life crash in Frisco, Colorado., in July 2015. The crash, according to federal investigators, was survivable, but seconds after the crash fuel began pouring out of the helicopter’s fuel system.

The fire that erupted moments later left flight nurse Dave Repsher with burns on more than 90% of his body. That fire also contributed to the death of pilot Patrick Mahany.

During the “Fueling the Fire” series, 9Wants to Know outlined more than 170 fatal helicopter crashes that resulted in fires.

The Federal Aviation Administration was first formally briefed by federal safety investigators on the problems associated with antiquated helicopter systems in 1980. In 1994, the FAA upped the regulations and required crash worthy fuel systems on all newly certified helicopters. Its decision did not impact all newly built helicopters, however, because manufacturers continued to build helicopter models certified prior to 1994.

The Flight for Life that crashed in Frisco, for example, was an AS-350 model first certified by the FAA in 1977. The aircraft itself, however, was about a year old, but it – along with thousands of other helicopters built since 1994 – was, in essence, grandfathered in.

The National Transportation Safety Board reports at least 85 percent of helicopters built since 1994 in the United States do not have fuel systems that could meet the 1994 standards.

Polis told 9Wants to Know Congress has waited long enough for the FAA to close the loophole.

“[The process] is too slow and ineffective,” he said.

Also Thursday, Sen. Cory Gardner attached an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act that would require the FAA to alert helicopter owners of fuel system retrofits. It would also urge owners to install the retrofits “as soon as practicable.”

“I’ve worked in a bipartisan way with my colleagues in the Colorado delegation to put us on a path where every helicopter in the United States has a crash-resistant fuel system to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future,” Gardner said.

Content originally published by 9 News on June 29, 2017.

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