For more than 50 years, aviation safety experts have expressed concern about the startling number of people who burn to death in the wake of helicopter crashes. What’s the reason for these fires? Poorly-made helicopter fuel tanks that leak and feed fire, even in hard landings and low-impact crashes.
We’ve known about helicopter fuel tank issues for years. The Army was concerned with helicopter crash fires dating back to the Vietnam War era. But our military didn’t wait half a decade to do something about it-the Army implemented flexible, crash-resistant fuel systems to its fleet of helicopters. The same cannot be said of civilian aircraft.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is trying to change that. In a July 23 letter, the NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require more robust, crash-resistant fuel tank systems on all newly constructed civilian helicopters. The letter was sent after the NTSB issued a final report on a medical helicopter crash in 2014. According to a USA TODAY investigative report, 79 people were killed and 28 others sustained injuries in fires that occurred in low-impact helicopter crashes.
Helicopter Fuel Tank Failure
On October 4, 2014, an Air Evac medical helicopter picked up a patient named Buddy Rhodes, who was to be transported to United Regional Hospital in Wichita Falls, Texas for treatment. Rhodes had sustained gunshot wounds and was clinging to life.
Flight nurse Leslie Stewart, 27, and flight paramedic Johan van der Colff, 51, were aboard the medical helicopter working to keep Rhodes alive as the chopper approached Wichita Falls. Pilot Zechariah Smith was about to set the Bell 206L1+ helicopter down when he felt that he was carrying too much speed into the helipad at the hospital. He pulled the collective pitch control and “tipped the nose over to get airspeed.”
After doing this, the helicopter entered a violent spin. He asked the crew to hold on and said he was going to try to fly out of it. Unfortunately, the pilot was never able to regain control of the helicopter, and it impacted with the ground inverted.
In a post-crash interview with NTSB investigators, Smith said he remembered the inside of the helicopter filling with smoke. He used his helmet to smash the glass of the window and crawl out to safety. The others aboard the helicopter were not so lucky. Autopsies found that Stewart and van der Colff, who clung to life for a couple of weeks after the crash, died as a result of the injuries they suffered in the fire. Rhodes “likely” died of his gunshot wounds.
According to a report on the helicopter crash, it is likely that Smith failed to “account for the helicopter’s low airspeed when he applied power to go around, which resulted in a sudden, uncommanded right yaw due to a loss of tail rotor effectiveness,” the NTSB said.
Pilot error was said to be what caused the helicopter crash. However, the NTSB had a different take on what caused the fatalities:
“This helicopter was manufactured in 1981 and did not have a crash-resistant fuel system as currently required by 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 2 airworthiness standards for normal-category rotorcraft.”
The NTSB further stated in recommendations to the FAA that the Wichita Falls medical helicopter crash shows that impact forces in some accidents are survivable if a post-crash fire doesn’t break out.
Robinson Helicopter Fuel Tank Dangers
On May 28, 2005, David Wallace and a flight instructor set out in a Robinson R44 helicopter to film an off-road race in the Lucerne Valley, California. Wallace made a hard right turn to fly over some power lines when the Robinson R44 entered into a spin. According to Wallace, it seemed to lose its direct control, so he handed controls over to the flight instructor.
The flight instructor executed a hard landing, then brought the Robinson R44 helicopter up about eight or ten feet. The chopper then turned hard, hit on its skid and rolled over (referred to as a dynamic rollover). Wallace said once everyone aboard realized they were ok after the initial impact, they quickly moved to evacuate, but couldn’t get out fast enough. Within 30 or 40 seconds, the helicopter was completely engulfed in flames because the fuel tank was basically crushed when the helicopter rolled over.
No one sustained injuries in the crash, but Wallace and others were badly burned in the post-crash fire. In an interview with USA TODAY, he said 45 percent of his body was covered in burns and he remained in the burn ward of a hospital for over three months.
Robinson R44 helicopters have a long history of low-impact crashes resulting in post-crash fires. In all, 74 people have died and 15 others have been injured as a result of Robinson helicopter post-crash fires. Most, if not all of the victims involved in these Robinson helicopter crashes would have walked away had the fuel system not been compromised.
Australia Addresses Robinson R44 Helicopter Fuel Tank Problem
An episode of 60 Minutes in Australia dedicated some time pointing out the ‘fatal flaw’ in the Robinson R44 helicopter. In the span of two years, eight Australians lost their lives in fires that erupted in the immediate aftermath of Robinson R44 helicopter crashes. According to the 60 Minutes report, all of the crashes could have been survivable if the Robinson had installed flexible, crash-resistant fuel tanks instead of rigid aluminum tanks that rupture easily and feed fire in the wake of a crash.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) decided to address the post-crash fire danger in 2013 by announcing that Robinson R44 helicopters had to be retrofitted with a flexible fuel tank. Any R44 not in compliance would be grounded. The FAA could have made a similar move but it didn’t. Today’s announcement is a step.
What Happens Now?
The FAA has until October to formulate a reply to the NTSB recommendation. In a statement, the FAA agreed that crash-resistant fuel tanks make a difference, but didn’t take a position on whether or not the agency will take action.
The added manufacturing cost of implementing crash-resistant fuel tanks to new helicopters would be in the vicinity of one or two percent, according to Tom Harris, the former CEO of a company that manufactures the tanks. For his part, Harris thinks that requiring new helicopters to be equipped with the crash-resistant fuel tanks will likely encourage the owners of older helicopters to get their fuel systems retrofitted with something safer.
The truth is, even if the FAA immediately adopts the NTSB’s recommendation, many of the helicopters in the United States would be able to operate without crash-resistant fuel tanks for years, if not decades. It is commendable that the FAA finally decided to act and address this safety issue. However, if you were to ask many of the families affected by post-crash helicopter fires, the move to protect helicopter travelers should have been made years ago.