In February, a Grand Canyon sightseeing helicopter owned and operated by Papillon Airways crashed with six passengers and the pilot on board. After the Airbus Helicopter EC130B4 crashed in the Quartermaster Canyon in Arizona, witnesses reported explosions and a post-crash fire (PCF).
The February helicopter crash claimed the lives of three tourists on board, while three other tourists and the pilot were seriously injured. Two passengers who initially survived the crash, newlyweds Jonathan and Eleanor Udall, died within days after the accident, succumbing to extreme burn injuries. One passenger and the pilot remain hospitalized also with serious burn injuries.
The PCF is likely a result of the helicopter’s lack of a crash-worthy, or crash-resistant, fuel system, a persistent, but unnecessary problem within the aviation industry, and especially for helicopters. For decades, the aviation industry has known that flimsy fuel tanks rupture easily during a crash and can ignite a PCF, engulfing an aircraft in flames within seconds. While crash victims survive the impact, they often perish because of a PCF.
Aviation International News Online cites data from the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute showing that between 2008 and 2013 a PCF occurred in 39 percent of the fatal helicopter crashes and contributed to 20 percent of the fatalities that resulted from the crashes. But even 20 percent is still too many lives lost when a safer alternative exists. An alternative that could reduce the risk of PCFs and, of course, burn injuries.
Since 1994, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required crash-resistant fuel systems on all helicopters newly certified after that year, but a loophole in the regulation allows helicopters with design certificates approved before the rule went into effect to keep using the older and more dangerous fuel tanks. So, even if a helicopter rolled off the production line in 2017, if it was based on a model that was certified before 1994, it is exempt for incorporating the safer fuel tanks. Approximately 84 percent of helicopters currently in use have the flimsier fuel systems that were developed decades ago.
Following the crash, Papillon announced it will retrofit its fleet of sightseeing helicopters with crash resistant fuel systems. While it is a step in the right direction, it is too late for those who were on board during the crash last month. It is a change Papillon, which deems itself “the world’s largest aerial sightseeing company,” should have made long before now.
Many helicopter manufacturers have resisted upgrading and retrofitting the fuel systems because of the cost, which is the equivalent of one to two percent of the manufacturing cost. Yet, a settlement with one survivor of a July 2015 crash involving a PCF recently cost Airbus Helicopters and Air Methods (the owner and operator of the helicopter the survivor was flying on at the time of the crash), $100 million. The cost to manufacturers and owner/operators for personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits may encourage the industry to make swifter changes in ways that lawmakers and regulators have been unable to do in nearly three decades.
Jere Beasley Report (2017, August). ‘Helicopter Fuel System Safety Act’ Introduced to Reduce Post-Crash Fires And Save Lives, 20-21.
Aviation International News Online