Cirrus Burns After Crashing at Bolingbrook

The Cirrus SR20 burst into flames on impact.  The pilot's wife died inside.  The pilot escaped from the wreckage, but died from his burn injuries in the hospital.Cirrus SR20 Crash at Bolingbrook

Some say that a properly designed aircraft should not catch fire in an otherwise survivable accident.  We know this crash was survivable, because the pilot was able to walk away from the wreckage.  If it weren't for the post-crash fire, the pilot likely would have survived.

The Cirrus Aircraft boasts many safety features, such as its rocket-propelled parachute.  But the Bolingbrook crash is one more data point tending to show that the Cirrus seems to be unusually susceptible to post crash fires, especially when compared to other modern aircraft.  

Cirrus Crash at Falmouth: Survivable But Aircraft Burns

Cirrus Fire at FalmouthThe Cirrus SR22 crashed while landing at Falmouth Airpark in Massachusetts and immediately exploded in a fireball.  One occupant died.  Two others, however, survived, only to be badly burned in the post-crash fire.

Some say that, if properly designed, an aircraft should not burn as a result of an otherwise survivable impact. Technology that prevents such fires has existed since the 70's.

Landing at Falmouth AirparkOf course, many aircraft flying today were designed before such technology became available.  But the Cirrus was designed in the '90's. One might expect that a fire after a survivable Cirrus crash should be a rare event.  But that doesn't seem to be the case. 

Cirrus critics, pointing to the Cirrus crash at Scottsdale, among others, want to know why the aircraft seems to be more prone than legacy aircraft to post-crash fires, rather than less.  Some blame the fact that the Cirrus is constructed of composite material, while older aircraft are metal.  I'm not sure that's an explanation, since I have been unable to find a report of anyone being burned in a Diamond aircraft.  Diamond aircraft compete with Cirrus and are also of composite construction.

Cirrus Crash at Scottsdale Raises Questions About Fuel System Design Safety

Some say that Cirrus aircraft are improperly designed because they tend to catch fire on impact more frequently than other aircraft, such as those manufactured by Cirrus competitors, like Diamond or Cessna. And there are plenty of examples of post-crash Cirrus fires to talk about. Critics argue that those fires prove that the aircraft is unduly dangerous and defective.

An aircraft should be designed such that no one is burned to death in an otherwise Cirrus Fuel Portsurvivable accident. At least, that’s the design standard in the auto industry. It became the standard when, during the 1970's, Bell Helicopters showed that some simple engineering enhancements could virtually eliminate post-crash fires in survivable Huey helicopter accidents.  That technology has been around now for 40 years. The technology works in helicopters and cars, so there’s no reason for a properly designed, modern airplanes to catch fire either.

But the key is that the crash must be otherwise survivable. If the crash is not otherwise survivable, the post-crash fire is irrelevant to the fate of the occupants. To date, the Cirrus fires that critics point to (like this one, and this one) were accidents that likely would have been fatal regardless of whether there was a post crash fire. So from those accidents, no conclusions about the fuel system's safety can be drawn.

But this morning, everything changed. A Cirrus crashed in Phoenix while on approach to land at Scottsdale Airport.  Both the pilot and the passenger survived the impact. But then a fire broke out.  The fire killed one occupant and badly burned the other.   

Unlike other Cirrus crashes, the Scottsdale crash was undeniably survivable. The post - crash fire raises legitimate questions about whether the Cirrus fuel system is as crashworthy as it should be.

Robinson R44 Design Defect Leads to Post-Crash Fires

Robinson Helicopter Company has long touted the crashworthiness of its helicopters. An excerpt from Robinson Safety Notice SN-10, which dates back to 1982:

The R22 and R44 have demonstrated excellent crashworthiness as long as the pilot flies the aircraft all the way to the ground . . .The ship may roll over and be severely damaged, but the occupants have an excellent chance of walking away from it without injury.

That’s turned out to be not quite true. Sure, occupants may survive the initial rollover without injury. But because of the way it is designed, the helicopter is prone to catching fire and burning the occupants before they have a chance to get out.  There has been a string of such R44 N2153Saccidents, the most recent being the September 16 Robinson crash at Mammoth, California.

The R44 helicopter involved in that accident, N2153S, experienced a problem on takeoff.  The pilot "flew the aircraft all the way to the ground," just as he was supposed to. When the helicopter touched down, it rolled over.  As advertised, the two occupants survived the rollover uninjured.  But almost immediately, fuel rushed into the cabin, a fire erupted, and both occupants were badly burned.

As I explained here, there is no reason for an occupant to be burned in that sort of mishap. Technology has existed since the 1970's that can almost completely eliminate post-crash fires in otherwise survivable helicopter accidents.  The technology is not particularly expensive, fancy, or heavy.

In the case of the Robinson helicopter, the biggest problem is the aircraft's transmission. In any type of rollover accident, the transmission can puncture the fuel tank. The fix is simple: replace the rigid fuel tank with a soft bladder tank that won't rupture. 

Robinson has known about the problem for years.  But instead of fixing it, Robinson tried to dodge liability by putting the problem back on the owners. While continuing to tout the aircraft's crashworthiness, in 2006 it posted on its website a "safety noticeNo Nomex On Robinson Websiteadvising that anyone flying in one of its aircraft should wear fire retardant clothing head-to-toe.

To reduce the risk of injury in a post-crash fire, it is strongly recommended that a fire-retardant Nomex flight suit, gloves, and hood or helmet be worn by all occupants.

Robinson didn't seriously expect any occupants to wear that kind of clothing.  It's hot, uncomfortable, and generally inconvenient.  The "strong recommendation" was strictly a "CYA" move.  If Robinson was serious about it, it wouldn't have posted on its website pictures of people flying Robinson helicopters in shorts and t-shirts. (One such picture right.)  Rather, it would show everyone wearing head-to-toe Nomex. But that sort of "advertising" would kill sales.

The unnecessary burn injuries continued. Finally, in December 2009, Robinson conceded that there was indeed a better way and announced that all new R-44’s will be equipped with bladder tanks.

In a continuing effort to improve the R44 fuel sytem’s resistance to a post-accident fuel leak, current production R44s now feature bladder-type fuel tanks, flexible fuel lines and other modifications.

Great news. But what about the thousands of Robinson helicopters produced before last December without bladder tanks?  They are, without a doubt, defective.  The defect has caused, and will continue to cause, needless burn injuries.  The defect and the resulting injuries are Robinson's responsibility.

No One Should Suffer Burn Injuries in a Survivable Helicopter Crash

During the Vietnam war, hundreds of soldiers suffered serious burn injuries following otherwise survivable Huey helicopter crashes.  In 1970, Bell Helicopter responded by developing a crashworthy Huey photo by Cranefuel system and installing it in the new Hueys it produced.  The crashworthy system included stronger fuel cells, breakaway fuel lines, and cutoff valves.  

The Army kept track of the effectiveness of the new fuel system.  Over the next 39 months, 895 helicopters without the new system crashed.  Post impact fires resulted in 52 burn fatalities and 31 burn injuries.  Over the same time period, 702 helicopters with the new crashworthy fuel system went down.  Remarkably, there was not a single thermal injury or death in any of those crashes.  That was enough to convince the Army.  After that, it required all its helicopters to be manufactured with the crashworthy fuel system.   

Today, no one should be burned in an otherwise survivable helicopter accident.  The technology has long existed to almost completely eliminate post-crash helicopter fires. But while the risk has been virtually eliminated in military helicopter operations, post crash fires are still the single biggest hazard to survivors of civilian helicopter crashes. (pdf) That's because some civilian helicopter manufacturers have resisted incorporating crashworthy fuel systems into their designs.    

Helicopter manufacturers know that some of the aircraft they manufacturer will inevitably be involved in accidents.  They must take steps to make their civilian helicopters reasonably safe in the event of an accident, just as they do when building helicopters for the military.  If someone is burned in a civilian helicopter crash, then the aircraft's design may well be proven to be defective, and the manufacturer held accountable for the injuries its design has caused.