Colorado congressmen propose bill seeking safer helicopter fuel systems

(istockphoto, tboneMW)

Two Colorado congressmen introduced legislation last week intended to prevent the kinds of accidents that killed the pilot of a Flight For Life helicopter and severely burned two nurses on July 3, 2015, at a Frisco hospital.

The bill, introduced by U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Denver, and Jared Polis, D-Boulder, would require all newly manufactured helicopters to be built with safer fuel systems. Manufacturers would need to prove they comply with an industry group’s recent recommendations for fuel systems designed to reduce post-crash fires.

“We have known for decades how to make helicopter fuel systems safer, yet we continue to allow new helicopters to be manufactured without crash-resistant fuel systems,” Perlmutter said.

The Flight For Life helicopter that took off from St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco crashed moments later in a parking lot near the hospital.

Forensic engineers who investigated said the crash might have been survivable but the fire that erupted from the leaking fuel system contributed to the death of the pilot and severe burns to the two flight nurses.

The Colorado congressmen said military helicopters have been using crash-resistant fuel systems since the 1970s. However, Federal Aviation Administration standards require that only new helicopter designs certified after 1994 be built with crash-resistant fuel systems.

Old helicopter designs certified before 1994 could continue to be built without the systems.

As a result, only 15 percent of the helicopters built since 1994 are designed with crash-resistant fuel systems, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The design for the AS-350 model helicopter that killed pilot Patrick Mahany and injured nurses Matthew Bowe and David Repsher was certified by the FAA in 1977. The helicopter was only one year old but the design for it pre-dated the 1994 standard.

Because of what the congressmen call the “loophole,” there have been at least 173 post-crash fires of helicopters since 1994 that have killed 78 people, the NTSB reported.

Some of the survivors, such as Repsher, are scarred for life. He was burned over 90 percent of his body.

“The technology for safer helicopters already exists and is ready to equip Flight For Life and other civilian helicopters,” Polis said. “First responders deserve to be protected as they attempt to save lives.”

Helicopter industry representatives said they still are reviewing the proposed legislation before commenting on it.

“We are in the process of developing a consensus position,” said Dan Stohr, spokesman for the Arlington, Virginia-based Aerospace Industries Association.

The Helicopter Fuel System Safety Act proposed by Perlmutter and Polis was one of two actions taken by Colorado’s federal lawmakers on helicopter safety in recent days.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) attached an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act pending in Congress to require the agency to notify helicopter owners about the availability of fuel system retrofits and urge them to install them as soon as they can.

“This amendment requires the FAA to expeditiously certify retrofit kits on helicopters to improve fuel system crashworthiness,” Gardner said in a statement.

For some Colorado residents touched by the 2015 Frisco crash, the safety improvements could not come soon enough.

“I think the legislation catalyzes change in ways that market forces haven’t been able to do,” said Wendy Forbes, communications director for St. Anthony Hospital.

She was the program director for Flight For Life Colorado when the medical transport helicopter crashed in Frisco. She was driving to her job when she learned about the condition of the crew members.

“The scope and gravity of the crash grew by the minute,” Forbes said.

“My phone rang continuously for days and the grief we felt was suffocating at times,” she said. “We were blessed to have the support and kindness of many and we experienced profound generosity from so many people during those first extraordinarily difficult few weeks. That, as much as the pain and the shock, is what I remember most.”

Some of the lessons learned from the 2015 crash in Frisco are incorporated into the newest helicopter being used for Aurora-based Children’s Hospital Colorado.

The $4.1 million Airbus H130T2 helicopter was added to Flight For Life’s fleet of seven copters on May 1.

“The new [Flight For Life] helicopter dedicated to Children’s Colorado contains the latest crash resistant fuel system, in addition to numerous other safety features, that would meet the requirements of the Helicopter Fuel System Safety Act,” said Hollon Kohtz, spokesperson for Children’s Hospital.

Another medical transport helicopter crash with a Colorado link sent a twin-engine MBB/Kawasaki BK 117 owned and operated by Englewood–based Air Methods Corporation into a soybean field in southeastern Missouri this month.

The helicopter was carrying a 5-year-old patient and a three-man transport team when it developed engine trouble, according to a preliminary FAA report. No one was seriously injured and no fire erupted.

Air Methods operates a fleet of 500 helicopters in 48 states.

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