Perlmutter-Polis helicopter safety measure was prompted by Frisco crash

Author: Tom Ramstack - May 3, 2018 - Updated: May 3, 2018

The July 3, 2015, crash of a Flight for Life helicopter in Dillon killed the pilot and seriously injured two nurses. (The Gazette – Courtesy Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue)

The U.S. House of Representatives approved a five-year re-authorization of the Federal Aviation Administration Friday with an amendment on helicopter safety proposed by Colorado members of Congress.

The amendment — proposed by U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis, both Colorado Democrats — requires newly manufactured helicopters to be built with safer fuel systems approved by an industry group of safety advocates.

The amendment was a result of the 2015 Flight for Life helicopter crash in Frisco that killed the pilot and seriously injured two nurses.

“This legislation closes a loophole that has existed for more than 20 years,” said Perlmutter, D-Golden. “By ensuring all newly manufactured helicopters meet today’s safety standards, we can significantly reduce the risk of post-crash fires and prevent needless injury or death.”

The House overwhelmingly approved the reauthorization less than a day after a medical helicopter crash in Wisconsin killed three members of the flight crew. The investigation continues but weather was not believed to be a factor.

Crashes of emergency medical helicopters killed 103 people in the past decade, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

A reauthorization provides the funding and sets the conditions for agencies to continue operating with the authority of government. The helicopter safety amendment adds a new condition that would require helicopter manufacturers to comply with the recommendations from the Rotorcraft Occupant Protection Working Group within 18 months.

The group recommended adapting the kind of crash-resistant fuel systems used on military helicopters since the 1970s to emergency medical helicopters.

The Federal Aviation Administration set new standards in 1994 for fuel system safety devices but they are required only on new helicopter designs certified after 1994.

About 4,700 helicopters have been built since 1994, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Only 15 percent of them were manufactured with a design that requires the crash resistant fuel systems.

In the July 3, 2015, Frisco incident, a helicopter that took off from St. Anthony Summit Medical Center crashed moments later in a parking lot. An engineering investigation showed the crew might have survived with minimal injury if flames had not erupted from a leaking fuel system.

The helicopter was manufactured by Airbus Helicopters and operated by Greenwood Village-based Air Methods Corp.

The crash killed pilot Patrick Mahany — a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam who had flown for Flight for Life for 27 years — and injured nurses Matthew Bowe and David Repsher. Repsher was scarred for life from burns that covered 90 percent of his body.

The AS-350 helicopter involved in the crash was built with a design certified by the FAA in 1977. The design pre-dated the FAA’s 1994 standard.

“It should go without saying that Flight for Life helicopters, as well as other civilian helicopters, should be equipped with the highest safety standards available,” said Polis, D-Boulder.

Karen Mahany, who became a helicopter safety advocate after the death of her husband, consulted with the congressmen as they tried to win congressional approval for their FAA reauthorization amendment.

Other provisions of their amendment would require the FAA to expedite certification of crash-resistant fuel system retrofit kits. The FAA also would need to send a bulletin to helicopter owners and operators to inform them about the retrofits and urge them to install the equipment.

A similar helicopter fuel system safety amendment is pending in the Senate’s version of the FAA reauthorization bill. Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, has supported it.

The legislation would give the FAA about $4.35 billion a year. In addition to encouraging safer helicopter fuel systems, the bill would increase funding for airport construction and move a new automated air traffic control system, called the Next Generation Air Transportation System, closer to implementation.

The system would automate much of the nation’s air traffic control, allowing more aircraft to fly along major air routes with less risk of accidents.

Other new features of the bill include expansion of commercial drone operations, longer mandatory rest periods for flight attendants and added protection for disabled airline passengers.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack