The deadline is quickly approaching for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take action on a loophole that has existed for more than two decades despite strong evidence it has resulted in a number of preventable post-crash fire (PCF) deaths and serious injuries. Last July, the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 (FAA Extension Act) became law. Section 2105 of the Act requires the FAA “to evaluate and update the standards for crash-resistant fuel systems for civilian rotorcraft” within one year after the law was enacted.
According to AviationPros.com, the FAA Extension Act is a 14-month extension of the FAA’s Reauthorization Act, which outlines reforms across the aviation industry. The agency’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee took an initial step toward closing the loophole just months after the law was enacted. It unanimously approved a report specifically stating that “nearly all thermal injuries in survivable accidents would be expected to be eliminated” if all helicopter manufacturers adhered to the 1994 federal standards requiring crash-resistant fuel systems (CRFS) in all helicopters, NBC affiliate KUSA 9News reported. However, the report is still awaiting complete approval by the FAA.
The 1994 standards were the result of a recommendation proposed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) nine years earlier. In 1985, the NTSB issued Safety Recommendations A-85-69 through 71 asking the FAA to “[a]mend the helicopter certification standards…for seats, restraint systems, fuel systems, and structures to incorporate the crash design guidelines developed by the U.S. Army… .” It specified that the new, safer standards should apply to “newly type-certificated helicopters.”
During the nine-year period between the NTSB’s recommendation and FAA action, the FAA conducted a public comment period and sought input from the helicopter industry. The 1994 FAA standards mandated that all newly certified helicopters have crash-resistant fuel systems – carving out an exception as described in a prior issue of this Report to appease helicopter manufacturers that put their bottom lines ahead of protecting human life. The exception allows even newly manufactured helicopters to abide by decades-old fuel tank designs if the particular aircraft was certified prior to 1994. It has allowed nearly 84 percent of helicopters manufactured since the standards were published to avoid meeting the higher safety standards.
The outcome of this exception has been tragic. Heliweb reports that since the 1994 rule change there have been 202 helicopter crashes and nearly 40 percent of them (78) resulted in PCF deaths.
A study commissioned by the FAA in 2002 confirmed that absent PCFs the number of serious injuries and deaths would be significantly lower. It noted that “advances in other areas of crash survivability… have allowed occupants to survive in accidents that are severe enough to totally destroy the aircraft… [i]t is, therefore, not unreasonable to expect the CRFS to safely contain its contents throughout the entire severe crash sequence.”
The study’s findings were supported by past military research, as discussed in a prior issue of this Report, which identified weak fuel tanks as the most frequent cause of PCFs that claimed the lives of many pilots who survived the initial impact. That research prompted the U.S. Army to equip its entire fleet of helicopters with stronger, more durable fuel tanks by the mid-1970s. Yet, more than 40 years later, civil aviation continues lagging in implementing technology known to save lives.
In July 2015, just weeks following the tragic, fiery crash of Air Methods Flight for Life in Frisco, Colorado, in which one PCF death and one serious PCF injury occurred, the NTSB issued Safety Recommendation A-15-012 renewing its call for the FAA to require CRFSs in “all newly manufactured rotorcraft regardless of the design’s original certification date.” Further, when the NTSB released official findings from its investigation regarding the Frisco, Colorado, crash, it noted that the crash was survivable, but the lack of a CRFS led to the deadly outcome.
As the two-year anniversary of the tragedy approaches, Congressman Ed Perlmutter (D–Colorado), who took up the cause in response to the tragedy that occurred in his district, will be vigilant in ensuring the FAA meets the deadline set by the FAA Extension Act. He says, “The benefits of making helicopter fuel systems safer far outweighs the cost to make the changes” – a sentiment he shares with many experts, lawmakers and families of those killed and seriously injured because of PCFs.
Sources: Government Publishing Office, AviationPros.com, KUSA, National Transportation Safety Board, Office of Aviation Research, Heliweb and Congressman Ed Perlmutter (D–Colorado)
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