A survivor, lower right, walks away from the scene of a deadly tour helicopter crash along the jagged rocks of the Grand Canyon, in Arizona Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018. PHOTO: TEDDY FUJIMOTO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Safer fuel-tank technology has been available for decades, but isn’t used on some popular models
By Andy Pasztor
After a rash of helicopter accidents several years ago ending in fatal fires, industry executives and regulators reached a high-profile compromise: Businesses could avoid rules mandating safety upgrades and retrofits but would be expected to make the changes on their own.
“You got our attention and we’re going to participate,” said Matthew Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International, the leading trade association, at the time.
But three years later, critics and even some industry leaders say some helicopter companies haven’t followed through to quickly and voluntarily install more durable, less fire-prone fuel tanks on an array of civilian helicopters. These vehicles are used for everything from sightseeing flights to utility repairs to emergency medical transportation.
Over roughly the past two decades, according to accident investigators and industry critics, there have been more than 170 fiery helicopter crashes in the U.S. alone, at least 80 avoidable fatalities and ballooning legal liabilities for both manufacturers and operators.
As retrofit efforts lag—only 20% of some widely used Airbus SE commercial models are fixed nationwide, for example—lawmakers, plaintiffs’ attorneys, other industry critics and members of a Federal Aviation Administration-created advisory committee are stepping up calls for strict federal mandates.
Attorney Gary Robb, who has represented scores of fire victims or their families over the years, says the FAA has encouraged a “regulatory loophole without any safety justification.”
In a June interview, acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell said the agency is methodically “examining everything” surrounding the issue, but hasn’t decided whether mandates are necessary.
In a statement last month, an agency spokesman called the topic “a high priority for the FAA,” adding that officials are assessing the advisory group’s existing and anticipated recommendations for safety enhancements.
“The industry continues to make voluntary strides,” according to the statement, which pointed to crash-resistant systems available from seven different manufacturers. In March, the advisory panel told the FAA it would cost the industry roughly $184 million over 10 years to build and then operate all those choppers with fully compliant fuel systems.
Reducing such threats “may be hard and businesses will have to figure out how to make it work,” according to Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat who has been a prominent voice demanding change. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
Sometimes, a spectacular crash changes everything. That is what happened when five British tourists, including two newlyweds, died of burns and other injuries after a Papillon Airways sightseeing helicopter crashed and erupted in flames near a landing zone at the western part of the Grand Canyon in February.
In under three weeks, the operator announced plans to retrofit its entire air-tour fleet with crash-resistant fuel tanks. A company spokeswoman declined to comment.
Under voluntary efforts, the industry promised to make safety upgrades and retrofits intended to prevent fuel tanks from rupturing and killing pilots and passengers in otherwise survivable crashes. Industry leaders pledged to aggressively switch to more crash-resistant fuel systems on their own—either on assembly lines or by relying on retrofits—featuring stronger tanks, fuel lines and valves better able withstand impact. Mr. Zuccaro of the industry association called the change then “a major cultural shift.”
The basic technology dates back to the Vietnam War, and is standard on military choppers world-wide. If installed after aircraft are delivered, costs for some of the fixes run between $75,000 and $110,000 per helicopter. The price tag during initial assembly is a fraction of that amount.
Federal rules continue to permit production of various models, designed before the mid-1990s, lacking the most effective fuel-system upgrades.
The contrast between safety protections on new models—including totally automated recovery systems to help disoriented or confused pilots—and decades-old fire problems stemming from older designs, was highlighted last month at the Farnborough International Air Show. Mitch Snyder, president and chief executive of Textron Inc.’s Bell helicopter unit, practically invited the FAA to mandate tougher requirements.
Emphasizing that Bell embraced crash-resistant fuel systems on the production line ahead of FAA moves in the 1990s, Mr. Snyder told reporters “in some cases, safety costs more” and “it needs all of us to perform.” Bell would like chopper operators to upgrade tanks “in every single aircraft we have ever produced,” he said, adding “I do believe that regulation plays a role.”
On Tuesday, a Bell spokeswoman said she didn’t know what portion of the company’s fleet has been retrofitted.
Critics fault some manufacturers for moving too slowly to secure necessary federal certification for retrofit kits they could offer customers. Further delaying fixes, certain operators have balked at spending the money, adding the extra weight or taking aircraft out of service to do the work.
The U.S. helicopter unit of Airbus, for example, estimates that only about one of every five of a popular, single-engine line it sells is retrofitted with sturdier fuel tanks. The company didn’t have kits for any of those models available until early this year, but Airbus officials say they are now offering them at manufacturer’s cost through the end of 2018. A spokesman said the company anticipates demand for retrofits “equaling about another 20% of the fleet.”
The delays partly stem from the fact that there are so many different types of choppers requiring individual U.S. and European approvals for retrofit parts, plus “there’s a real fear” about unintended consequences affecting other onboard systems, according to Jeffrey Trang, the unit’s vice president for technology and flight operations.
Despite a drumbeat of deadly crashes and hefty damage awards, some industry spokesmen appear sanguine about progress. “Everybody would like to have it happen quickly,” the industry’s Mr. Zuccaro said in an interview earlier this year. “We’re trying to do it in a timely, logical and efficient manner,” he said, adding: “this is not something that you can snap your fingers, and in a day you have it.”
—Jim Carlton contributed to this article.
Write to Andy Pasztor at firstname.lastname@example.org